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Short Story Group Reads > James Joyce's The Dead

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message 1: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
Discussion begins August 24th at 9 AM sharp. :)

Get the story here.

I will post some resources as we near the discussion time. I try not to go overboard on that stuff because I like to take the stories at face value and not use other interpretations, but Joyce... I think we all could use a little context when it comes to Joyce.

message 2: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (last edited Aug 22, 2009 09:53AM) (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
Here are some things to know about this story.

1. It was written by Joyce last, to finish The Dubliners.
2. It includes characters based on his family and friends.
3. The wife in the story, Gretta Conroy, may or may not represent his Nora.
4. It has been thought/written/said that The Dubliners was written about Ireland itself, about a people in spiritual crisis/emptiness

Here are a couple of excerpts from critical essays I found interesting, but didn't want to actually plunk down money to read the rest of... (I bought enough lit crit books in my day, thank you)... just some food for thought:

A major point of contention for critics of "The Dead" has been whether Gabriel overcomes his paralysis through his epiphany. Many critics, such as Kenneth Burke, feel that Gabriel does transcend his own paralytic self-consciousness. Others argue that he does not transcend his condition but rather, in a way, gives up any such notion and simply accepts that he is one of the spiritually dead. Mi-chael Shurgot sees Gabriel being motivated by what Freud called a death wish.


In his short stories, Joyce's conspicuous symbols usually grow out of a disparity between a character's romantic inner perception and squalid outer reality. This disparity creates the strange sense of displacement common to so many characters in Dubliners.


In his short story "The Dead," James Joyce symbolically presents his critical view of Dublin society. The theme of the story is that of a spiritual paralysis which has seized a lifeless or "dead" society and of the vital effect in paradoxical contrast that the dead may have upon the living in urging them to a fuller self-awareness. In this juxtaposition of the symbolically living and the symbolically dead, the author works with the contrasting images of darkness and light, blindness and perception, cold and warmth, society at large and the individual experience, upper middle-class sterility and the fullness of a peasant's passion, and motion and stillness...

message 3: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (last edited Aug 22, 2009 09:55AM) (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
Oh, and the comparisons with The Lady with the Little Dog are ... well... they could be made.

Mainly, do we believe Gabriel's epiphany is really an epiphany, or just a passing emotional moment.

Also, what's happening within Gretta.

message 4: by Hugh, aka Hugh the Moderator (new)

Hugh | 271 comments Mod
Hey. I'll be in Dublin September 4 and 5. I'll try and get a couple photos of the "Dead House" there where John Houston shot the film (and is, I think, the actual house Joyce was writing about). Count me in... (Oh, wait is it kosher to post BEFORE the official start time? whoops.)

message 5: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (last edited Aug 22, 2009 04:44PM) (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
It is NOT and you will be SEVERELY punished by being forced to post a brilliant insight during each day of our discussion.

Looking forward to the photos.

message 6: by Martyn (new)

Martyn | 299 comments It's not upper-middle class...that's not true. Joyce never wrote about upper middle class characters...he was a middle class chap who had been brought up in working class environs because his father pissed his pension up the wall. That comment about upper-middle class sterility and peasant passions is a load of shit.

message 7: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (last edited Aug 24, 2009 07:29AM) (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
These are just my thoughts as and after I read.

This time, reading this story, I am most struck by the inability of the men and women to relate to one another in... well, in almost any way. It's as though the characters inhabit their own spheres, even the ones who are married to each other, and just... bump into one another and float away.

They speak. But does anyone listen? The conversations are awkward, even painful. They seem to be ships passing in the night.

"The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you," says Lily. (Is she pregnant?)

Mr. Browne seems to confirm it: "Now, Mary Grimes, if I don't take it, make me take it, for I feel I want it."

I could go on for paragraphs about some of the symbols - but the one that seems most relevant to me, as I read how these people relate to one another, is the picture of the tower scene in Romeo and Juliet, hung next to the two murdered princes in the tower.

message 8: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
Then there are the politics and class issues, a whole discussion in themselves - Miss Ivors' challenge to Gabriel of being a West Briton and his frustrated exclamation that he is sick of his country. (And Miss Ivors seems to be a mystery to all.)

