Monday, March 19, 2012

Good Short Fiction: "The Dead" by James Joyce

Title: The Dead
Author: James Joyce
Where I read it: Dubliners

I first read "The Dead" in high school, and as I picked it up again recently I remembered one scene clearly. It's when Gabriel Conroy is looking up the stairs at his wife, Gretta, who has paused on the landing to listen to music being played in another room. I remembered the "panels of her skirt" and the atmosphere of that moment - a woman arrested by music and memory, observed by her husband, who is oblivious to everything but his own feelings of desire and tender possessiveness at the sight of her. He doesn't consider what her own thoughts might be.
There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.
Gabriel is the central character in this story, and for most of it he's self-important and self-conscious, unable to connect deeply with other people and step into their shoes. The scene I've just described takes place at the end of a long dinner and music party at his aunts' house. Earlier he gave a speech at their table, a task he took to with relish, nervousness and condescension. Gabriel likes to be at the head of a table, particularly if everyone recognizes that he belongs there, carving the roast and bestowing wit and eloquence on the less cultured guests.

Gabriel's attitude towards Ireland, his home country, is colored with the polite regard and subtle contempt with which he treats other people in "The Dead." He wants to find favor in the eyes of his aunts' guests, so he holds forth on old-fashioned Irish values ("genuine warm-hearted courteous Irish hospitality, which our forefathers have handed down to us"). At the same time he's embarrassed of his country; in his eyes, his wife's major fault is that she came from the Irish countryside, because he's the sort of man who thinks of himself as worldly and prefers to vacation in Continental Europe.

Joyce is setting Gabriel up to be humbled, to step outside of himself. Even from the start Gabriel's central position in the story is always being threatened. Other guests come and go, and he's buffeted by them, pushed off the page by their colorful personalities. He makes some egotistical blunders that bely his image as an attentive sophisticated man, and he wavers with self-doubt. At one point he's dancing with another guest, Miss Ivors, who comments on his lack of connection with Ireland. When he loses his composure and tells her that he's sick of his own country, she asks him "Why?" and he can't answer. By the end there's something of an answer; Gabriel's distaste stems in part from his discomfort with himself and his unwillingness to confront what's lacking in his life and experiences. He's too softly civilized to accommodate his own country and its people, its passions and history.

At the end of the story he's softly shattered like a clump of snow. It's a terrible and gentle scene, and there really is snow falling outside. The colors and sounds of the party fade beyond it. It's difficult to dislike Gabriel, especially after that last scene. His soul roams widely and melts into the land, where the dead are alive and living people like Gabriel die briefly and taste things bigger than themselves, as the snow falls over everything.
Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves... 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.

I was inspired to write about "The Dead" this week because of Irish Short Story week over at The Reading Life blog.