James Joyce’s short story The Dead is one of my favorite pieces of modern literature. The hypereducated Gabriel attends a dinner with his wife Gretta in a time where Dubliners were conforming to British tradition. He is to perform a speech, but finds it difficult to connect to his audience due to his desire to reference things beyond Irish hospitality such as “sad memories, the Three Graces, Paris and a quotation from Browining.”
Perhaps this is what I like so much. Gabriel is so educated that he feels disconnected (a popular modernism theme) that it makes him feel insecure. This “High Life”style takes him away from living in the moment thus making him the living dead. His wife tries to bring him back by encouraging him to visit Galway (to visit his dying heritage), but he refuses saying that he’d rather keep “in touch with the languages” of France, Belgium and perhaps Germany. Gabriel in essence believes that he must keep up with an academic lifestyle in order to fit in… Tragic, because it’s the very thing that might be killing him.
When he begins his speech he remains conflicted saying “if I may use the phrase” (alluding to his education) and references Irish hospitality in speaking of “them with pride and affection, still cherish in our hearts the memory of those dead and gone great ones whose fame the world will not willingly let die.” Before, he didn’t want to think of celebrating the heritage. Now, he realizes this and toasts to all three of his aunts for their great hospitality.
From here, the mold has been broken and our Gabriel comes back down to Earth.
He sees his wife on the staircase listening to a song called The Las of Aughrim and immediately falls in love with her again. He forgets his life of academia and remembers the days of adventure with her. His fire for life returns, but is settled when Gretta says the song reminds her of a long lost love from her childhood – Michael Fury. Michael visited her before she left on a trip and died from being in the cold rain. He died to see her.
Gabriel feels that he cannot compete with this and becomes more isolated. He goes on to say that it’s “better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.” His fire fades and he stares out the window and thinks about the falling snow on Michael’s grave.
I feel that this is a wake up call for Gabriel to come back down to earth, and stay there. He’s being a bit hard on himself because he’s comparing his life to the teenage Michael Fury – which is full of lust and passion. If he learns anything from this it should be to break the mold and try to throw a little more passion into his lifestyle. That way, he can re-connect with the wonderful preservation of Irish hospitality.
Another reason why I like this short story is that it shows how too much of the High Lifestyle can take you away from those you love. It can isolate yourself into a world that’s distant and far away. On top of this is the symbolism of snow and various monuments that are referenced. It’s a great read.