“The Dead”: James Joyce on a Roll

When a meme morphs across intellectual boundaries, the results can be unpredictable and extraordinarily powerful. In my previous post, “How James Joyce Reinvented the Epiphany and Saved the Short Story,” I told how the great Irish modernist borrowed a concept from his religious upbringing and thus recharged the short story.

Joyce himself was a master of the literary epiphany – the moment in a story when the protagonist suddenly feels a new emotion, the moment that every event in the story builds up to. Epiphanies could be small and subtle in Dubliners, his 1914 collection of stories, or a series of grand crescendos, revelation upon revelation, as in what I think is his greatest short story, “The Dead.”

Book cover of DublinersThat story features the annual Christmas party given by the Misses Morkan, the two maiden aunts of Gabriel Conroy, the story’s protagonist who is a college professor and something of a minor literary maven.  (He writes a column for a local newspaper.) The party scene is a tour de force of character observation. Noted as a public speaker, Gabriel delivers his usual jovial speech to the crowd at the party, paying a fulsome tribute to his aunts.

Much comedy ensues, but the epiphanies begin to roll in when the party has ended and Gabriel notices that his wife Gretta is out of sorts. It’s more than the holiday blues for her. He learns as he questions her that a song sung at the party, “The Lass of Aughrim,” has brought to her memory a young man she once knew who also used to sing that song. Gabriel’s warm glow of ego satisfaction and his joviality-fueled erotic interest in his wife disappear as he realizes the depth of Gretta’s feeling for the now long-dead singer, a lad named Michael Furey.  In fact, it begins to occur to Gabriel that pretty much his whole life has been a sham, an inauthentic shying away from the emotions of his native country, Ireland. Here’s how Joyce presents this moment:

Gabriel felt humiliated by the failure of his irony and by the evocation of this figure from the dead, a boy in the gasworks. While he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another. A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror. Instinctively he turned his back more to the light lest she might see the shame that burned upon his forehead.

Scene from the movie version of The Dead

Anjelica Huston as Gretta in John Huston's 1987 movie version of "The Dead."

Gabriel and Gretta have a long conversation in which he quizzes her about her feelings for Michael Furey, and she bursts out crying. Finally, she falls asleep. And the story concludes on this grand set of epiphanies for Gabriel, each epiphany building on the previous.

Gabriel, leaning on his elbow, looked for a few moments unresentfully on her tangled hair and half-open mouth, listening to her deep-drawn breath. So she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake. It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life. He watched her while she slept as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife. His curious eyes rested long upon her face and on her hair: and, as he thought of what she must have been then, in that time of her first girlish beauty, a strange friendly pity for her entered his soul. He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death.

Perhaps she had not told him all the story. His eyes moved to the chair over which she had thrown some of her clothes. A petticoat string dangled to the floor. One boot stood upright, its limp upper fallen down: the fellow of it lay upon its side. He wondered at his riot of emotions of an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt’s supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merry-making when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow. Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade with the shade of Patrick Morkan and his horse. He had caught that haggard look upon her face for a moment when she was singing Arrayed for the Bridal. Soon, perhaps, he would be sitting in that same drawing-room, dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees. The blinds would be drawn down and Aunt Kate would be sitting beside him, crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died. He would cast about in his mind for some words that might console her, and would find only lame and useless ones. Yes, yes: that would happen very soon.

The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.

Photo of Donal McCann as Gabriel Conroy in moive of "The Dead."

Donal McCann as Gabriel Conroy watches the snow faintly falling all over Ireland.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. 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.

Epiphanies don’t get much more glorious than this.

2 Responses to “The Dead”: James Joyce on a Roll

  1. The challenge for the modern short-story writer has been that, since Joyce and other great modernists (Fitzgerald, Woolf, et al.), no one can really write epiphanies like that anymore, not unless unless they are being ironic or self-referential.

    Perhaps the most successful post-Joyce choice has been understatement. Hemingway, of course. But I would argue that, within the contemporary literary community, including the hundreds of MFA creative writing programs, one of the most influential figure has been Raymond Carver, a writer who took understatement to a whole new level, where what was left out often dwarfed what was left in.

    Yet still managed to stay true to the Joycean ephiphany. Here is his ending to the story “A Small Good Thing,” where a couple, who have just lost their son, go to confront the baker who has been calling them about picking up their son’s birthday cake. But instead of confrontation, the baker gives them fresh rolls and coffee and talks about his own life:

    “Smell this,” the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf.

    “It’s a heavy bread, but rich.” They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.”

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