The sharp contrast between knowledge of things "continental" and things "Irish."

The conversation about music and talent even seems to be tinged with politics.

From Joyce, oh I mean Gabriel's speech:

A new generation is growing up in our midst, a generation actuated by new ideas and new principles. It is serious and enthusiastic for these new ideas and its enthusiasm, even when it is misdirected, is, I believe, in the main sincere. But we are living in a sceptical and, if I may use the phrase, a thought- tormented age: and sometimes I fear that this new generation, educated or hypereducated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity, of hospitality, of kindly humour which belonged to an older day. Listening to-night to the names of all those great singers of the past it seemed to me, I must confess, that we were living in a less spacious age. Those days might, without exaggeration, be called spacious days: and if they are gone beyond recall let us hope, at least, that in gatherings such as this we shall still speak 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.

message 9: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (last edited Aug 24, 2009 04:39PM) (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
OK one more and then I promise I'll quit.

I was pondering the movement in the story - it goes very much from the outside in, like a camera starting way back and then zooming in closer to Gabriel, sometimes zooming out, until we are finally completely inside his perspective. Starting at the front door of the house, gradually moving up the stairs... then eventually to the hotel room.

Right now I'm reading Women in Love, Infinite Jest, Umberto Eco's book on Beauty (which is AMAZING. I could listen to that man talk about Kleenex), and some of Roethke's love poetry.

At first they don't seem to have much in common with The Dead, except for maybe WiL, but I swear, I have a point here.

Every single one of those books/poems is about love. Falling in it, being in it, losing it, killing it, watching it fade, unrequited love, sabotaged love, love for all mankind even in its fuckedupness.

The last time I remember reading Dubliners and discussing it with anyone I was 25 or so and in an online discussion group on Joyce. At the time I honed in on the class and history issues that were more comfortable for people to discuss and argue about.

But really, this is a story about love, isn't it?

Personally, I don't buy Gabriel's "transformation" because I think we are meant to see through it as an artificial, passing, emotional moment. I think he has the stirrings of deep affection, but I think he is too self-absorbed to move beyond that.

A few months ago, when I read The Lady with the Little Dog, I was far more convinced that Gurov had really changed.

And when I directly contrast Lawrence with Joyce, they are such worlds apart, even though they are talking about the same thing! Lawrence is so internal that it's dizzying; Joyce so external that it takes more than one read to pick up on the subtle mind and heart stuff.

OK, like I said, I'll stop.

message 10: by Martha (new)

Martha Kate | 198 comments Shel, I agree that all of the elements you discuss - relationships between men and women, issues of class, personal transformation - as well as race, intellectual snobbery, religion and nationalism are present in the story. It is a marvel that Joyce can explore the scope of these ideas within the framework of a story set in a single location that unfolds over the course of a single evening.

Ultimately, for me anyway, it is a story about mortality. What does it matter that Gabriel quote from Browning or Shakespeare, that he is frustrated by Lily's coarseness, or that he bicycle through his own country or some other if, like Aunt Julia, he too were fast on the course of death. "One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age."

It seems to me as if the entire first 34 pages are a set-up for that final page, in which the quality of the writing changes dramatically, beginning with Gabriel's gazing "unresentfully" on his wife's hair. It's as if all pettiness melts away with the recognition of humanity's flow toward mortality, captured in one of my all-time favorite lines: "He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death."

And as for symbols, not many have ever been as powerful for me as the silent, cold, all-encompassing snow of the story's final paragraph. Really. It makes me cry.

Hugh - can't wait to see the photos from Dublin. Have a great time there and tell us all about it.

message 11: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (last edited Aug 26, 2009 06:41PM) (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
So, Martha, how's it goin'? Should we just sit here with a bottle of wine and some good pasta until the others get here? Play a round of bingo while we wait?

