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Human Identity in James Joyce's The Dead

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Human Identity in The Dead

 

The short story, "The Dead," is the final story in Dubliners, but it is characteristic of a number of previous stories. In the first story, "The Sisters," a young boy is confronted with the death of an influencing figure in his life. The women in "Eveline" and "Clay" are haunted by death: Eveline, by the memory of her mother, and Maria, by the omen of her own death. "A Painful Case" is the story of the tragic death of a rejected woman. A dead political figure is the basis of "Ivy Day in the Committee Room." All these stories revolve around characters' pains and experiences with death. James Joyce's "The Dead" exhibits the capacity of someone's death to dishearten one in their future relations and experiences.

            This short story gives voice to the emotions of a husband whose wife's romantic tie to a man who died years ago forces him to realize that there is a chapter of his wife's life of which he has no part. Gabriel Conroy and his wife, Gretta, attend the "Misses Morkan's Annual Dance," held by his two aunts, Kate and Julian Morkan. At the dance, Gretta is twice reminded of her past love, Michael Furey. First, a friend invites Gretta and Gabriel to Galway, the place where she had had her relationship with Michael. Secondly, she is reminded by a song sung by Mr. D'Arcy, "The Lass of Aughrim," the song Michael had sung to her on their long walks through the country. Gabriel, oblivious to her affections and anticipating a romantic evening, brings her to a hotel perceiving that "they had escaped from their lives and duties." When he questions Gretta's apathetic mood, she tells him the tragic story of Michael 's illness and how he had revealed to her he no longer wanted to love after heard she must leave. Gabriel is tormented by the dull, pathetic existence he has to offer his wife when another has devoted such deep-felt passion to her even in death.

            The title "The Dead" represents exactly that, people and their memories who have departed before the characters in the story. The dead are a subject in Gabriel's speech at the dinner after the dance. "Were we to brood upon them always we could not find the heart to go on," he says in respect to the deceased. The memories of Kate and Julia Morkan's brother, his horse, and Parkinson, a famous singer, are all mentioned in various conversations at the dance. But, most of all, the title refers to Michael Furey, Gretta's former love. The title pertains to those who most affect our lives after they are gone, "The Dead."

            Gabriel Conroy's amiable character is exemplified by his capacity for affection and his high education. Though he considers the others at the dance to be of a different "grade of culture," he has a general concern for them all. He is concious of his superior education, not wanting his speech to seem a reflection of it. He has a great love and compassion for his wife, wishing he could offer her more than their tiresome life. Rather than be angered by or misinterpreting Gretta's sad situation, he comforts her and restrains from revealing his innermost feelings. Gabriel is a thoughtful, understanding husband through all ordeals and obstacles.

            The change Gabriel experiences is a realization of a life he never knew or could have guessed about his wife. Throughout the evening at his aunts' house, he is ambitious about his relationship with his wife. Yet, Gretta is twice reminded of Michael and she can no longer withhold her emotions; therefore, she must tell Gabriel about the man who died for her. The emotions he bears reshape his perceptions of his marriage, his wife, and his own life. He now realizes what a small impression he has had on his wife in comparison to the impact of a man who had given so much for her love.

            One of the major themes or universal messages of "The Dead" is that a death faced courageously creates a greater impression upon the living than death through progressive decay. This passage demonstrates that theme:

"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." p. 287

 

The glorified death theme is one that people have tried to answer for themselves for centuries. Is it better to live a long, drawn out life than dying in some magnificent act of courage? Religions have tried to answer this question in the past. Old Norse beliefs include a haven for those heroes who have died valiantly in battle, a reward for their bravery. Gabriel is faced with this question when he pictures his Aunt Julia and Michael Furey. Michael had died with passion, while his Aunt Julia will just slowly wither away. Gabriel is concerned he may have this some fate, to die an unremarkable death.

            Dubliners is significant in various literary and intellectual ways. A separation between author and the story is exercised in some stories, so the author must show details in talk and action, rather than making comments, to conjure the intended images and messages. One must rely on personal experiences in order to establish their own sentiments about the significance of the experiences of the characters in the stories. James Joyce makes universal generalizations about human identity through his knowledge of one city, Dublin

 

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