Table of Contents
2. ALLUSIONS TO DEATH
3. GABRIEL BEFORE BECOMING AN ARTIST
4. THE TURNING POINT
5. THE ULTIMATE INSIGHT
Reading essays on James Joyce’s short story The Dead, one is immediately confronted with the most different interpretations of its end as it is very different from the rest of the text and can even be seen as poetic. Apparently Gabriel’s epiphany is of prime importance to the readers of James Joyce. This term paper shall answer the question why this is the case. Therefore it is necessary to comprehend the extreme development of Gabriel within the story. This work claims that Gabriel, rather self-centred at the beginning, develops into an understanding artist towards the end of the story when he is somehow challenged by the dead after his wife’s revelation. Eco states that “all of Joyce’s works might be understood as a continuous discussion of their own artistic procedure” (Eco 2007: 329) and I think this is also the case in The Dead. As the title of the short story already reveals, death plays a huge role in the text, especially when causing Gabriel’s final enlightenment. To prove this thesis, first of all allusions to death in the text shall be found and interpreted as they function as framework for the gloomy core revealed at the end and thereby pave the way to Gabriel’s aesthetic development. Then the main character shall be examined on his artistic premises before the turning point signifies a change in his aesthetic views. In the last chapter Gabriel’s transformation into an artist shall be elucidated more precisely with an emphasis put on his changing reception of the omnipresent snow transferring into a poetical symbol of death. The snow motive connects art and death and therefore anticipates the aesthetic transformation in the views of the main character towards the much discussed end of the short story. This essay lays weight on a close contemplation of the short story, based on Fishelov’s founded observation:
The fact that no dramatic event takes place during the present story time, and the fact that the story focuses on Gabriel’s inner world, together with the poetic qualities of the text […] all encourage the reader to further concentrate on minute textual details and on small emotional and semantic nuances, characteristics that are traditionally associated with lyric poetry. (Fishelov 2013/2014: 263)
The final conclusion will summarize the most important insights and give some indication on whether the initial hypothesis can be validated or not.
2. Allusions to death
The most obvious reference to death can be found in the title of James Joyce’s short story which is called The Dead. The story delivers what the title promises, although more modest at the beginning. The first word of the text is “Lily” (Joyce 1971: 7) for example, which is not only the name of the caretaker’s daughter, but also of a flower most commonly associated with funerals and thus the beginning already introduces mortality as one of the most prominent topics of the story.
Furthermore the reader learns also on the first page that the whole setting of the story - the annual dance of the Morkan’s in their “dark, gaunt house on Usher’s Island” (Joyce 1971: 7) - is born out of the death of a family member. The sombre framework casts a shadow on the whole storyline and implies that the superficial seeming actions have a further meaning.
Another interesting point is, how the people who are joining the party are described: the two aunts of Gabriel as “grey” and “feeble” with “mirthless eyes” (Joyce 1971: 8, 11, 12), Lily although in the bloom of youth as “slim” and “pale” (Joyce 1971: 9) and Mrs Malins as “a stout, feeble old woman with white hair” (Joyce 1971: 22). Considering these moribund descriptions, Jones definitely has a point in stating that “Time lays as heavily upon them as the snow accumulating outside during the course of the night” (Jones 2000: 110). The meaning of the omnipresent snow will be further clarified in the last chapter. With that said it is no wonder that the annual dance often is interpreted as a party of deceased. In my opinion this assertion is not sustainable as there is no further evidence for it. But I do consent to Merino who claims that James Joyce’s The Dead is “[e]pitomizing notions of paralysis, exile or return to the origin” (Merino 2016: 133).
Paralysis plays also a role in the recurring event of the party with its frozen procedures repeating every year: “[f]or years and years it had gone off in splendid style, as long as anyone could remember” (Joyce 1971: 7). Obviously nothing ever changes in the setting of the annual dance which reminds of the constancy of death. So it is all the more striking that the main character Gabriel is able to overcome this perpetual stagnation which shall be elucidated in the following chapters.
As the party takes place in winter it is not surprising that it is very cold outside. It is however remarkable how often and how drastically the frostily weather is addressed in the text: “she must be perished alive”, “Gretta caught a dreadful cold”, “Mrs Malins will get her death of cold”, or “everybody has colds” (Joyce 1971: 9, 12, 39, 44). The weather conditions attack the characters in the story by affecting their health. Serious sickness seems to be a ubiquitous threat that comes consistently to the fore and reminds us of our evanescence.
