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“The Dead” by James Joyce Essay Sample

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“The Dead” by James Joyce Essay Sample

In the following essay, Garrett offers six perspectives on “The Dead” by applying the principles of six different literary theories.

BIOGRAPHY. Joyce once said of one section of Ulysses, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.” Similarly, he inserted in his writings remnants of his own life and environment, so that scholars scour the details of his experience, and the people and places that he knew, for clues to the meaning of his work.

The most famous example in “The Dead” is the tragic love that Nora Barnacle knew in Galway when she was not quite sixteen years old, before she moved to Dublin, met Joyce, and ran off with him. Joyce was jealous of his dead rival, but Nora remembered the love fondly. In a conversation years later she spoke on the subject of “first love”: “There’s nothing like it. I remember when I was a girl, and a young man fell in love with me, and he came and sang in the rain under an apple-tree outside my window, and he caught tuberculosis and died.”

The dead boy had worked for the local gas company in Galway where Nora then lived. Joyce not only used that part of Nora’s life as a model, but saw Nora as Gretta. He once wrote to Nora: “Do you remember the three adjectives I have used in “The Dead” in speaking of your body. They are these: ‘musical and strange and perfumed.”‘ And the bedroom scene in “The Dead” captures Nora’s character. Ellman says that “these final pages compose one of Joyce’s several tributes to his wife’s artless integrity”; she was “independent, unselfconscious, instinctively right.”

Do we understand “The Dead” better when we know these things? Why not? It seems a narrow and exclusive sense of understanding to deny this. Joyce put in the story his wife, his dead rival, his city, his language, and elements of his national history. You could construct an interpretation of the text that ignored his wife, just as you could construct an interpretation that ignored Dublin, say, or even the English language (could the series of written marks that we call “The Dead” actually be a secret code that can be used by an Italian-speaking accountant in Trieste to record debits and credits?). But why should we want to be so unkind to the Joyces, or to isolate a literary work from the context of its creation? Joyce himself once said, “Imagination is memory.” It would seem unreasonable for me to take my own imaginative interpretation of a literary work seriously without anchoring the interpretation at least in my own memory, and therefore setting it (unless I turn solipsist) in a larger history.

One great difficulty with biographical approaches to art is that we often know so little about the genesis of the work, so little that it is frequently counterproductive to look for personal sources. And our understanding of the work often seems still strangely incomplete even when we think we have found the personal sources. So we often make do with the little that we know, such as that a story is in English, is set in Dublin, and was written in 1907 by a man brought up as a Catholic. There often seems to be a kind of incompleteness to any finite summary of any particular meaning, anyway. And perhaps, given our interests, we do not really need to know too many details from the artist’s life or environment.

DECONSTRUCTION. However, since our needs and interests often respond to and build on incompleteness, we might want to focus on a theory that stresses the phenomenon of incompleteness in the meaning of a text. In what way is a deconstructive approach to “The Dead” useful? Are we helped in understanding the story if we take seriously the principles that meaning is endless signification, that all interpretation is misinterpretation, or that all texts say also the opposite of what they seem to say?

Gabriel thinks: “Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.” Every word here except “wither” occurs elsewhere in Dubliners, and a recent detailed study of the occurrences of the words led to the following conclusion: “in fact, practically every word of Gabriel’s maxim-like sentence is directly or indirectly contradicted by the rest of the text.” The therapy implied in the maxim is thus “purely hypothetical,” a “belated insight” that is “clearly shown to rest on delusive hopes.” Perhaps we do not need an extensive word study like this to sense such a contradiction in the end of the story, but just a glance at the history of interpretation, where some critics have seen death and others rebirth; some mutuality, others personal isolation; some a dissolution of the subject, others a deeply personal reverie.

Shifting, incompatible voices have been found in the narrative, like the “wayward and flickering” spirits that haunt Gabriel’s vision. Allen Tate once said that “the snow is the story.” But it has also been suggested that snow is a suitable symbol for the inclusiveness in the story precisely because the color white encompasses all the contrasting colors of the spectrum. Long ago the Dubliners expert Florence Walzl called Gabriel’s prospective westward journey “one of the most remarkable ambiguities in literature, a conclusion that offers almost opposite meanings, each of which can be logically argued,” although in those days before deconstruction it was felt appropriate to say that the ambiguity at the end of the story “was deliberate on Joyce’s part.”

The ambiguity is also found in reactions to the poetry of the concluding paragraphs of the story. What some see as musical or lyrical beauty, others see as a “highly rhetorical” manner with “narcotic verbal effects” in a passage that fulfills the image of paralysis with which Dubliners begins. Or even possibly as “exaggerated alliteration” in “an overwritten passage that conveys emotional deadness taking its last refuge in sentimentality,” with repetition and syntactical reversal at the end that “are disturbing and create discord, at the very climax of the rising hymn.”

