Commentary by Karen Bernardo
From the title, we might expect Joyce’s story “The Dead” to take place in a funeral parlor or a graveyard. Thus, we are somewhat surprised to see that it opens as the protagonist, Gabriel Conroy, is arriving at a Christmas party.
The mood of the story is as sadly nostalgic as it is festive. Party guest Gabriel Conroy recalls the maid, Lily, as a little girl, when she “used to sit on the lowest step nursing a rag doll”; now she is old enough to have been burned by love. He also remembers his cousin Mary Jane as a child, coming to live with her aunts when she was but “a little girl in short clothes”; now Mary Jane, like Gabriel himself, is middle-aged. Their two spinster aunts, the Misses Morkan, are fading fast, and his Aunt Julia in particular will not live to see many more parties like this one. Nothing, clearly, is as it once was; the old times are passing away, despite the attempts of traditionalists like Gabriel to keep the past alive.
The theme of mortality is constantly reinforced throughout the entire story. Gabriel teasingly tells his aunts that his wife has taken “three mortal hours” to get dressed. Gabriel’s aunts claim to love him the best of all their nephews because he is their dead sister’s son. On the wall of the Morkans’ home is a picture of Romeo and Juliet (who of course died for love in Shakespeare’s play, as Gretta Conroy will later say her childhood sweetheart did for her). Although Joyce presents the congeniality, warmth, and love of a Christmas party very convincingly, images such as these serve as reminders that the shadow of death is never far behind the fullness of life.
All these motifs are drawn together in the tale Gretta tells Gabriel at the end of the story about her love affair with the long-dead Michael Furey. It is clear that her feelings for Michael have never died, and that in fact they are more vibrant than her affection for Gabriel. Joyce is expressing a poignant truth about the power of memory; but on an even more profound level, Gretta’s love for Michael is a metaphor for Joyce’s vision of Ireland itself. Joyce felt that his native land was a country of the dead; its memories are more alive than its present. In a culture in which the living function so insistently in the past, the dead assume great power over the living, and there are no beginnings, only endings, as life itself is perceived to be marching inexorably into death.
The story ends with the haunting image of the snow falling all over Ireland, over the graveyard where Michael Furey now lies as well as over the houses where people like the Conroys and the Morkans now live, and we have the eerie sense that these two realms of existence are in fact one. As Gabriel drifts off to sleep, “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.”
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