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"The Dead"
Author James Joyce
Country  Ireland
Language English
Genre(s) Short story or Novella
Published in Dubliners
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Publication date 1914
Preceded by ""Grace""

"The Dead" is the final short story in the 1914 collection Dubliners by James Joyce. It is the longest story in the collection and is often considered the best of Joyce's shorter works. At 15,672 words it has also been considered a novella.

It was made into a film in 1987, directed by John Huston, and into a musical in 1999 by Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey. Christopher Walken starred in the original production.

Characters

  • Gabriel Conroy - The main character of the story.
  • Kate Morkan and Julia Morkan - Elderly sisters who throw a party during Christmas time.
  • Mary Jane Morkan - Niece of Kate and Julia Morkan.
  • Lily - Maid, insulted by Gabriel Conroy when he asks about her love life.
  • Gretta Conroy - Gabriel's wife.
  • Molly Ivors - Colleague of Gabriel's, very patriotic about Ireland.
  • Mr. Browne - Only Protestant guest at the party.
  • Freddy Malins - A drunk and friend of Gabriel.
  • Bartell D'Arcy - A famous tenor.
  • Michael Furey - Although this character is only alluded to by Gretta as a boy from her youth, he is nonetheless vital to the climactic epiphany of the work. He is dead when the story takes place.

Gabriel Conroy, Gretta Conroy, Kate and Julia Morkan, and Bartell d'Arcy are all alluded to in James Joyce's later work, Ulysses, though no character from "The Dead" makes a direct appearance in the novel.

Plot summary

The story centres on Gabriel Conroy on the night of the Morkan sisters' annual dance and dinner in the first week of January, 1904, perhaps the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6). Typical of the stories in Dubliners, "The Dead" develops toward a moment of painful self-awareness; Joyce described this as an epiphany. The narrative generally concentrates on Gabriel's insecurities, his social awkwardness, and the defensive way he copes with his discomfort. The story culminates at the point when Gabriel discovers that, through years of marriage, there was much he never knew of his wife's past.

Upon arriving at the party with his wife, Gabriel makes an unfunny joke about the maid's marriage prospects, after which he fidgets, adjusts his clothing, and offers her money as a holiday present. Not long after that, he gets flustered again when his wife pokes fun at him over a conversation they had earlier, in which he had suggested buying a pair of galoshes for the bad weather. With such episodes, Gabriel is depicted as particularly pathetic. Similarly, Gabriel is unsure about quoting a poem from the poet Robert Browning when he is giving his dinner address, as he is afraid to be seen as pretentious. But at the same time, Gabriel considers himself above the others when he considers that the audience would not understand the words he uses.

Later in the evening, when giving the traditional holiday toast in front of the guests, Gabriel overcompensates for some of his earlier statements to his evening dancing partner Miss Ivors, who is an Irish nationalist. His talk relies heavily on conventions, and he praises the virtues of the Irish people and idealizes the past in a way that feels contrived and disingenuous (especially considering what the past will mean to him once he hears his wife's story).

When preparing to leave the party, Gabriel sees his wife, Gretta, on the stairs, absorbed in thought. He stares at her for a moment before he recognizes her as his wife. He then imagines her as the model in a painting called "Distant Music". Her distracted, wistful mood arouses sexual interest in him. He tries indirectly to confront her about it after the party in the hotel room he has reserved for them, but he finds her unresponsive. Trying to make ironic, half-suggestive comments to his wife, Gabriel learns that she was feeling nostalgic after having heard Mr. D'Arcy singing The Lass of Aughrim at the party.

Upon being pressed further, Gretta tells Gabriel that the song had reminded her of the time when she was a young girl in Galway, when she had been in love with a young boy named Michael Furey. At the time, Gretta was being kept at her grandmother's home before she was to be sent off to a convent in Dublin. Michael, being terribly sick, was ordered to remain bedridden and was unable to see her. Despite being sick, when it came time for her to leave Galway, Michael travelled through the rain to Gretta's window, and although he got to speak with her again, he ended up dying within the week.

The remainder of the text delves into Gabriel's thoughts after he hears this story, exploring his shifting views on himself, his wife, the past, on the living and the dead. It is ambiguous whether the epiphany is just an artistic and emotional moment or whether Gabriel will ever manage to escape his smallness and insecurity.

In the film version of the story, this final passage which delves heavily into Gabriel's thoughts is the only voice-over narration present in the work.

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