When you survey in the bedroom scene alone the muttering, mumbling, noises, and silences, the interruptions and failures of communication, the immense distances between thought and speech, his “false voice” and her “veiled” voice, “the quaintness of her phrase” and “the failure of his irony,” the “lame and useless” words and the now communicative sound of the snow at the window–it is not hard to see here a meditation on language that would be dear to deconstruction. In hindsight it is possible to see too the maid Lily at the outset of the story taking a step toward the theme of the world as text. “The men that is now,” she said, “is only all palaver and what they can get out of you.” Even Derrida felt “resentment,” although an admiring resentment, at the generalized equivocality of writing in Joyce; “the endless plunge throws you back onto the river-bank, on the brink of another possible immersion, ad infinitum.” Derrida added: “every time I write, and even in the most academic pieces of work, Joyce’s ghost is always coming on board.”

There is a peculiar logical problem in its stance, however. Since no one can list the endless number of separate immersions, we have at any moment a finite list, in which each item is distinguished somewhat from the others. Deconstruction, insofar as it is warranted, thus rests on some distinction, definite-ness of description, and discovered pattern. What structure of language, image, or narrative in “The Dead” lead to the identification of ambiguity? Presumably we do not assume that all of these are themselves ambiguous in every way, or we could not build an argument on them. We could hardly conclude that the story says also the opposite of what it seems to say unless we are able to identify what it actually does seem to say. And if we conclude that, say, the snow is ambiguous, we presuppose not only definite evidence for that but a recognizable nature to the ambiguity. To describe the snow as ambiguous is not the same as to describe it as both-ambiguous-and-non-ambiguous. I think therefore that deconstruction, as a reasoned method, rests on discovery of structure.


How would structuralism work in an interpretation of “The Dead?” We might start, as Lévi-Strauss typically does, with familiar binary contrasts, such as, in this case, old and young, east and west, up and down, silence and sound, cold and warm, and see how these contrasts develop and connect in the course of the story. Connections are sometimes concrete, as when the window relates inside and outside, or the mirror relates the face to its mirror image. Or, we might look at a division based on some principle of sequence or relational context, such as the breaks Joyce inserted between sections of the text, or the dominance of certain characters in different parts of the story. In the bedroom scene we can construct a variation on these approaches which abstracts temporarily from other themes in order to explore what the physical motion of Gabriel and Gretta contributes to the sense of the story.

When Gretta and Gabriel enter the hotel room, she stops before the mirror while he crosses the room to the window, looks out, and turns toward her, leaning on a chest of drawers. She then turns away from the mirror, walks toward him, exchanges a few words with him, and walks beyond him to the window. While she looks out the window, there is another exchange of words; then she comes unnoticed from the window to Gabriel and gives him a kiss. “Perhaps,” he falsely surmises, “her thoughts had been running with his.” He embraces her, but shortly she breaks loose and runs away from him to the bed. Gabriel follows her toward the bed, stopping a few paces away from her. He listens to her story of young Michael Furey and is close enough to her to caress one of her hands. Then he walks back to the window. An hour later Gretta is lying in bed asleep and Gabriel is observing and meditating, first leaning on his elbow, then lying down beside her.

What happened here? She followed him, and passed him; then she passed him again, and he followed her; then he walked away and returned. The structure of movement is that of two separate entities, moving in a single time and space, and in similar, connected patterns, almost chasing one another; but not moving together. When Gretta recalls her early love, she says: “He was very fond of me and he was such a gentle boy. We used to go out together, walking, you know, Gabriel, like the way they do in the country.” Gabriel and Gretta do not walk together, just as their thoughts in fact do not “run” together. At the end she is “fast” asleep, while he swoons “slowly.” The theme of miscom-munication is thus reflected in the structure of movement.

“The Dead” is fertile ground for structuralism, of which this analysis of walking in the hotel room is one small example. Structuralism, although not necessarily in the familiar forms of binary contrasts or analysis of movement, typically contributes in some form or other to the range and utility of other methodologies in literary criticism.

Structuralism floundered, however, on questions of perceptibility and importance. Which structures count in literature, and why? Only those we are
able to perceive? Only those that reflect what we do or ought to value? Are not some “binary contrasts,” for example, just more important than others, given who we are and how we relate to one another? So one important binary contrast that structuralists utilize has taken on a critical life of some independent interest: the contrast of male and female.