Another important point is that transience invades the security of the superficial party small talk several times. The harmless conversation about the bracing air in Mount Melleray and the hospitality of the local monks turns unexpectedly towards mortality as one of the guests wonders why the monks sleep in coffins: “’The coffin’, said Mary Jane, ‘is to remind them of their last end” (Joyce 1971: 34). The topic is not really fit for the occasion and the visitors feel noticeably uneasy by the remembrance of death: “As the subject had grown lugubrious it was buried in a silence of the table” (Joyce 1971: 34). A really targeting metaphor as the dead are also buried in coffins. This shows that the guests can keep silence about this precarious topic but nonetheless death is inevitably present in the background all the time.
It is also noticeable that the focus of attention shifts from Lilly to Gabriel’s thoughts when he finally arrives. Why not beginning the story with the focus on Gabriel at the party? Jones explains the tardiness of the main character and the fear of his aunts that another guest might arrive drunk with their importance for an anticipation of the story’s major themes: “In these couple of sentences, Joyce throws into the air the first balls that he will be juggling throughout the story: absence, longing for arrival, and forces that cannot be controlled“ (Jones 2000: 110). Gabriel also uses an extraordinary expression to justify their delay when stating that his wife Gretta “takes three mortal hours to dress herself” (Joyce 1971: 8). Almost subconsciously he seems to be somehow occupied with decease already at the beginning of the story. Furthermore military vocabulary is used frequently in the apparently inappropriate context of the party and thus also brings transience to the fore subconsciously (Winston 2004: 122-132). Later when contemplating a photograph of his departed mother, Gabriel also reflects about “her last long illness” (Joyce 1971: 19). And even in his speech he feels urged to remind the attendants of “those dead and gone great ones whose fame the world will not willingly let die” and of “absent faces that we miss here tonight” (Joyce 1971: 36). Although being aware of the audience’s uncomfortableness with the topic of death and although claiming that he “will not linger on the past”, Gabriel is resolved to contaminate the seemingly carefree atmosphere of the party with “such sad memories” (Joyce 1971: 37). Gabriel’s first reflections about mortality are more of superficial nature but one can nonetheless already anticipate that the main character is more willing to face the sombre subject of transience than the other party guests. How this relation between Gabriel and death intensifies throughout the short story shall be explained in the following chapters.
3. Gabriel before becoming an Artist
Gabriel is described as “stout, tallish young man”(Joyce 1971: 10) which conveys a rather formidable effect at first. But opposing to this first impression the main character is further presented as agitable, sensitive and unsettled:
The high colour of his cheeks pushed upwards even his forehead, where it scattered itself in a few formless patches of pale red; and on his hairless face there scintillated restlessly the polished lenses and the bright gilt rims of the glasses which screened his delicate and restless eyes. (Joyce 1971: 10).
The fact that the word “restless” is used two times in one sentence is really conspicuous and apparently characteristic for Gabriel as a master stylist like James Joyce will probably not have used the same expression twice by accident. It signalizes that Gabriel has obviously not yet been arrived in his life, an impression that will even intensify during the course of the evening. This disruption in the characterization of Gabriel already augurs the multilayeredness of his personality that will especially emerge at the end of the story. Jones states aptly: “Gabriel is at a distance from us, he will see everything in the story then from behind glass, which also makes him difficult to be seen directly.” (Jones 2000: 111) But this distance which will later constitute Gabriel’s perception of the world is clearly lacking at the beginning of the story. We learn for instance that the main character is obviously not very skilful in dealing with other people as we can see right at the outset. He has a very uncomfortable encounter with the caretaker’s daughter Lily and reacts anything but clinical to it: “Gabriel coloured, as if he felt he had made a mistake, and, without looking at her, kicked off his goloshes and flicked actively with his muffler at his patent leather-shoes” (Joyce 1971: 10). Gabriel’s reaction to Lily’s back answer resembles the tantrum of a little child and to cover his shame he treats Lily contemptuous, “waving his hand to her in deprecation” (Joyce 1971: 10). But still he is “discomposed by the girl’s bitter and sudden retort” (Joyce 1971: 10) which even leads him to question his well-prepared speech:
He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would think that he was airing his superior education. He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry. He had taken up a wrong tone. His whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure. (Joyce 1971: 11)