Literary Analysis of James Joyce’s Story The Dead

June 22, 2022 by Essay Writer

James Joyce published a series of short stories named “Dubliners” in 1914. In this collection of short stories, the final and longest story of the collection is named “The Dead”. James Joyce “The Dead” demonstrates the life of the Irish middle class in Dublin around the early 1900s. As the title suggests, death is a central and prominent theme of the short story both literally and metaphorically.This theme of death is accompanied by is supported by multiple motifs and symbolism. James Joyce incorporates the use of color, light, Gabriel’s male pride, snow, the living versus the dead, the past versus the present, and nationalism to help emphasize this theme of death.

“The Dead” is seemingly centered around death, more importantly dead people and the legacy they leave behind. Most importantly Gretta’s old boyfriend Michael Furey. Gretta reveals to Gabriel that she was passionately in love with Michael Furey. Gretta then tells Gabriel that Michael Furey died out of love for Gretta. Gretta also reveals to Gabriel that she has never fully achieved the same level of love and passion with another person since the death of Michael Furey. This idea absolutely terrifies Gabriel upon hearing it. “A vague terror seized Gabriel at this answer, as if, at that hour when he had hoped to triumph, some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him, gathering forces against him in its vague world.”(Joyce 782). Even though Michael Furey is dead, his legacy still lives on in the mind of Gretta. Upon hearing the song, Lass of Augrhim, Gretta immediately thinks of Michael Furey and his singing. This is what truly scares Gabriel as Michael Furey does not pose a physical threat but instead an emotional one.

In addition, the legacy of Gabriel’s mother is mentioned. Gabriel sees a woven picture made by his Aunt Julia. This embroidered picture reminds him of the embroidered waist coast given to him as a present by his mother. Gabriel then goes on to attribute his and Constantine success to his mother. “Thanks to her, Constantine was now senior curate in Balbrigan and, thanks to her, Gabriel himself had taken his degree in the Royal University”(Joyce 762) Once again the legacy of the literal dead still lives on through Gabriel and his brother.

Mr. Browne is indeed very much alive but his name and actions tell another story. Death is a very prevalent theme throughout “The Dead” and so is the idea of the living dead. The color brown is often associated with death and the connection to Mr. Browne’s name is no coincidence.In addition to the obvious color association, Mr. Browne’s interactions with the guests at the party is another indication that Mr. Browne encapsulates the idea of the living dead. Mr. Browne escorts Miss Julia Morkan, whom is the character closest to death, and jokingly announces “ Miss Julia Morkan, my latest discovery”(Joyce 776). This being symbolic of death and portraying Mr. Browne as an angel of death. In addition while Mr. Browne is outside Aunt Kate lowers her voice and exclaims “Browne is everywhere” another eerie symbolism of death and reference to a popular phrase that death is everywhere (Joyce 773.)

In James Joyce description of the party table the color references and symbolism is hard to overlook. As Gabriels complexion is referred to as pale there is a deep contrast to the colorful aspect of the dinner party. The cluster of color references such as “ two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle”(Joyce 768). reinforces the basic theme of the death between Gabriel and the elements of life around him. The dinner party is traditionally the best part of Irish culture and Gabriel instead does not eat with the guests but waits to eat after them. Furthermore while Mr. Bartell D’Arcy is an outsider, his resale of wine is not accepted but Gabriel on the other hand rejects Aunt Julias pudding and gets away scot free.

James Joyce also uses the symbolism of light throughout “The Dead”. In this case the absence of light leads to the eventual and total death of Gabriel’s and Gretta’s relationship. Gabriel and Gretta leave and head back to their room but the porter explains there is a malfunctioning light switch. Gabriel cuts the porter’s apology short insisting “We have light enough from the street” and as “ a ghostly light from the street lamp lay in a long shaft from one window to the door”(Joyce 779). Gretta soon after confesses her love for Michael Furey and ending any chance for the two to reconcile their differences. In another instance, as Gretta hears the song and is reminded of Michael Furey, Gabriel is in a dark hallway looking upwards towards Gretta. Gretta is listening to something he can not hear, The Lass of Aughrim. “He was in a dark part of the hall gazing up the staircase. A woman was standing near the top of the first flight, in the shadow also. He could not see her face but he could see the terra-cotta and salmon-pink panels of her skirt which the shadow made appear black and white. It was his wife”(Joyce 775). Gretta hears the song that reminds her of Michael Furey and the love they shared together. Gabriel in this instance can not see her face as its hidden in the darkness in the same way darkness will soon overshadow their love and relationship.

