Analysis of ‘The Death’ by James Joyce
In the day of the Epiphany in 1904 one of the most popular celebrations of Dublin is about to start, the Misses Morkan’s party. The Morkan are three women belonging to the Irish bourgeoisie who receive in their home some relatives and friends to welcome the Christmas’ day. The warm of the home welcome the guests who arrive frozen from the street. Everything seems to be happiness inside: the piano’s music is accompanied by the dance, the champagne floods the party and the guests enjoy the magnificent evening. After dancing the moment of cut the goose comes and amid laughter the guests talk about opera, theatre, music, one of them dares to recite a poem and another one sings a song.
After having a good time the night is over and the party with it. The characters come back home and the story focuses now in one of the couples that participated in the party: Gabriel and Gretta Conroy. The jovial and casual tone of the narration changes completely and we can feel the final climax that brings face to face the marriage. Just before leaving, Gretta listens ‘ The Lass of Aughrim’, an old romantic song intoned by one of the guests. The melody reminds her a love from the past, Michael Furey, who she feels that he died for her. She remains paralysed in the stairs, meanwhile her husband looks at her, spellbound by the vision of such mysterious scene. When they arrive to the hotel she tells him the story of Michael and this provokes in Gabriel an epiphany.
CHARACTERIZATION: GABRIEL CONROY
The characters are defined by small actions, by physical appearances such as the way of wearing the hair, the gesture of the faces, the way of bowing down to someone and so on. Among the whole gallery of characters that assist to the Christmas party the main character Gabriel Conroy requires special attention.
At first glance Gabriel seems to be a happily married teacher that as everyone that night is attending to his aunts’ annual party. However as the story progresses we realize that he is not as confident as he looks.
Gabriel is a man extremely worried about both external and physical appearances, he takes care over his clothes, his phrases, the impact of his words, so much so that his behaviour can result theatrical in some aspects. He is portrayed as a fashion victim ‘Goloshes! said Mrs Conroy. That’s the latest…Gabriel says everyone wears them on the continent’ and also during the party, while others are focussed on food, drink and music he spends the most part of the time thinking about the discourse that he will have make, instead of paying attention to his aunt’s song or the conversations of the others ‘Gabriel could not listen while Mary Jane was playing her Academy piece…’, ‘He would fail with them, just as he failed with the girl in the pantry’. Here his insecurities become more and more evident and his constant attempts to hide them can be seen in gestures and phrases like ‘Gabriel laughed nervously and patted his tie reassuringly….’He coloured and was about to knit his brows…’Gabriel tried to cover his agitation by taking part in the dance with great energy’.
Gabriel is also aware of his superior education, he sees himself culturally and intellectually elevated in comparison to the rest of the guests with whom he is socializing, the dinner’s speech is a good example of this: ‘He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers’. Another interesting moment takes place at the beginning of story when Gabriel bothers Lily with his question about marriage. Gabriel doesn’t think twice before speaking about whether or not his words might hurt Lily. Therefore after being shaken by the girl’s bitter and sudden reply he offers her a coin as a way to make him feel better about his evident failure attempt to strike up a conversation with Lily. ‘Then he took a coin rapidly from his pocket.’O Lily, he said, thrusting it into her hands, it’s Christmas-time, isn’t it? Just… here’s a little…’.
Also during the dance he has another encounter with Miss Ivors when she questions his lack of connection between him and his heritage. ‘Why should I be ashamed of myself? asked Gabriel, blinking his eyes and trying to smile’. Gabriel responds “Oh, to tell you the truth, retorted Gabriel suddenly, I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!”. This is just another example of Gabriel’s inability to accept his heritage allowing him to remain disconnected with himself, and increasing his inability to connect with others.
This inability is also reflected in his relationship with his wife. The intellectual and social narcissism that dominates all that he does builds an emotional barrier between him and Gretta. Is in the last scene when Gabriel sees his wife’s suffering when he discovers that in spite of having been married to her for years, he doesn’t know her at all. He has been so selfish and self centred his whole life, only caring about himself that he never even thought to ask her about any past lovers. Then he seems surprised to find out she had been involved with a boy before meeting him, Michael Furey. Gabriel feels remorse when he thinks that another men was able to give his wife more love and passion than himself. It is through Michael that Gabriel has his epiphany.
STYLE: NARRATIVE PERSPECTIVE AND LANGUAGE
Lily is the narrative point of view in the first two paragraphs ‘Lily, the caretakers daughter, was literally run off her feet’, hence that the language used is more simple and colloquial. But the narrative point of view changes with the arrival of Gabriel Conroy, who will be who assumes it along the rest of the story narrating it in a third person limited point of view.
