Remaining in the Past: The Unhappiness of Gabriel Conroy
“The Dead” by James Joyce, from Dubliners, centers around the events that take place at an annual Christmas party in Dublin, Ireland. This short story follows the protagonist, Gabriel Conroy, who is thrust into these events, and is the only character that expresses his discontent with the state of Ireland. His unhappiness is a direct result of those around him unable to abandon their past lives and beliefs about Ireland. Joyce examines the notion that one must overcome the past in order to embrace the present through the use of exploring the lives of the characters and their inability to escape their memories and the familiarity of Ireland.
The characters in the story fear the unknown and desire to remain in the past and, as a result, remain unable to escape their daily routine and remain in a paralysis. In fearing the unknown, the characters in the story are repulsed by any sort of change that may occur, especially a change from their surroundings – Ireland. Gabriel Conroy expresses his desire to situate himself elsewhere for the Summer, and is immediately chastised for this by another guest at the party, Miss Ivors. The connotation used by Joyce creates the mood and reflects the beliefs of the guests at the dinner party. While being berated for his preference to visit another country, “Their neighbours had turned to listen to the cross-examination,” (189). The connotation behind “cross-examination” makes it apparent that Miss Ivors is berating Gabriel Conroy for making the conscious choice to explore rather than to stay in Ireland, and attempting to discredit him. His defence that he desires to have a change does not please Ivors, as she is opposed to any transformations made, even the proposition of one. Her failure to comprehend why Conroy would desire to leave Ireland is further exemplified when she demands a reason for this, “…I’m sick of my own country! – Why? Gabriel did not answer,” (189). Again, the reader may note the connotation used by Joyce. Gabriel makes the conscious effort to not reply to Ivors, not because he cannot provide an answer, but because he does not wish to. When demanded to provide reason for his disgust for Ireland, Gabriel chooses not to answer, as he knows Miss Ivors will not understand his desire to visit elsewhere and have a change in his life. Ivors is presented as the ardent Irish nationalist, representing a foil for Conroy. She enforces all that he does not believe in, especially her confidence in her Irish heritage. Miss Ivors refuses to possess the desire for change, as she, like many humans, has the innate fear that change will bring harm to her life. As a result, she remains in the routine of Ireland, and her life.
The characters’ fixation on the past is expressed by the music the characters choose to listen to and their contempt expressed when more recent singers are mentioned. The characters attempt to compete for their loyalty to old Ireland through mentioning past Irish singers. The obsession with remaining in the familiar and longing for Dublin’s past is expressed through their desire to listen to music from the past and their disdain for music made in the present. Each character attempts to trump the age of the singer mentioned before, proving their allegiance to old Dublin, “Mr. Browne could go back farther still…Those were the days, he said, when there was something like singing to be heard in Dublin,” (199). Again, the characters express their fear of change in Dublin. Mr. Browne expresses the desire for a time in the past that he knows, rather than listening to music that he is unfamiliar with. Unfamiliarity of the singers brings disgust to the characters in the story as they refuse to accept any sort of change. The characters believe that their allegiance to Dublin is proven by their refusal to accept this change. Their longing for past Dublin disallows the characters to accept change and forces them to remain in the familiarity of it, “…I presume there are as good singers to-day as there were then. – Where are they?… – In London, Paris, Milan… – I doubt it strongly,” (199). The character, Mr. Bartell D’arcy, attempts to provide an alternative to the singers from the past and suggests there is a possibility of such great singers in other countries, but is immediately chastised for suggesting there be something greater than what is associated with Ireland’s past. The characters’ expression of their desire to remain in the familiarity of the past and Ireland is evidently conveyed through their choice of singers. It is this inability to accept change and the refusal to believe in anything greater than Ireland’s past that traps the characters into a paralysis and their familiar routine.
Joyce uses the notion of reminiscing on love surpassing the desire to find new love and create new memories in order to express the characters’ desires for the familiar. Transfixed by the past, Gretta Conroy remains in love with her past lover throughout her marriage, which prevents her from having any true passion and true love. The desire to retain these memories of the past is revealed in her desire to revisit the place where her love formed, “Perhaps that was why you wanted to go to Galway with that Ivors girl?” (219). Gabriel Conroy accuses his wife of having the desire to remain in Ireland for the summer to revisit her old love. Gretta’s past love and her memories of him remain in Galway, Ireland. Her attempt to preserve these memories lies in her desire to revisit the location of where they were made, rather than desire to create new ones with her current husband. Her past love prevails the emotion for her current husband, and she has remained in a marriage lacking love and passion. Her desires have caused her to experience a spiritual and emotional death. Her fixation on the past is what ultimately brings misery to both her and her husband’s life, “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,” (219). Unbeknownst to her husband, Gretta had loved another throughout the entirety of their marriage, resulting in a loveless relationship. The realization that his wife has been in love with another man brings Gabriel Conroy to an epiphany. While he had been able to create new memories and live in the present, his wife was living in the past and unable to leave the familiar. He believes he has been deceived in their marriage and she has never truly loved him. Her preoccupation with her dead lover and the past is what ultimately brings misery to her and her husband’s life. The attempt to retain the past results in destroying the present.
The characters in the novel signify the human desire to remain with what they understand and are familiar with. The inability to desire change is expressed through their desire to remain in Ireland, and especially with their longing for Ireland’s past. The characters long for the familiar, refusing to venture from the familiarity of Ireland. Ireland, is understood to be great only when associated with the past, and as a result, the fixation on the past is present throughout the story. The desire for the familiar is what causes the characters to remain in their individual states of paralysis and unhappiness. A fixation on the past disallows humans to appreciate the present and consequently, results in misery.
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