The Barren Lives of The Dead
"One day he caught a fish, a beautiful big big fish, and the man in the hotel boiled it for their dinner" (p.191). Little did Mrs. Malins know that those words issued from her feeble old lips so poignantly described the insensibility of the characters in James Joyce's The Dead toward their barren lives. The people portrayed in this novelette represented a wealthy Irish class in the early twentieth century, gathered at the house of the Morkan sisters for an annual tradition of feast and dance. Although all of the personages had, at one point, a potential for a beautiful life, sad memories of the past and the despair that invaded Ireland had eventually boiled all true senses and desires into a dull stew, destined to rot. Of particular interest is Gabriel Conroy, whom Joyce singularly bestowed a gift of introspection, though that did not save him from becoming yet another of the living dead.
Gabriel, a respectable middle-aged professor and writer, wished for an escape, but did not search for one. It was this passivity and resistance to change, like the "beeswax under the heavy chandelier"(p.186), that eventually solidified into the wall which he had not the courage to oppose. He felt himself a "pennyboy for his aunts"(p.220), the hostesses of the congregation, a victim of his own inability to "feel and show the excitement of swift and secure flight"(p.193). In contrast, Miss Molly Ivors, a professor of politics and Gabriel's academic equal, possessed this capability of escaping obligations, as she departed from the gathering before dinner was served, "quite well able to take care of [her]self"(p.195). In this respect, Miss Ivors differed from the rest of the characters because she depended on no one, and no one depended on her. Somehow she had managed to elude the pervasive memories of the dead, "whose fame the world will not willingly let die"(p.203), thus allowing her a free life all her own, not encumbered by obligations or sadness. Gabriel had stayed too long, and he felt "more strongly with every recurring year"(p.202) that his responsibility toward others, such as his aunts, would eventually strangle him.
Another factor that led up to Gabriel's tragic circumstances was his constant fear of the reactions of others. Instead of revealing his true feelings for Ireland, he prevaricated by saying "the tradition of genuine warm-hearted courteous Irish hospitality...is still alive among us"(p.203), when he had remarked just before that he was "sick of [his] own country"(p.189) while conversing with Miss Ivors. In fact, all of the characters were in denial of the problems that had fallen upon them, like the "snow falling faintly through the universe"(p.223). Aunts Kate and Julia, for instance, fretted over the effect a drunk Freddy Malins, their nephew, would have on the music pupils of Mary Jane, their niece, instead of trying to rectify the true problem, his alcoholism. Gabriel was fearful of communicating his genuine feelings of love toward his wife, lest she refuse him. As a result, they had grown distant, almost as though "he and she had never lived together as man and wife"(p.222). Moreover, the love he felt for Gretta, his "country cute"(p.187) aged wife, was, in reality, a collection of memories of "their secret life together"(p.219) from long ago, not the "years of their dull existence together"(p.213) that was then. Gabriel was paralyzed into a destitute life partly because of a weakness in recognizing his own talents. He had little faith in his abilities as an orator, considering his speech "an utter failure"(p.179), just as he doubted his worth in his own marriage, with a wife that "had locked in her heart for so many years"(p.223) the image of a former lover, then dead.
There were many reasons for the empty life of Gabriel Conroy, but it was his passiveness, lack of emotional courage, and low self-respect that ultimately resulted in the loss of his personal identity. He had been surrounded his whole life by a "ghostly light"(p.216) of sad memories and death, emanating from the hearts of the people with whom he had had the closest contact, which eventually suffocated his own identity "into a grey impalpable world"(p.223). The whole country of Ireland was covered in the "silver and dark"(p.223) snowflakes of death, and the Mr. Browne's of the world, who reminisced of great singers long gone and hid their true senses under countenances of false gallantry, were everywhere. All of the characters in The Dead contributed to a viscous web that made escape virtually impossible for Gabriel, for "one by one they were all becoming shades"(p.222) of the "region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead"(p.223). They were all fishes in an icy cold pond, acting their parts and waiting for the day they would be caught and boiled for dinner.
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