The Dead by James Joyce is one of the most haunting short stories ever written.
Read it – and we guarantee you that you’ll end up listening “The Lass of Aughrim” on repeat.
Who Should Read “The Dead”? And Why?
If you have never read anything from Joyce – shame on you if that’s the case! – then “The Dead” (available here) is the best place to start.
If you’re keen on high literature, we’re almost certain that the story will get you hooked up on Joyce!
If that’s the case, then move on to reading the rest of the short stories in “Dubliners,” after which you should be all but prepared for “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”
And then – on to the mountaintop: “Ulysses.”
(We’ve never read “Finnegans Wake” either. And we don’t think we’ll ever be prepared for that. But, who knows?)
James Joyce Biography
James Joyce was an Irish author, widely regarded as the most important modernist and the most influential writer of the past century.
He is best known as the author of “Ulysses,” but his other two novels, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and “Finnegans Wake,” are critically acclaimed as well, the latter one still an untranslatable puzzle for numerous fascinated readers.
His short story collection, “Dubliners,” (from where “The Dead” comes) is also universally revered.
The main protagonist of “The Dead,” Gabriel Conroy is a professor and a part-time book reviewer, married to Gretta.
At the beginning of the story, the couple arrives late to the annual Christmas “dance and dinner” party, traditionally hosted by Gabriel’s aunts, Kate and Julia Morkan, who all but adore their nephew.
Gabriel has a rather awkward encounter with Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, after which he goes upstairs and joins the party.
He is a bit anxious about the speech he is obliged to give, especially in light of the fact that he has opted for using some academic references he fears may be too much for his audience.
Soon after, Freddy Malins, a friend of Gabriel, arrives, and – as everybody is all but sure even before his arrival – he is drunk.
Aunt Kate asks Gabriel to help him and make sure that he is all right; Gabriel obliges.
The party moves on, and, during the piano performance of Mary Jane Morkan (Kate and Julia Morkan’s niece), Gabriel is paired up in a dance with Miss Ivors, an Irish nationalist.
She scolds him for publishing a weekly literary column in the “The Daily Express,” a Unionist newspaper, embarrassing Gabriel by labeling him a “West Briton,” i.e., someone who supports the cause of an English-ruled Ireland.
Gabriel adamantly refuses the designation, but seemingly has no arguments to back his position, especially after declining a summer visit to the Aran Islands for a trip to “France or Belgium or perhaps Germany.”
– And why do you go to France and Belgium, said Miss Ivors, instead of visiting your own land?
– Well, said Gabriel, it’s partly to keep in touch with the languages and partly for a change.
– And haven’t you your own language to keep in touch with – Irish? asked Miss Ivors.
– Well, said Gabriel, if it comes to that, you know, Irish is not my language.
When pressed further, Gabriel tells Miss Ivors that he’s sick of his own country, and when he offers no reason for his detestation, Miss Ivors whispers “West Briton” into his ear once again.
Needless to say, this encounter leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of Gabriel which doesn’t go away for the rest of the evening.
In fact, the feeling becomes even worse after Gabriel tries recounting the story to his wife, who, in turn, expresses a desire to visit her childhood home of Galway.
Gabriel retreats to himself and starts thinking about his speech and the snow outside, contemplating “how much more pleasant it would be [outside] than at the supper-table!”
After Julia Morkan sings a song for the guests, and Miss Ivors surprisingly decides to leave (to the relief of Gabriel), it is announced that the dinner is ready.
Gabriel assumes his place at the head of the table and carves the goose.
The guests dine while discussing music and monks.
Once most of them are full, Gabriel can finally begin his speech, in which he compares his aunts and Mary Jane with the three Graces from Greek mythology, praising the values of Irish hospitality in this “skeptical and… thought-tormented age.”
The speech ends with a toast to the hosts and a rendition of “For they are jolly gay fellows.”
As the guests begin to leave, Gabriel recounts an anecdote about the horse of his grandfather, which supposedly went on walking in circles even when taken out of the mill.
After finishing his story and while preparing to leave, Gabriel realizes that his wife is transfixed by the sound of “The Lass of Aughrim,” sung by Bartell D’Arcy, a famous and retired tenor, in the drawing room.
Gretta remains thoughtful even after she and her husband leave for the hotel where they are staying for the night.
Gabriel’s excitement and expectations are shattered into smithereens when, instead of replying to his advances, Gretta bursts into tears.
When pressed by Gabriel about the reason behind them, Gretta claims that she is thinking about “The Lass of Aughrim” and “a person long ago who used to sing that song.”
And that person is Michael Furey, “a delicate boy” who died at the age of 17 while courting Gretta in the winter and in the rain, though already sick and pale:
I was in my grandmother’s house in Nuns’ Island, packing up, and I heard gravel thrown up against the window. The window was so wet I couldn’t see, so I ran downstairs as I was and slipped out the back into the garden and there was the poor fellow at the end of the garden, shivering…
I implored of him to go home at once and told him he would get his death in the rain. But he said he did not want to live. I can see his eyes as well as well! He was standing at the end of the wall where there was a tree.
After finishing her story, Gretta falls asleep.
The Dead Epilogue
Gabriel is shocked that only now he hears for the first time of something so significant in the life of his wife: “a man had died for her sake.”
As he watches Gretta sleeping, he starts musing philosophically about death and the dead, and about his own mortality, and his eyes are suddenly filled with “generous tears.”
A few light taps make him turn to the window.
He stares outside:
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.
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Our Critical Review
Considered one of the greatest short stories ever written by none other than T. S. Eliot, “The Dead” was just recently dubbed “about the finest short story in the English language.”
And, believe us, it may as well be.
In our opinion, there are only a few (here’s one of them) that have ever come even close.
A masterpiece of the highest order!
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