Personally, I'm hanging on my patio with a glass of fantastic wine and some kick ass music, probably by a group from Austin, blaring out the sound of the trains below.

message 12: by Michael, the Olddad (new)

Michael (olddad) | 255 comments Mod
It's been years since I've read this story, which maybe will add something to my comments. Dust most likely.

But I've left Mr. Gately on the beach and closed the book on Infinite Jest just yesterday so I am ready, willing, and able to read something else for the first time since early June. So perhaps it is time to get my well thumbed Joyce off the shelf and approach this story anew.

I do know that the particulars of the dinner escape me, but the return to the bedroom of the married couple still haunts me in quite some detail. 90% of my potential comments will be addressed to this later part of the story I would predict.

I agree with Smartha that there are like two stories going on here; and the second is world stoppingly good. That Young Jim Joyce could PLAIN OUT WRITE (which is why the world was ready to give him the benefit of the doubt when they saw Ulysses the first time?) I think the second part of the story is about seeing yourself through another's eyes and being anihilated by that persepctive. So yes'm. I think the theme be Mortality in all its feminine shades.

Dames! What say Jim o'boy, shall we toast 'em anotheround?


message 13: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
As long as it's a warm Guinness, I think it would be just fine.

It's hard for me to focus on mortality these days (trying to stay, what for), but I am inclined to agree with both of you. Particularly being annihilated by another's perspective. Well said.

message 14: by [deleted user] (new)

I was really struck by the set table. Made me think of war tables. All the soldiers and artillery lined up. in uniform. A general at each end. I'm thinking it's all symbolic but I am not getting this one. are the colors significant?

A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side- dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry. On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn up according to the colours of their uniforms, the first two black, with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with transverse green sashes.

message 15: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
With Joyce, one might suspect that the colors are about Ireland or Irish history.

red, yellow and green.

I think you're right, the military allusion is unmistakable. Rival ends of the table. colours of their uniforms...

I read that last part of the story again last night, Michael and SmartyKate, and cried like a baby. Well, not like a baby, but still. I'm right there with you.

I'm still holding onto my thought that Gabriel isn't really transformed, but my toe is starting to cross the line into thinking... maybe. Just maybe.

message 16: by Michael, the Olddad (new)

Michael (olddad) | 255 comments Mod
RE: Young Jim

This is a soapbox you will have found me atop back in the MySpace FF (v1, v2) era, but it is worth repeating; it is simply beyond reason to me that our author was a bloody BOY when he wrote these stories. The short stories which comprise the Dubliners were written between 1904 and 1907. This puts Joyce at age 21 – 24 by my calculation when he penned these words. What! did he have an Angel or physically real Muse standing over his shoulder sipping at the whiskey while he wrote?

I just can’t fathom a) the young mind that could distill such mature themes, and b) even then, to have composed such perfect prose. I’ll defend my soapbox and say it again; line for line Joyce (particularly this early realistic work) is the most elegant text I have ever read. The economy of words; the word choice; the exactness of image; not a jot out of place. I can count on one hand the writers I find with such an aura of inevitability – should I say musicality? – to their writing.

And at the grand old age of 24.

Genius, I say, genius!!

Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.

message 17: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
I like this soapbox. Can you stand on it with one foot so I can climb up, too?

message 18: by Martha (new)

Martha Kate | 198 comments Save a spot on that soapbox for me, please. And speaking of precision in word choice, how ABOUT that description of the table that Margaret posted? The language isn't flowery or over-the-top (noun, noun, noun, maybe an adjective here and there)and yet I can see and smell and taste every dish described. Beautiful language for a writer of any age, but 24 is pretty remarkable. And to top it off, Araby is also in this collection...another all-time favorite.

And Shel, your earlier comment reminded me of the first time I read this story and burst into tears when I read the last page, and bursting into tears over the written word is a pretty rare occurrence for me.

