No Woman’s Land: Misogyny in Ireland

December 10, 2020 by Essay Writer

In the short story “The Dead,” James Joyce displays his character Gabriel as pretentious and misogynistic through emphasizing his wealth, education, and presumed superiority to the women in his society. Gabriel, who requires constant reassurance from women to feel validated, uses his intellect and money to remain superior to the various female characters. Joyce juxtaposes Gabriel’s character to many women to emphasize his superiority complex by using dominant female characters who continuously humiliate him, causing Gabriel to over-use his arrogant tendencies. Thus, Joyce critiques the way in which men traditionally dominate women in society by de-familiarizing submissive women and replacing them with these dominant and outspoken women with whom Gabriel must interact. Joyce also created this character to force his readers to anticipate the inevitability of tragedy as foreshadowed by Shakespeare references, and by Gabriel’s wife Gretta for the ultimate revenge; the death of love.

Throughout the story, there are many moments when Gabriel humiliates women. This is one obvious way Joyce that chose to enhance his critique of the typical way men treated women in the early 20th century. Joyce defamiliarizes the typical submissive women and replaces them with outspoken and independent female characters that accomplish to embarrass Gabriel continuously which is easily noticed. One of the best examples for this is when Gabriel is entering the party and is assisted by a young girl, Lily, in the pantry; he asks if she would be married soon and she responds: “The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you” (2284). Lily quickly clarified that she had no intentions of getting married, and was not polite about it as a typical lady should have been. Gabriel’s discomfort confirms his requirement for control of the situation. “Gabriel coloured as if he felt he has made a mistake, and without looking at her, kicked off his galoshes” (2284) Joyce cleverly added, “without looking at her” (2284) because it demonstrates his inability to cope with dominant responses from females. If Gabriel had instead chuckled and agreed with her, it would transform the text completely.

Joyce also created Gabriel as a misogynist to highlight the astounding male population in Ireland at his time that was just like him, and the growing feminist population fighting for equal rights (Catherine Phil MacCarthy, 2015). After Gabriel’s embarrassment, he attempted to gain control over the situation by giving Lily “Christmas Money,” which displays how he uses wealth to control women. After he gave her money, he left immediately to escape the situation, but the effects of her honesty lingered. We see how Gabriel’s character is shaken by this even after removing himself from her presence, “He was still discomposed by the girl’s bitter and sudden retort” (2285). Gabriel’s response clarifies how abnormal it is for women in his day to be so forthright in her speech. Joyce’s critique of this situation is clear when you analyze the context; he wants Gabriel’s sexist views to be enhanced and corrected. Joyce exposes Gabriel’s fragile superiority complex immediately to allow the reader an introduction to the type of misogyny within the story and how it will be dealt with throughout the text.

Gabriel’s education is also a justification, in his mind, for his superiority, and Joyce juxtaposed his character to a female who experienced the same education as Gabriel to debunk his views further. Gabriel had simplified his speech because he believed his “Superior education” (2285) would cause him to look ridiculous because nobody could be as intelligent as him. Immediately regretting his “Intelligent” speech, Joyce parodies Gabriel’s reaction by emphasizing that it would be a failure. Gabriel’s character assumes that everyone around him is less intelligent and even worse, that he is too intelligent. Joyce included this to highlight the arrogant personality Gabriel possessed in order to create a situation to diffuse it. It was extremely important to foreshadow this “superior intelligence” reflection for his conversation with Mrs. Ivors. Mrs. Ivors has similar education and career life as Gabriel, therefore making a female equal to Gabriel; how uncomfortable. Mrs. Ivors, another forward female character like Lily, immediately embarrasses Gabriel stating, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” (2290) because he is a writer for the Daily Express a West-Briton paper during a time in which Ireland was becoming independent from Britain. Gabriel obviously disturbed and offended retorts, “Why should I be ashamed of myself? Asked Gabriel, blinking his eyes trying to smile.” (2290) it is evident that through blinking and trying to smile he hides his discomfort of being in the presence of yet another frank spoken woman. This ameliorates the way in which Gabriel cannot deal with confrontation from women, a statement created by Joyce to stress the changes that needed to be made in society. Joyce wants to contrast this fragile yet sexist man by juxtaposing him to these women, thus critiquing the way men cannot cooperate with women.

