31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 31: “The Dead” by James Joyce

May 31, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

From Dubliners

Dubliners_James_JoyceThe year 2014 marks the centenary of the publication of Dubliners, though the original manuscript was completed nine years earlier. In 1905, Joyce, only twenty-five years old, placed an early version of his story collection with an English publisher who subsequently withdrew his support for the book over fears that its frank depiction of sexuality could run afoul of obscenity laws. A few years later, an Irish publisher got as far as setting the plates for the book before pulling the plug, this time on the basis that Joyce’s use of real names for some of his characters might open the publisher up to libel suits. It was only in 1914 that the original English publisher, Grant Richards, decided to take a chance and release the book into the world. It has not been out of print since.

Terence Brown of Dublin’s Trinity College recounts this history in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Dubliners. Brown goes on to identify the qualities that set Dubliners apart from English fiction that came before it, qualities that render it more of an experimental, groundbreaking work than might at first be apparent, particularly from a 21st-century perspective:

The publication of so complex and strategic a work as Dubliners in 1914 with its ostensible realism and complicated symbolist deployment of detail and structural pattern, whatever it may have done to aid the course of civilization in the author’s own country, most certainly marked a chapter in the history of modern prose fiction. For in Dubliners Joyce seized on certain late nineteenth-century developments in English prose fiction and made of them the instrument of an art that was both experimental and markedly enabling for his own development as a writer. And in so doing he demonstrated the literary significance of the short story as an artistic form of remarkable economy and charged implication.

The description of Dubliners as a work of “ostensible realism” is inspired: these are stories that traffic in the kind of rigorous specificity of names, locales, classes, and social habits that would appear, eight years later, fully exploded in Ulysses, though the stories in Joyce’s collection do not evince the surface chaos and unconventionality of that great novel. They are, however, charged with language that is heavily laden with symbolic intent and resonance.

The first character we are introduced to in “The Dead,” for example, is named Lily. She is, on the level of story, the daughter of the caretaker in the house of Miss Kate and Miss Julia, two upper-crust women who throw an annual party around New Year’s for select members of Dublin society. In a story called “The Dead,” however – a story that is all about rites of passage, mourning, and the grief and anguish of loss – the name Lily cannot help but call to mind the flowers traditionally arrayed at a funeral.

As Brown points out in his notes to the story, lilies are also associated with the Archangel Gabriel, who in the Bible is the angel who appears before Mary to announce to her that she has been chosen to be the virgin mother to the child Jesus. Is it little wonder, then, that the protagonist of “The Dead,” also named Gabriel, should work as a professor and a journalist, both professions that transform their practitioners into messengers of a sort?

Gabriel is also charged with acting as a messenger at Miss Kate and Miss Julia’s party: he has been instructed to deliver an address during dinner, something he frets over because he worries about speaking in elevated tones or making references his audience will not be sophisticated enough to understand: “He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they could recognise from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better.”

Gabriel’s intellectual snobbery, which has been fostered and encouraged, we are told, by his time spent travelling in Europe, is mirrored by the other guests, who engage in a dismissive discussion of the opera, during which one participant, Mr. Browne, proclaims that the great operas are no longer performed because there is no one of sufficient ability left to sing them. (Except, the company decides, for Caruso; they ironically name the most popular tenor of the time, someone even the hoi polloi would have heard of.)

This discussion is extended in Gabriel’s speech at the table, which connects the idea of a more recondite, bygone era to the notion of death and dying:

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.

This valediction takes on ironic overtones late in the story, when it becomes clear that Gabriel’s wife, Gretta, is pining for an old flame, “a boy in the gasworks” by the name of Michael Furey. (Unsurprisingly, Gabriel’s rival for Gretta’s affection also has the name of an Archangel, in this case the one who in Catholic theology is considered the warrior.) If Gabriel is willing to remember the “great ones” of history – the stalwarts of literature, art, and music – whose memory “the world will not willingly let die,” this prospect becomes much more difficult when the deceased is his wife’s former lover, a labourer at that. Gabriel mentions Shakespeare as a simple reference his dinner audience might understand; it is no accident that the play he conjures up in his mind at one point in the story is Romeo and Juliet – that is, the quintessential story of doomed lovers.

The famous final lines of “The Dead” find Gabriel contemplating the falling snow, which is gently covering the land, including the cemetery where Michael Furey lies buried. “It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. 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.” Here we come full circle to the notions of death implied in the story’s opening, only now the subject is entirely explicit, and laden with heavy melancholy. Without the reader even realizing it, Joyce has navigated his apparently plotless story through the kind of emotional manoeuvres that anticipate Modernism’s more fully realized stream-of-consciousness approach. In so doing, by straddling the old world and the new, Joyce is in fact enacting the very themes his story addresses. It is a virtuoso performance that remains, one hundred years later, one of the greatest short stories in the English language.

Comments

One Response to “31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 31: “The Dead” by James Joyce”
  1. Alex says:

    Congratulations Steve! Time to get working on 2015.