Throughout “The Dead”, both Gabriel and Gretta often find themselves paralyzed and unable to control their lives due to their overwhelming feelings of the past. Gretta allows her past feelings, of Michael Furey, to disrupt the relationship she has right now with Gabriel. On the other hand, Gabriel is looking back on the good moments with his relationship with Gretta. “ A wave of yet more tender joy escaped from his heart and went coursing in warm flood along his arteries. Like the tender fire of stars moments of their life together, that no one knew of or would ever know of, broke upon and illumined his memory. He longed to recall to her those moments, to make her forget the years of their dull existence together and remember only their moments of ecstasy” (Joyce 778). Gretta is thinking of Michael Furey, someone completely else and from a distant past, instead of thinking of the present. Gretta is caught up in her idealistic memories of someone and something she can never obtain again.

Gabriel is strongly influenced by the interactions he has with the women throughout “The Dead” and Gabriel places a great deal of emphasis on how the women react. Gabriel’s emphasis on masculinity and his hubris leads to the death of Gabriel’s original understanding of his relation to the world, including both the living and dead.This is not only limited to his wife, Gretta, but instead to all the female characters of the story. From the beginning Gabriel’s self esteem is undermined by the remarks of different women.

The caretaker’s daughter, Lily, is no longer the same young kid he once knew. Gabriel notices and points the changes in her complexion even stating ‘O, then,” said Gabriel gaily, ‘I suppose we’ll be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man, eh?”(Joyce 757). Lily gives him a look of disgust and bitterness for his comments. Gabriel does not even realize his mistake and then trying to reconcile with Lily offers a coin from his pocket. Gabriel is treating Lily as an object and laying the foundation of how he treats women very early into the short story.

Gabriel then gives us another example of how quickly he is emasculated when criticized by a women. A fellow teacher, Molly Ivors, criticizes Gabriel for being a columnist in the nationalist paper called The Daily Express and then begins to question his patriotism for Ireland. ‘And haven’t you your own land to visit,’ continued Miss Ivors, ‘that you know nothing of, your own people, and your own country?” (Joyce 763). This quickly angers Gabriel and does not even answer her questions until Molly Ivors finally whispers into his ears “West Briton !”(Joyce 764). Gabriel quickly recedes back into a remote corner with Freddy Malian’s mother. James Joyce tells us “While her tongue rambled on Gabriel tried to banish from his mind all memory of the unpleasant incident with Miss Ivors”(Joyce 764). Gabriel continued to try and rationalize his decision for writing a book review for a conservative paper stating he is not a conservative but rather he just has a love for books.

Gabriel at the end of “The Dead” has come to an epiphany, that the only way to live a significant life after death is to leave an ever lasting impact on people. Gabriel realizes the impact Michael Furey had on Gretta. Gabriel would rather die young for passion than to live a long, meaningless, boring life. Gabriel looks out at the snow and realizes that the cold and the numbest snow brings does not discriminate between the living and the dead. “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” (Joyce 784). Gabriel has come to the conclusion he has not found true love or even passion in his life, he laments about the creeping death of his Aunt and is afraid he is on track to live a meaningless life and therefore die a meaningless death. Gabriel realizes that death is inevitable but some of the living, including Gabriel, have not really lived their life. Gabriel realizes there are people dead, like Michael Furey, but hold a greater place in the hearts of people than those living amongst them. Gabriel realizes just as he can not control or separate the living from the dead, he also can not separate the past from the present.

In James Joyce’s “The Dead” death is a central and prominent theme of the short story both literally and metaphorically.This theme of death is accompanied by is supported by multiple motifs and symbolism. James Joyce incorporates the use of color, light, Gabriel’s male pride, snow, the living versus the dead, the past versus the present, and nationalism to help emphasize this underlying aspect and theme of death.

Through the use of various symbols, imagery, and motifs James Joyce illustrates and illustrate the role of death and for the readers to come to the same epiphany experience by Gabriel. James Joyce wants his readers to realize that you are not destine for a meaningless life and you can break the ritualistic life society expects you to follow. Like Gabriel you can awaken from your own illusions, break free from the slave of routine and separate yourself from those in society morally paralyzed.


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