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The Dead

By: James Joyce

"The Dead" is the final short story in the 1914 collection Dubliners by James Joyce. The other stories in the collection are shorter, whereas at 15,952 words, "The Dead" is almost long enough to be described as a novella. The story deals with themes of love and loss as well as raising questions about the nature of the Irish identity.

The story centres on Gabriel Conroy, a teacher and part-time book reviewer, and explores the relationships he has with his family and friends. Gabriel and his wife, Gretta, arrive late to an annual Christmas party hosted by his aunts, Kate and Julia Morkan, who eagerly receive him. After a somewhat awkward encounter with Lily, the caretaker's daughter, Gabriel goes upstairs and joins the rest of the party attendees. Gabriel worries about the speech he has to give, especially because it contains academic references that he fears his audience will not understand. When Freddy Malins arrives drunk, as the hosts of the party had feared, Aunt Kate asks Gabriel to make sure he is all right.


As the party moves on, Gabriel is confronted by Miss Ivors, an Irish nationalist, about his publishing a weekly literary column in the Unionist newspaper The Daily Express. She teases him as a "West Briton", that is, a supporter of English political control of Ireland. Gabriel recalls that he gets 15 shillings a week and "the books he received for review were almost more welcome than the paltry cheque". He thinks this charge is highly unfair, but fails to offer a satisfactory rejoinder. The encounter ends awkwardly, which bothers Gabriel the rest of the night. He becomes more disaffected when he tells his wife of the encounter and she expresses an interest in returning to visit her childhood home of Galway. The music and party continues, but Gabriel retreats into himself, thinking of the snow outside and his impending speech.


Dinner begins, with Gabriel seated at the head of the table. The guests discuss music and the practices of certain monks. Once the dining has died down, Gabriel thinks once more about the snow and begins his speech, praising traditional Irish hospitality, observing that "we are living in a sceptical...thought-tormented age," and referring to Aunt Kate, Aunt Julia and Mary Jane as the Three Graces. The speech ends with a toast, and the guests sing "For they are jolly gay fellows."


The party was winding down, and as the guests filter out and Gabriel prepares to leave, he finds his wife standing, apparently lost in thought, at the top of the stairs. From another room, Bartell D'Arcy singing "The Lass of Aughrim" can be heard. The Conroys leave and Gabriel is excited, for it has been a long time since he and Gretta have had a night in a hotel to themselves. When they arrived at the hotel, Gabriel's aspirations of passionate lovemaking are conclusively dashed by Gretta's lack of interest. He presses her about what is bothering her, and she admits that she is "thinking about that song, The Lass of Aughrim." She admits that it reminds her of someone, a young man named Michael Furey, who had courted her in her youth in Galway. He used to sing The Lass of Aughrim for her. Furey died at seventeen, early in their relationship, and she had been very much in love with him. She believes that it was his insistence on coming to meet her in the winter and the rain, while already sick, that killed him. After telling these things to Gabriel, Gretta falls asleep. At first, Gabriel is shocked and dismayed that there was something of such significance in his wife's life that he never knew about. He ponders the role of the countless dead in living people's lives, and observes that everyone he knows, himself included, will one day only be a memory. He finds in this fact a profound affirmation of life. Gabriel stands at the window, watching the snow fall, and the narrative expands past him, edging into the surreal and encompassing the entirety of Ireland. As the story ends, we are told that "His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."


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The work and life of Joyce is celebrated annually on 16 June, known as Bloomsday, in Dublin and in an increasing number of cities worldwide, and critical studies in scholarly publications, such as the...

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