James Joyce’s “The Dead” is certainly the most famous chapter of Dubliners, the only part made into a Hollywood film. Like the other chapters, it is a short story that can be read on its own. But having recently experienced it with the rest of Dubliners for the first time since the 1980s, I realize that it is most effective in its proper context.
Dubliners depicts a huge sociological range, from a child-molesting vagrant to a rich young heir. But to us, who do not live in Dublin ca. 1900, the characters are all specimens. It is not that they are more parochial or naive than we are. They are just people in a particular setting whom we can observe from afar thanks to the extraordinarily fluent and knowing prose of James Joyce. We are free from their particular narrowness.
“The Dead” is different because Gabriel, alone of all Dubliners’ characters, is our peer. The very first sentence is a solicism: “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.” That is how Lilly would describe her own plight–its grammar distances us. She happens to be running to open the door for Gabriel, who observes her as Joyce would: “Gabriel smiled at the three syllables she had given his surname and glanced at her. She was a slim, growing girl, pale in complexion and with hay-colored hair.” Here the narrator’s style merges with Gabriel’s. The door has opened to admit a knowing observer, our proxy. Gabriel then asks Lilly an insensitive question about her “young man” that he immediately regrets. He stands apart from the social world that he inhabits, as we do.
His task is to give a speech, but
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 would recognise from Shakespeare or the Melodies would be better. The indelicate clacking of the men’s heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his.
I have no Browning by heart; I am not above the men with the clacking heels. But because I read about them from Gabriel’s perspective, which is also Joyce’s, I stand above them for the duration of the story.
One thing unites everyone who lived in Dublin in 1900: they are all dead now. When Joyce wrote, many were still alive, but the future had always been inevitable: they would die while Joyce’s prose still lived. In that respect, the very end of “The Dead” makes it a ghost story. The characters are not literally ghosts, but although we have outlived them–and their author–we can still observe their “wayward and flickering existence”:
Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. 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. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay 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.