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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