Snow And “The Dead”: Paralysis, Death, And Rebirth In Dubliners
In 1904 through 1906, when James Joyce originally pieced together his collection of short stories that would be known as Dubliners, the last story in the book was “Grace.” In “Grace” the story ends with the main character, Kernan, listening to a sermon in church with his friends. The promise seems to be of redemption and turning from unhealthy patterns. However, in his article, “Paradigm lost: ‘Grace’ and the arrangement of Dubliners” Thomas Jackson Rice states,
“While Kernan fulfills both Joyce’s and his friends’ designs by taking his seat in church, Joyce, by emphasizing the specious morality of Father Purdon’s ‘jesuitical’ sermon clearly suggests that Kernan will find no genuine fulfillment, no true grace or place, no integration or reintegration within the spiritual community in this businessman’s retreat.
Mr. Rice makes a very good point. In his stories, Joyce shows himself to be very skeptical of religion, and he may have been uncomfortable with the seemingly insincere ending of “Grace,” which reads, “Well, I have looked into my accounts. I find this wrong and this wrong. But, with God’s grace, I will rectify this and this. I will set right my accounts.” Because of this, Joyce feared the reader would leave the book feeling unfulfilled and without hope for these residents of Dublin. Perhaps this is why he later added “The Dead” to Dubliners. With this new ending, he was able to build upon the theme of death and new life in a more complete, believable, satisfying way.
“The Dead,” begins at a dance and dinner party in Dublin given by the Misses Morkan. It is an annual dance, and as always, a grand affair with numerous friends in attendance. When the main character is introduced, snow is mentioned for the first time, “He stood on the mat, scraping the snow from his galoshes,” and that image of snow is revisited throughout the rest of the story. The snow imagery builds from the beginning to the end of “The Dead” until the powerfully transformative image of snowfall in the very last scene. In this symbol of falling and fallen snow, Joyce finds the perfect way to end his collection of stories. The connotations of the imagery of snow in “The Dead” are pervasive throughout each story in Dubliners, and it is clear that James Joyce chose “The Dead” with its snow imagery as an ending to Dubliners in order to conclude and complete his collection of narratives in a satisfying way.
In the story “The Dead,” the whole island of Ireland is experiencing a snow storm. Among the guests attending the party at the residence of the Missus Morkan is Gabriel, their nephew and the point of view character in the story, with his wife Gretta. Gabriel’s aunts are very pleased to have him there – Gabriel brings a paternal presence, intellectualism and culture from “the continent” to the party. Gabriel has veiled contempt for these Irish provincials, and his thoughts betray his self-centeredness and pompous attitude, “The indelicate clacking of the men’s heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his,” although he is good at keeping that to himself. Throughout the party, Gabriel feels tension; tension between his love of the culture of “the Continent” and the Irish national movement, tension between his more upper class life as a writer and editor and his aunts’ and wife’s provincial upbringing, and tension between desiring to be admired and desiring to be fulfilled. At one of these tense moments, Gabriel glances out the window at the snow:
Gabriel’s warm trembling fingers tapped the cold pane of the window. How cool it must be outside! How pleasant it would be to walk out alone, first along by the river and then through the park!
Gabriel gazes at the beauty of the snow and sees it as refreshing – a fresh canvas, a new start. For Gabriel, the struggle to say and do the proper thing and to be liked and admired is difficult. In fact, that very evening he has experienced socially awkward moments that have left him feeling uncomfortable. In the tense dining room there are misunderstandings, class struggles, and politics. But outside, the snow is a great equalizer – covering what is past and offering the promise of newness. Alas, Gabriel remains trapped inside, paralyzed by duty and expectations.
At the end of “The Dead,” which is the end of Dubliners, the entire island of Ireland is experiencing an unusual snowstorm. “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.” The images of snow cover have connotations not just of beauty, but also of silence, death, stillness, paralysis, and restriction or oppression of what the snow is covering. This idea of paralysis and being trapped is a theme in every story in Dubliners.
This theme is introduced in the first story, “The Sisters,” where the priest becomes literally paralyzed before his death. The narrator, a boy who had been friends with the priest, has little experience with death and none with paralysis, but seems to have no one to help him explain things or navigate life without his friend. He is stuck with a half-knowledge of expectations, relationships, and religion and spends the story listening and thinking, but not acting.