And what about these "mature themes" that Michael mentions, particularly nationalism? I think that even Aunt Kate's outburst over the Catholic church would fall under that umbrella, and certainly Gabriel's "dance" with Miss Ivors goes there. Any thoughts?

message 19: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca Rosenblum | 1 comments Hi! I'm Rebecca and I've been a member of this group for ages without posting anything, but "The Dead" was a change-your-life story for me, I'm being brave!! For beauty of language and subtly of emotion, it will always be the image of Gretta at the top of the stairs for me--the panels on her skirt in black and white, the sudden longing Gabriel feels--perfect.

Rereading the piece for the Nth time to discuss with you guys, I thought for the first time "Huh, this is a pretty political story." But mainly I don't care, I'm interested in the characters and their lives and ignore the larger Irish themes as much as I can. Which somehow I think is ok because Gabriel does it too.

message 20: by Martha (new)

Martha Kate | 198 comments Rebecca wrote: "Hi! I'm Rebecca and I've been a member of this group for ages without posting anything, but "The Dead" was a change-your-life story for me, I'm being brave!! For beauty of language and subtly of em..."

Hey Rebecca, and welcome. So, so happy you decided to join the discussion, and I agree that this is a life-changing story and that the image of Gretta at the top of the stairs is haunting.

Interesting that this reading is the first time the "political" stuff has gotten stirred up for me, too. Amazing how he weaves those huge ideas into the seemingly simple story of a simple Christmas party in a simple home, isn't it...

message 21: by [deleted user] (new)

"Gabriel was surprised at her stillness" and "There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something." I was caught by that part too. Later we realize how sad and mesmerized she was which is completely opposite of the feelings Gabriel was having. This was the scene I could picture clearly. Beautiful imagery.

message 22: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
Welcome Rebecca! Glad you could join us.

The political stuff makes me think of Portrait, the first chapter, the Moo cow one where our protagonist is at a dinner table and Parnell is being discussed.

The "symbol of something" moment is one of the moments where the idea that this is a life changing moment for Gabriel falls apart. It seems as though he doesn't come to any deeper understanding of her as a woman and individual. She is still a symbol, of some...thing.

That said, at the end, I think that realizing one's mortality - the finality of your own and that of others - probably helps along the idea that loving and being loved are probably the two most important things in a human life... just maybe.

message 23: by Martyn (last edited Aug 28, 2009 05:41PM) (new)

Martyn | 299 comments I certainly would not describe The Dead as a simple does not even read as a simple story...far from moves from one thing to another...sure the language is straight-forward...but the story is anything but.

Now, it must be said, Joyce used the ending of the story from his own life...or rather his long-time partner then wife is probably the most "Nora" thing he ever wrote. So in certain aspects, the biographical details are rather stark.

It must also be remembered Joyce wrote this story, in circumstances of poverty, in Rome - a city of the dead if ever there was one. That the imagery is so beguiling and rich...belies the history of its composition.

Ireland is a grand mausoleum in this story...a country of an ancient, but dormant spirit...however, one must remember the negativity in which Dubliners was written as a was Joyce's revenge on his country.

As the stories were a collection of epiphanies...I would dare say that The Dead is the tale of how Ireland betrayed her own spirit...and the spirit of its people...echoed in personal acts...and the dawning of such realisations.

message 24: by [deleted user] (new)

So he wrote this at 24 while broke in Rome? Maybe why I kept thinking "too late".

message 25: by Michael, the Olddad (last edited Aug 29, 2009 06:01AM) (new)

Michael (olddad) | 255 comments Mod
Coming to understand that this symbol of something on the stairway had an interior life of its own in which he was insignificant. Symbols of things. Look how later at the climax to the story our author's eye wanders to her clothing, and how much light he throws on those things there.

Perhaps she had not told him all the story. His eyes moved to the chair over which she had thrown some of her clothes. A petticoat string dangled to the floor. One boot stood upright, its limp upper fallen down: the fellow of it lay upon its side. He wondered at his riot of emotions of an hour before. From what had it proceeded?

Our author explains himself very well in Ulysses at one point saying, "Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot."