Through Gabriel’s perspective, we are given a personal look at the misogynists thought processes, so any man reading this and could relate to such a character would be forced to see how ignorant their attitude is. Later we see Gabriel’s ego could only be reconciled through Mrs. Ivors’s disinterest in power. Immediately after she explains herself, “Gabriel felt more at ease” (2290) which further justifies Joyce’s goal to repurpose a woman’s place in society by emphasizing Gabriel’s constant need for control. Gabriel is unable to cope with assertive women which we see through his uncomfortable nature whilst talking to women, which reminds us how fragile a sexist man’s ego actually is. Joyce created this fragile character to emphasize the ridiculous attributes of the “modern Irish man” in order to enhance his goal to redefine the patriarchal society, as well as enhance dominant women to portray that it is valid for women to have control. Gabriel is seen to love his wife very much, and expresses his emotions following the party. However, he idealizes Gretta due to her pleasing feminine aesthetic and inferior education, not because of her as a person but rather as an ideal asset to him. This can be seen in the text after leaving the party, “she was walking on before him so lightly and so erect” (2305) and “She seemed to him so frail that he longed to defend her” (2305) Joyce’s diction for Gabriel’s thoughts highlight the typical feminine beauty that is so appealing: light, well postured, and frail.

While Gabriel’s character is seen to have an epiphany of love and affection for his wife, it is clear that the reason he loves her is that she is inferior. Joyce criticizes here how men only see women as objects, and how beauty cannot define a woman’s purpose in the world. We also see the affection drawn from Gretta’s simplicity: “She called out to the man at the furnace: is the fire hot, sir?” Gabriel is a man with clearly a large ego who considers himself to be exceptionally intelligent as well as superior, therefore having a wife that is submissive and intellectually inferior is ideal for supporting his ego. This memory ameliorates that he loves her because he will always be more intelligent, and finds comfort in her foolishness. To focus more on Joyce’s diction consider the word, “frail” and how he had “longed to defend her”, considerably a noble task in fairy-tales where the frail, young, distressed princess requires a prince to save them. This language encourages romanticizing Gretta through inferior vocabulary, thus only a man could help her. This hints at the previously mentioned Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” reference made in the story earlier where Gabriel notices a painting of the balcony scene in “Romeo and Juliet” (2289). Joyce chose this image to foreshadow not only the relationship between Gabriel and Gretta, but also the tragic ending of “death” for conclusion. Shakespeare is known for tragedies and misogynistic love stories (Ophelia in “Hamlet”, Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet”, Desdemona in “Othello”) there is an obvious theme of submissive female lovers for their masculine heroes throughout his work. Joyce chose to portray this classic Shakespearean dynamic for the emphasis of foreshadowing events and the inevitable failure with relationships based on this behavior, however he created a mundane and relatable story for the people of Ireland. Joyce successfully captures the modern misogynist and portrays him in a story emphasizing masculinity and power to criticize Ireland’s patriarchal society through comparison and foreshadowing. James Joyce portrayed his character Gabriel as a misogynist and pretentious scholar and did so to enhance the modern Irish patriarchal society. Though the story follows a party, you may notice it is not the party we must focus on but rather the people, mainly women, Gabriel interacts with.

Throughout “The Dead,” Joyce juxtaposes Gabriel against powerful and unapologetic women to highlight the incorrect behaviors of Gabriel, and demonstrated what men like Gabriel deserve; the death of love. Gabriel is seen to humiliate women, use education as superiority, and view women as objects. Joyce uses foreshadowing, juxtaposition and diction to highlight these behaviors in order to critique them. Through his fiction, James Joyce subtly raised awareness of early 20th century sexism in order to promote a society in which the sexes are equal, confronting a dilemma we still face to this day.


Joyce, James. “The Dead” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume F: The Twentieth Century and After, edited by Jahan Ramazani and Jon Stallworthy, 9th ed., Norton, 2012, pp. 2282-2311. MacCarthy, Catherine Phil. “A History of Irish Feminism: Past, Present and Future.” The Irish Times. N.p., 27 Oct. 2015. Web. 22 Nov. 2016.

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