Gary Guinn

Literature of the Ozarks

The Dead

This morning I read again the final paragraph of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” a story about a melancholy Irish professor, who thinks his marriage is one thing and finds that it is really something else. It is a story about the disillusionment of romantic fantasies. “The Dead” is one of Joyce’s best-known stories, the final story in his first collection, Dubliners. It has been one of my favorite stories for many years because of its celebration of friendship around a banquet table, both the joy and the pain, because of its wonderful variety of characters, and especially because of its beautiful language.

At the end of the story, the main character, Gabriel, sits in the dark in a hotel room, his wife asleep on the bed. He has just learned of his wife’s heartbreak when she was a young woman at the death of a young man named Michael Furey.

Here’s the paragraph: “A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. 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. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly throughout the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

We are all Gabriel, believing we are one thing and occasionally coming face to face with the reality that we are not that thing at all, that we have created for/of ourselves a fiction we can live with but that cannot last. Afterwards, when we know ourselves better, we are better able to know others and to live a compassionate life.

After Dubliners, Joyce published Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses, both of which I love and taught at the university, and then he finished his fiction writing with Finnegans Wake. These last three works were significant events in the development of the complex Modernist style, but in the earlier Dubliners he used traditional story-telling technique and rich, layered language to reveal the vulnerable and quixotic hearts of human beings in everyday lives. It is one of those works that makes my wiring crackle when I read it.

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7 Comments

  1. I’m enjoying this blog, Gary. Very interesting. I, too, love the Dubliners. The idea that we create fictions of ourselves is fascinating. Self-deception can, at times, be very dangerous and sometimes it helps us get by. Keep up the great blogging.

    • Hi, Roger. Facing ourselves honestly, confronting the truth that most of the “being” we project into the world is illusory, is in fact a false self created by that world, and yet still being able to love ourselves and commit to finding our true self, is for me the greatest challenge any human being faces. It’s what both Christianity and Buddhism have described as dying to the old self and becoming a new person by following the source of truth (Christ/Buddha). I too find this process fascinating.
      Great to hear from you on this, as always and on any thought at all.

  2. Karen Schmidt

    May 13, 2015 at 4:32 pm

    When I was in college I took a novel course each semester so that I would have reading scheduled into my days. These courses were never my strongest, and most of the time I was too intimidated to open my mouth in class. At some point I had to read James Joyce but found him somewhat daunting. Either my mind has matured or The Dead is one of Joyce’s easier works. I do think a younger person might not understand the complexities of being married with children. Gabriel, predisposed to insecurity, projects his own comparisons of himself with the young Michael Furey onto his wife and then spirals into disappointment and morose self-absorption. In fact, it is quite possible that his wife is upset because she did not love the young man and she mourns his early, needless death. It would be interesting to read the same story from the perspectives of several of the other characters with their own individual realities—the wife, the two spinster aunts, Mary Jane, or even Lily. I love having this opportunity to think!

    • Karen, I agree completely that college age people have trouble appreciating The Dead, or for that matter, any of the stories in Dubliners. These stories were where Joyce poured his incredible ear for language and conversation and his deep understanding of the monumental impact of the small decisions people make at every turn, especially the emotional impact. I love the stories. And I agree with your reading of The Dead, especially your understanding of Gabriel as insecure and of his wife as trapped in her melancholy nostalgia and regret. I loved the spinster aunts and, yes, even Lilly. Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Nice thoughts! I am just now getting into Joyce, with plans to read (for the first time) Ulysses this summer. Often because it has been you either love Joyce or Virginia Woolf, I have sided with Woolf more deeply; but I won’t buy into that kind of either/or thinking! Cheers, friend.

    • Cheers, Mark. I have always found it curious that Virginia Woolf found Ulysses disgusting (an understatement). I tend to think that it was because, in spite of all her rebelliousness, she was still very British. I love her work, by the way.

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