Joyce’s the dead
The Dead begins in the middle of the annual party thrown by three old ladies, and in the course of the evening the reader meets various interesting people and concerns. Yet at the end of it all, when everybody has gone home and are prepared to retire, what matters really? The Dead by James Joyce takes the reader through an evening party and leaves it, like the protagonist Gabriel, searching for meaning in life.
We find Gabriel making small talk with the young servant Lily, but was upset when the talk obviously depressed her. He tries to make up for it by giving her a coin. He then goes on making small talk with the visitors, with his aunts, his wife. They talk about galoshes and what are the latest trends in the Continent. Gabriel finds himself anxious about the speech he will be giving later at dinner, and his situation was exacerbated when he dances with Miss Ivors, who accuses him of being a West Briton because he writes literature reviews for a certain newspaper. He would like to say that literature is above politics, but did not want to offend her. All throughout the party were situations when the people would drop topics because heated arguments seemed to be in the works, as when the topic of the black opera singer, or the Pope’s ruling to ban girls from choirs turned up. It seems that the people in the party were keen in making merry and did not want anything to spoil the festivity. In so doing, they limit themselves to small, shallow talk, and never really talk about what really matters to them.
This treatment shows that the people in the party really did not know each other: they were there as visitors who are out to enjoy themselves, perhaps to forget their daily lives and dance, but the things they value and hold dear they do not really share. Hence we find Gabriel assisting his aunts and their visitors and trying to be cordial and polite to everyone. When he saw his wife listening to a song he was enamored by the vision and even thought of a title if he were to paint the picture. When the night began he was filled with concerns about what others might think and perceive him, and when he saw his wife radiant he fell into a kind of romantic melancholy. He remembered their times of ecstasy, and knew that most of the time they spent ordinary days but would rather remember those they spent in passion. And he felt like having a moment of passion with her that night. But she seemed distracted and upon asking reveals that the song she was listening to reminded her of an old flame. Gabriel did not want to dwell on it, but Greta was having a realization: her old flame died for her.
Gabriel becomes jealous, but something gets to him deeper. And being at their age, when they were getting older by the day, Gabriel realizes that Greta had that kind of romance, that someone died for her…and he was sure it must be love. And yet, he did not have that kind of fervor. Could that boy, who have died so young, lived most fully having died for love, his being filled with utmost passion and purpose? His concerns have changed from the little things in the party, to what he has missed in life. He looks at how he acted that night – insecure, polite, wanting his wife when she was comparing him to her dead flame. Gabriel had an epiphany then – that life was going to end for all of them, and who was he, he who thought of himself as highly cultured, who reveled in poetry and the arts and thought vulgar of the others who he knew would not appreciate those? Aren’t his aunts going to die? Won’t he? He looks outside and sees the snow falling on all of them, the living and the dead. They are all equal – what matters is what they make of the time they have on earth.
Gabriel’s journey takes place in one night, and the reader joins him in the frivolity of the party to his heartache at the end. The setting was cold – it was snowing outside, but inside the party it was warm and inviting. But once the party ended the cold held a hand on them. In a way, this reflected Gabriel’s thoughts on the living and the dead – how they are alive but may be dead with their shallow concerns, and how the dead lay in the cold just like the ones still alive.
Journeying with Gabriel, the reader is also moved to ask, what was the meaning of all that transpired, to Gabriel? And as a corollary, what does it mean to the reader? The story depicted a familiar scenario, a get-together that most people can probably relate to. Yet, like Gabriel, the reader is also asked to examine one’s concerns and what really matters at the end of the day. Who has lived to the fullest, who is really dead?