The Dead by James Joyce: Review and Analysis

the text "the dead written by james joyce" written next to the portrait of james joyce

The Dead is a part of James Joyce’s short story collection called The Dubliners, first published in 1914. The Dead is one of the most celebrated short stories of James Joyce, frequently adapted into plays and movies. It had a broad appeal – in and outside Ireland.

The Dead by James Joyce: Summary and Plot Analysis

The story opens in the setting of Misses Morkan’s annual dance. Sisters Kate and Julia Morkan, along with their niece Mary Jane Morkan and their housemaid Lily are hosting friends and family at the Morkan residence. 

Kate and Julia are eager to welcome Gabriel Conroy, a professor, and a writer, along with his wife, Gretta. 

A very awkward conversation with Lily about her love life makes Gabriel a tad uncomfortable, but he quickly regains composure once in the company of his aunts. 

Guests keep pouring in, including Freddy Malins – the drunk, and Mr. Browne – the flirt.

Mary Jane entertains the audience with a piano performance, and guests dance. Gabriel ends up getting paired with Miss Ivors, a fellow university professor fervently supportive of Irish culture. 

She puts Gabriel ill at ease, labeling him West Briton on account of his literary reviews written for a conservative newspaper. Gabriel fights the allegations and politely declines her offer to visit the predominantly Irish Aran Isles citing his planned European cycling trip.

Miss Ivors takes that to be his lack of interest in his own country and pokes him for that – Gabriel, cornered, blurts out his dislike for the country.

He moves on from that conversation and talks to other people, but the bitter aftertaste lingers in his mind.

Miss Ivors leaves soon after, to the surprise of the Morkans and the relief of Gabriel. Dinner soon follows, with Gabriel at the head of the table, carving out the goose.

Everyone eats, and Gabriel delivers his speech, expressing his appreciation for his aunts, cousin Mary Jane, and their warm hospitality. His speech is met with loud applause, and everyone toasts their three hostesses.

Guests slowly begin to leave, and while Gabriel is getting ready to do so, he notices his wife transfixed by a song Mr. Bartell D’Arcy sang in the drawing room.

As guests continue to leave, she remains lost in thought, completely detached from her surroundings. Gabriel feels drawn to his wife; the aura of mystery around her evokes strong memories of their courtship and young love.

They leave and head to the hotel for the night’s stay. Gretta continues to be detached and thoughtful, oblivious to her husband’s romantic plans for the night.

After further prodding by Gabriel, she reveals the cause of her sudden emotional outburst. A song from earlier that evening reminded her of her youth, and in it, a young man called Michael Furey, who was a devoted lover. Michael used to sing the song for her back in Galway.

He died soon after she left Galway for Dublin, meeting his tragic end after contracting a cold, waiting for her in the cold, outside her residence.

The Dead: Review and My Thoughts

What started as a very regular family party – with its drama and chaos, quickly turned into something else – a story of frustrating personal and professional expectations, love, loss, passion, and disillusionment. 

Gabriel looks like a regular guy – eager to impress people, loves the smell of new books (who doesn’t, right?), and is nervous about public speaking, awkward at small talk (who asks a housemaid about their love life to boot?) but as the story evolves you get to know more about him – his discomfort on being branded a West Briton, his irritation at the paltry review cheques, his frustration at the spousal love lost and the cognitive dissonance resulting from the requirement of letting go of the past, vis-à-vis his inability to do so.

His wife’s revelation of the death of a young lover makes him uncomfortable, long for the life of passion he never had, and makes him ruminate on the hold the dead have on the living. 

Escaping the past was a theme in Gabriel’s speech; the speech was so well-liked at the party, but can he practice what he preaches?

At one point in the story, while Gretta is sleeping and Gabriel is deep in thought, you can’t help but wonder if his wife having a deeply dedicated lover makes him grow even more morose, thinking to himself : 

Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion than fade and wither dismally with age.

James Joyce’s The Dead shines brighter as the years pass by.

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