The Dead The Foolish Unseeing English Literature Essay
In James Joyces The Dead the reader is invited to a Christmas party in Ireland during the early 20th century. The story opens with Gabriel Conroy and Gretta his wife arriving at his aunt’s annual dance and dinner party. This party takes place every Christmas season and “Never once had it fallen flat. For years and years it has gone off in splendid style, as long as anyone could remember” (119). However the party always repeats itself year after year with the same guests and activities for over thirty years. While Gabriel is contemplating his speech he hears the noises from upstairs and thinks, “The indelicate clacking of men’s heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his” (122). Gabriel strongly believes that he is more educated and sophisticated than any other guests that were invited and for this he does not want to give his speech. By the end of the story Gabriel finally realizes the harsh truth that he is just like everyone else and that he will die some day.
The story takes place at the home of Kate and Julia Morkan. The Morkan sisters are two older ladies who live with their only niece Mary Jane. Every year for as long as anyone can remember they have hosted a dinner and dance party. The most anticipated guest at the party is their favorite nephew Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta. As in years past Gabriel is expected to give the speech thanking his aunt’s for their hospitality, carve the goose, and even assist with the arrival of a drunken guest. Gabriel considers himself sophisticated and more educated than most of the other guests who are attending the party. The story which is narrated through a third party is not fixed on a specific person. Through out the story the focus shifts to the thoughts of Gabriel but never from his own point of view. Over the course of the evening, events take place that bring him back to the reality that his own mortality makes him no different than any of the other guests. First he insults Lily, the caretaker’s daughter by assuming she will be getting married because she no longer is in school. Later while dancing with Miss Ivors, he insult’s his own country when she tries to convince him there is plenty to learn about Ireland before he goes off and learns about other countries. Finally as they are leaving the party Bartell d’Arcy sings a song that reminds Gretta of a boy she was once in love with when she was younger and how he came to say goodbye to her even though he was very ill and how he died afterwards. This causes Gabriel to reevaluate his life and relationships and his view of the world.
James Joyce uses the backdrop of the Morkan sister’s annual Christmas party where the usual has happened year after year, except this year events play out differently to cause the main character Gabriel to contemplate the true meaning of life and love. Upon arriving at the party Gabriel attempts to make conversation with Lily the caretaker’s daughter. After learning that she is no longer in school Gabriel says, “I suppose we will be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man, Eh?” (121). In saying this Gabriel is assuming that since Lily is a female and is finished with school that she will soon be getting married and would not be pursuing any higher education or career. To Gabriel’s surprise Lily replies angrily and says, “The men that is now is only palaver and what they can get out of you” (121). Lily means that men today are full of talk with no substance and are only interested in getting what they can from a woman. She probably also inferring that Gabriel’s words to her also lack substance. Gabriel is not expecting the hired help who he considers below his social standing to reply to him in this manner, but feeling badly about what he said he offers Lily a Christmas tip.
After his awkward encounter with Lily Gabriel starts to think about his speech and “He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers” (121). Since Gabriel considers himself a highly educated person he is not sure whether he wants to use the lines from Robert Browning’s poems because he is worried his audience may not be smart enough to understand them. Miss Ivors, a young Irish nationalist, asks Gabriel to dance. While they are dancing Miss Ivors criticizes Gabriel for wanting to visit and learn about foreign countries when he should be learning about his homeland of Ireland. She asks, “That you know nothing of, your own people, and your own country?” (129). Gabriel responds angrily saying, “O, to tell you the truth, I‘m sick of my own country, sick of it!”(129). After Gabriel’s heated response he is at a loss for words and does not speak another word to Miss Ivors for the rest of the dance.
The events of the night continue and Gabriel’s wife Gretta calls to him, “Gabriel, Aunt Kate wants to know won’t you carve the goose as usual?” (130). Gabriel fulfills his carving duty just as he had done in years past. After they had finished their dinner Mary Jane tells a story of monks who sleep in coffins. She tells the guests “The coffin is to remind them about their last end” (137). The monks who sleep in coffins do so to remind them that they are mortal. This also causes the room to fall silent for a moment as each guest thinks of their own mortality. When the time comes for Gabriel to make his speech he begins with, “A new generation had gown up in our midst, a generation actuated by new ideas and new principals” (138). During his speech Gabriel uses these words to try and explain the reason for his earlier argument with Miss Ivors. She is young and of a new generation and they have new ideas that may not always be in agreement with his, but he feels that in the end the great tradition of Irish hospitality will be carried on.
Gretta’s revelation that a boy she had once loved, had died for her, changes Gabriel’s perspective of the previous evening and the frivolity of the party’s events seems insignificant compared to what happened in his wife’s past. When telling the story of Michael Furey, Gretta Says, “I think he died for me” (150). Describing how he sacrificed his life for one last chance to speak to her. Gabriel thinks that, “He never felt that way himself towards any woman… such a feeling must be love.” (152) He feels that he must not have been a very good husband all of these years because he has never felt the kind of love for his wife that Michael Furey had felt for her (151). Gabriel realizes he has never really experienced true love, because he has never felt the kind of love that Gretta has felt for Michael Furey.
Gabriel then has a revelation about his own mortality and the mortality of those around him. He thinks of poor aunt Julia and how one day soon she will pass away (151), and “One by one, they were all becoming shades” (152). Gabriel wonders maybe it is “Better to pass boldly… in full glory of some passion, than fade and wither… with age” (152). Meaning it would be better to die young while you are full of passion like Michael Furey did than to die feebly in old age. As he lay in the hotel next to Gretta he feels “His own identity was fading out into a gray impalpable world” (152). Gabriel realizing that he is not really sure who he is anymore hears snow begin to fall against the window. “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead” (152). The snow which is symbolically falling to its own death, is falling on every one not just Gabriel.
The reader becomes a guest at dinner and dance party during the early 20th century Ireland in James Joyce’s “The Dead.” The story’s main character Gabriel Conroy arrives at the party expecting the usual as he had so many times before. From the moment he arrived events occurred which led him to think about his own standing in society where he believed he was above the attendees, but by the time he left he was not as confident as he was when he first arrived. By the time he arrived at the hotel with his wife he was not really sure who he was and if the life had lived up to that point had any meaning. Gabriel Conroy’s experiences in this story can be used as an example as how to behave into society. No one person is better than another and all people should be treated equally, and no matter what a person’s social status is in the world we are all mortal and will come to the same end.
Joyce, James. “The Dead.” Dubliners. New York: Dover Publications, 1991. 119-152. Print.
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