“An Encounter” is another story from a boy’s point of view. In this story the boy skips school to go across town with a friend and have a new adventure. Along the way, while resting in a field, they encounter an old man who at first seems interesting, then strange, then disturbing. This same snow-theme of paralysis – a loss of freedom and inability to escape – comes up again when the boy seems unable to get away from the man, who continues to make him uncomfortable. The theme of death is here too, in the old man. “Undoubtedly, the old man appears to be “Death” personified. He does not fail to reveal the spiritual death and moral paralysis of a society determined to kill the sense of freedom and life which the youth have right to proclaim and enjoy.”
The next two stories, “Araby” and “Eveline” begin with the view out of a window, and the narrator thinking of what is and what could be (much like Gabriel gazed out the window at the dinner party). In “Araby” the boy narrator is trying his best to get to a town bazaar to buy a gift for a girl he admires. His efforts are frustrated, however, by his tipsy uncle and a late train and the boy ends up back where he started – stuck – with nothing to show for his journey. Eveline is a young woman with a lover who wants to take her to live with him in Buenos Aires – away from her abusive father, and the sad, mundane life her mother had before she died. Eveline wants to leave, but at the end of the story finds that she cannot break from her routine existence.
She had hard work to keep the house together and to see that the two young children who had been left to her charge went to school regularly and got their meals regularly. It was hard work – a hard life – but now that she was about to leave it she did not find it a wholly undesirable life.”
As the stories go on, we see more of the snow imagery. In “A Little Cloud” that imagery can apply to the literal and figurative stunted growth of petite Little Chandler, who dreams of greatness, but never takes a step toward achieving it. Little Chandler has a kind of “new birth” of his own at the end of the story, when the dressing down his wife give him cures him of his lofty dreams, and settles him back down in his routine once again.
Instead of indecisiveness or lack of ambition, Mr. Farrington in “Counterparts” is held hostage by his anger and alcoholism. Mr. Farrington’s mundane job of copying contracts for a law firm is so unsatisfying that whenever he sits down to his desk, he can only think of sneaking out again to the pub. Mr. Farrington’s angry confrontation with his boss causes him to hurry to the pub for a long night of drinking with other men that also make him angry. By the end of the night, he has spent all of his money, pawned his watch, and gone home only to take out his anger on his young son. Mr. Farrington is suffocating under a blanket of rage and addiction.
The suffocation of growth that snow can achieve is also an applicable image to apply to James Duffy in “A Painful Case.” Mr. Duffy lives alone in a colorless room and has no family or friends. He meets a lady at a concert who, although married, proves to be a pleasant companion. She keeps up with him intellectually (which surprises him) and seems to enjoy listening to him talk. They spend many evenings together in conversation, but when she makes an affectionate gesture toward him, he abruptly ends all communication. It isn’t until he learns of her death that he understands his feelings for her. The story ends just as it started: with Mr. Duffy still and paralyzed, sitting in silence and feeling alone.
In “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” a group of men who are doing temporary work for a political candidate meet in their committee room on a very cold, wet night after canvassing the neighborhood. The men do little other than sit in the room and talk. In fact, from their conversation, the reader can ascertain that they have done very little even before arriving in the room. They all have opinions about politics, history, and religion, and there is much discussion, arguing and even singing. But there is no action and nothing constructive takes place. These are men who are unhappily mourning the state of Ireland, but seem stuck in this room, paralyzed and unable to do anything about it.
Each of these stories foreshadows the imagery that snow-covered Ireland will present in the final story, “The Dead.” But while the previous stories ended with themes of paralysis, suffocation, lack of movement and death, “The Dead” ends with repentance, action and hope. After Gabriel learns of his wife’s relationship with Michael Furey, and realizes that he has never allowed himself to feel anything that strongly, his eyes become filled with “generous tears.” He is experiencing an epiphany – a new birth – and he decides, “The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward.” Gabriel is not dying, he is transforming. He is now aware of his shallowness and narrow-mindedness and he is ready to feel and to love more deeply.
- Joyce, James, and Margot Norris. Dubliners: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. Print.
- David, Madden, Ellmann Richard, and Sean Hutchinson. ‘The Long and Difficult Publication History of James Joyce’s Dubliners.’ Mental Floss. N.p., 24 June 2014. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.
- Rice, Thomas Jackson. (1995). Paradigm lost: ‘Grace’ and the arrangement of ‘Dubliners.'(Special ‘Dubliners’ Number). Studies in Short Fiction, 32(3), 405.
- Omid Ghahreman, & Farideh Pourgiv. (2013). James Joyce’s “An Encounter”: From the Perversion of an Escape to the Perversion of the Fatherhood. International Journal of Applied Linguistics and English Literature, 2(2), 158-164.
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