Annotating “The Dead”

Here is my second annotation from that most illustrious of story collections Dubliners.  I love this story more every time I read it.

Joyce, James.  “The Dead.”  Dubliners.  Ed. Brenda Maddox.  New York:  Bantam, 1990.  Print.

“The Dead,” the last of the fifteen stories in Dubliners, comprises just over twenty percent of the entire length of the collection.  The story’s plot centers on a traditional party that the Misses Morkan give every year as seen principally through the eyes of their favorite nephew Gabriel.  The story begins in a more omniscient narration, but within a few paragraphs the reader is deeply inside Gabriel’s experience of the party.  The party begins with a dance followed by a feast at which Gabriel carves the goose and eventually offers a toast, in the Irish fashion.  The final movement of the story is some hours later, just before dawn when Gabriel and his wife Gretta leave the party and take a cab to their hotel.  The final moments are in the hotel room as snow falls against the window.

I have read this story many times, and each time I find something beautiful and tender and heartbreaking and funny in it.  I suspect this is mostly due to Joyce’s precise attention to Gabriel and the swinging arc of his internal experience throughout the length of the party.  We recognize that the women giving the party admire Gabriel because of the way they anticipate his arrival.  The aunts keep going to the stairs and looking for their nephew, “it was long after ten o’clock and yet there was no sign of Gabriel and his wife”(143).  From Gabriel’s entrance we see his struggle to do the “right” thing.  He first tries to be kind to the house maid, noticing that she has grown since he first knew her, and hearing the couples dancing in the rooms above him, he thinks it likely this young woman who has been out of school for nearly a year will soon be getting married, and he suggests that to her.  Her response shocks him.  “‘The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you'”(144).  At the intensity of her reaction, Gabriel blushes and feels himself in the wrong.  This effect, of Gabriel trying to be charming or debonaire or insightful and failing, Joyce describes several times in the story, and the effect (after several readings) is comic.  He wants to be civil to Miss Ivors, a colleague, but fails to understand or please her.  “He avoided her eyes for he had seen a sour expression on her face”(154).  Once again, Gabriel is off balance.

Still, the night is not without pleasure.  That feature of Joyce’s writing, what we now call stream-of-consciousness, is only in its first real rush of invention in this story.  The power of it comes from how faithfully it tracks the feelings of its main character through all the currents of emotion in the setting.  Gabriel enjoys his aunt’s singing of a traditional tune.  “To follow the voice, without looking at the singer’s face, was to feel and share the excitement of swift and secure flight”(157).  He enjoys helping to serve the feast.  “He felt quite at ease now for he was an expert carver and liked nothing better than to find himself a the head of a well-laden table”(160).   Above all, he looks with pleasure on the beauty of Gretta.  “If he were a painter, he would paint her in that attitude”(171).  In the course of no more than perhaps six hours Gabriel experiences keenly various emotional states.  But, that is nothing to the closing movement of the story.

Anyone who has read this story (and has a taste for what Joyce is doing in it) has to admire the last movement.  “The blood went bounding along his veins; and the thoughts went rioting through his brain, proud, joyful, tender, valorous”(173).  He remembers all the tender moments of his marriage to Gretta, their intimate and domestic life.   His emotion blossoms into exquisite desire to be alone with her, and when he is, once again he is frustrated.  “He longed to be master of her strange mood”(177).  At the moment when she seems to have come to him with a feeling like his own, there is that potent twist.  She is thinking of a love from her youth, not him at all.  “A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him”(179).  The artistry of the writing in these final pages might have stopped at that moment and made a fine story, but Joyce stays with Gabriel.  This hesitation until Gabriel reveals the essential man and elevates the story past what the vast majority of writers usually do.  “Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes”(182).  These are the tears of reconciliation and recognition of what some might call the TRUTH.

I understand why some readers and writers get impatient with Joyce and with this technique of narration, especially as it appears in his later work.  It might feel too close, too much like self-indulgence.  I cannot agree in the case of this story.  “The Dead” has become my dear letter from an Irish friend.  We probably wouldn’t be able to stand each other if we ever met in a social setting.  I’m too much like the house maid.  Still, in the pages of this little paper back book, I see the craft that makes the inner life of one man on one night an absolute beauty.

About evamccollaum

I am a starting publisher who needs the help of younger people to successfully use social networking. I continuously search for good stories and good writers.
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