The use of the direct speech creates more realism in the story. But this technique is also a manner to show the trivial dialogues of characters, for instance, the conversations between Mary Jane, Aunt Kate and Mr. D’Arcy are totally banal. His narrative technique is unique and superb, but is not the only remarkable feature of the story, likewise his use of the language creates a realistic atmosphere during the party and reveals the authentic essence of the characters, the deepest reasons of their motivations, and the ways through his minds wander. Gabriel uses a well-elaborated language to impress his audience. ‘we could not find the heart to go on bravely with our work among the living. We have all of us living duties and living affections which claim, and rightly claim, our strenuous endeavours’. Through his choose of specific vocabulary we can see part of his pretentious personality. Also the scene in which Gabriel is contemplating his wife is an example of the masterful language that Joyce uses in this story. Gabriel seems to be contemplating an artistic painting, ‘Gabriel stock-still for a moment in astonishment and then followed her’, “the grace and the mystery”, “the symbol of something” . He compares her with an object that he would like to paint “if he were a painter”, “Distant music he would call the picture if he were a painter”.
THEMES: DEATH AND EPIPHANY
The epiphany that Gabriel experiences ant the end of the short story is another relevant theme in ‘The Dead’. After his wife’s confession of having a love before she met him, Gabriel realizes that he has no idea who his wife is, what she feels, what she thinks and what she wants from life. This insight takes shape when he looks into the mirror and sees, “a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealizing his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror”. This realization also brings truth about himself, he is not who he thought he was. He is a pathetic human being, more dead than alive and now he is assuming his absurd and ephemeral existence. The moment he is looking through the window is the moment when he starts to connect with his Irish soul and the others, it means the death of his pretentious and self-centred character.
The theme of death is present from the beginning until the end of the short story. At first glance it seems that the events of the plot are quite banal and they are not directly linked with death. The story describes a party with basically some discussions about nationalism, politics and culture, and also the habits and local customs such as the dance, food, clothes and so on. However, in spite of the normal beginning of the short story, as it progresses we can see an atmosphere characterized by a dark tone of decay. For instance, in the first words of Gabriel Conroy when he arrives to the party ”but they forget that my wife here takes three mortal hours to dress herself.’ This is a very over-elaborate way to simply say that it takes her too much time to get dressed. Likewise some words as ‘pale’ and ‘dark’ used to describe the physical appearance of the characters gives to the story a gloomy tone clearly related to a context of death “She was a slim, growing girl, pale in complexion’ “and grey also, with darker shadows, was her large flaccid face’.
Moreover the names of some characters are in a subtle way related to death as well. For instance, the name of the maid, Lily, reminds the image of the lily flower, which is especially used at funerals. Also the name of the main protagonist Gabriel has some of this connotations since his name can be associated with the Archangel Gabriel, who is considerate the Archangel of Death. Many deaths are also reminded through the story such as Gabriel’s mother Ellen, Patrick Morkan or even a legendary tenor called Parkinson. All of them are reminded in a good way, highlighting only their good qualities, such as the snow that is covering Ireland that night also covers their bad qualities remaining only positive aspects of their live. Likewise in Gabriel’s dinner speech the theme of the death is clearly introduced ”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’. In this speech he points out again the virtues of the dead showing them as an ideal to follow for the present society
At the end of the story when Gretta tells to Gabriel about Michael Furey a comparison between both men arises in Gabriel’s mind. He realises that he was not even so important in the life of his own wife as he thought before. The story ends with Gabriel imagining an hypothetical death of his aunt, and he makes a self-reflection about how she just passed away, unlike Michael, who had died for love and with courage. As consequence he is scared to have the same death as Julia, a death through progressive decay ‘Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age’. Another important moment at the end of the story is the Gabriel’s interior monologue ‘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.” This may be a metaphor related to the death of the soul, in the sense that the soul dead or alive will be covered by the snow erasing everything and giving the chance to start over again. His soul is being buried in order to be a new man.
Through James Joyce’s use of the literary techniques he is able to take what seems to be an ordinary story and obtain deeper meanings. Then what at first glance seems to be a banal story about a Christmas party is in fact a story full of symbolism and meanings that represents Gabriel’s relation with the dead and living as a way to search his own soul and identity. Moreover the story shows us paradoxically that those who are dead can be still alive in our memories and those who are alive can be emotionally dead because they haven’t known live with passion and they haven’t known enjoyed each unrepeatable and unique moment. Therefore, ‘The Dead’ also portrays Ireland as a country of emotional paralysis, feature that characterized the middle Irish society of the 20th .