I.e., the signature of his wife's petticoat string dangling to the floor. And to what extent Gabriel feels insignificant to the quiet, eternal, beauty of such things. Rather on the outside looking in.


message 26: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
As the stories were a collection of epiphanies...I would dare say that The Dead is the tale of how Ireland betrayed her own spirit...and the spirit of its people...echoed in personal acts...and the dawning of such realisations.

I hadn't thought of it this way, Martyn. That does explain the final paragraph about the snow falling all over the Ireland that Gabriel is so sick of.

message 27: by Alex (last edited Sep 01, 2009 06:07PM) (new)

Alex | 11 comments But what makes it all dead? The party is a bad play that’s at the end of its run. Everyone has his role, everyone has his lines down. Freddy Malins will turn up drunk and cause a row. Garbiel will offer a present to Lily and she will at first refuse; he will protest that it’s Christmastime and she will modestly accept. Browne will take a sip of whiskey and say, “God help me. It’s the doctor’s orders.” And the boldest girl will respond with mock naivety. Sister Kate will express ignorance about some new-fangled contraption and Sister Julia will playfully bring her up-to-date. Everything that happens, everything that’s said is worn, blunted, dull to the eyes and dull to the ears. “Say something once, why say it again?” wrote David Byrne, but in this Irish middle-class setting, the characters can only say it again, and again. Gabriel has an intimation of this living death, of playing a role, but he escapes only into another role, the romantic remembering intimate moments with Gretta where the truth of his life resides. To find that moment again will be the justification for his life. Unfortunately for Gabriel, Gretta was never really in his life. She was in a different play altogether. Another line from Byrne, “Heaven is a place ... where nothing happens.” The crushing beauty of the story’s end brought tears to me too, Martha. See you at the party.

message 28: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
Alex, can I just say that totally, uncritically, I LOVE YOU.

And it's not the wine.

message 29: by Martha (new)

Martha Kate | 198 comments Shel wrote: "Alex, can I just say that totally, uncritically, I LOVE YOU.

And it's not the wine."

Ditto. But in my case it might be the wine. I'm on my last bottle of Oregon Pinot from the trip to the Northwest. We haven't crossed paths, Alex, but I'm happy we have now. Your post made my day.

message 30: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
Martha, Alex generously read a draft of mine from a novel I'm working on.

He deserves a whole bottle to himself, just for that.

message 31: by Alex (new)

Alex | 11 comments To be uncritically loved, well! By the way, are more pages coming?

message 32: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
I think uncritical love is the only kind that counts.

Manana... not a lot of work on the novel this summer, I've been busy ending my marriage. So soon. Soon. Promise.

message 33: by Patrick, The Special School Bus Rider (new)

Patrick (horrorshow) | 269 comments Mod
I remember that my literature teacher could not get over how Michael Fuery, the boy who DIED FOR LOVE visited the wife and stood outside in the rain while suffering from puenomina. (I could be wrong but I think umbrallas were already invented during that time period.) And I think it is far more bitter and praiseworthy to live for love even if it is less glorious and less dramatic. I really sympathize with Gabriel and think he cried for a different reason than what James Joyce might intend or what the readers might think he intends.

If James Joyce had visited George Bailey at the bridge, I dare say that he might have kicked him in the ass into the frozen water in the beginning of 'It's A Wonderful Life.' to make the rest of the story darker and have more depth.

I might be getting cranky in my middle age but life is hard enough without people who are lauded as glorious for dying before their times. No wonder the living envies the dead. 'Pity the living, envy is for the dead.' was what Mark Twain said and I do find that more and more true.

I do love that story but started to find the characters a bit wearisome.

I look forward to reading your work, Shel, and I know it would be well written and in good hands with Alex's help.

message 34: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
Thanks, Patrick. It will probably never see the light of day but damn do I have some great trusted readers!

message 35: by Anamaria (new)

Anamaria | 1 comments I cant find information about themes and motives in '' The Dead''. Can someone please help me? Thank you! :)

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