There are varieties of feminist approaches to Joyce, variously focused on background or works and mixing various levels of ethical judgment. Some critics, of course, like the statement attributed to Joyce that “the emancipation of women” “has caused the greatest revolution in our time in the most important relationship there is–that between men and women; the revolt of women against the idea that they are the mere instruments of men.” At the turn of the twentieth century, Ireland had already for decades had the lowest marriage rate in the civilized world, and therefore the highest rate of unmarried men and women. Marriage before or at the age of twenty-five was rare, with most men marrying when they were between thirty-five and forty-five years old, and tending to marry women ten years or more younger than themselves.

Florence Walzl presents this data and adds: “The results [for men] of abnormally delayed marriages, of sexual abstinence or guilt over illicit sex, and of long years of primarily male company led many to take a cold-blooded, unromantic view of marriage…. The results for women were often most unhappy. Girls, generally reared with a ladylike abhorrence of sex and with their emotions channeled into a frustrated romanticism, were ill prepared for the realities of marriage.” In “The Dead” Gretta and Gabriel seem to be the only married couple at the party, and, in a general way (disregarding specifics in Walzl’s description), their marriage seems colored by such cold-bloodedness and frustration. The story is in fact sometimes seen as a sequence of troubling encounters between Gabriel and a series of women–first Lily, then Miss Ivors, then Gretta.

The song “The Lass of Aughrim,” which young Michael sang to Gretta, and which Joyce had heard from Nora, is a dialogue between a young woman standing in the rain with a baby, asking to be let in, and Gregory, whom she accuses of being the child’s father but who refuses to recognize her as “the lass of Aughrim.” Gregory demands “tokens” of proof and the young woman provides details. Since the woman sings that “we swapped rings off each other’s hands, / Sorely against my will,” and “you had your will of me,” some feminists have introduced in interpretation the phrase “date rape.” Similarly, a threat of “mate rape” is seen in Gabriel’s angry, sexual desire to “crush” Gretta’s body against his own, “to overmaster her.” It has been said that “The Dead” is tailor-made for feminist interpretation.

As with other literary theories, though, a single heuristic can be misleading as well as suggestive. In “The Lass of Aughrim” the sequence of verses alternates with accusation and doubt, and Gregory interestingly does not challenge the general sexual accusation; he simply doubts that this is the woman. Is “date rape,” or leaving the woman to stand in the rain, of greater interpretive importance for this song than the momentousness of ambiguity? Some interpretations of “The Dead” have actually omitted from quotation the first clause of Joyce’s sentence reflecting Gabriel’s thinking: “He longed to cry to her from his soul, to crush her body against his, to overmaster her.”

And few critics are bold enough nowadays to even raise the question whether Gretta shares the responsibility for her suffering because she chose to lock her secret in her heart for so many years, to say nothing of the degree to which, if Gabriel is determined by his maleness, that ought to affect judgment of him. Some recent ethics-oriented criticism thus in some ways seems to resemble the older religious criticism, which is, like the feminist, insightful and fruitful, although similarly “thought-tormented.” (“So it is that snow is the perfect symbol for the Christian dead. It is the waters of life in a state of suspension.”)

In any case, feminist approaches do often seem to recognize that they undercut their own success if they neglect or simply stand in conflict with other approaches. The lass of Aughrim could hardly be a wealthy aristocrat struggling for admission to a poor man’s home. Not all “binary contrasts” are equally important, but it hardly seems reasonable in life or art to emphasize just one. And of course, as Walzl points out, the famine and poverty of nineteenth-century Ireland contributed to the suffering of women such as those Joyce describes.


What leads Gabriel to want to cry out to Gretta and “overmaster” her? Talk about money, that he cannot help taking; in fact, it is talk about a “sovereign,” which is both money and politics. That is what gets Gabriel the “generous” kiss. It is Christmas time, but Christmas is mentioned in the hotel room only as an occasion for a shop that sells cards. The hotel setting is a similar commercialization of the marital bedroom; Gabriel realizes he is a “pennyboy” for his aunts and reflects how “poor” a part he has played in Gretta’s life. Michael Furey worked for the gas company; perhaps, it has been suggested, in the young man’s job of shoveling coal for coal-gas, which could contribute to the illness that kept him from a singing career and brought his early death.

Presumably there was something in his experience that led him to tell Gretta that “he did not want to live.” In the ballad of “The Lass of Aughrim,” suffering is turned into ambiguity and the pleasure of music. Likewise, Gretta’s tragic young love becomes a romantic story for the book reviewer and critic Gabriel. “So she had had that romance in her life,” he thinks, “a man had died for her sake.” In view of the reverie that follows, in which, as in the ballad, suffering seems to be assimilated to aestheticism, there is something to be said for the need to “decode the bourgeois agenda of the narrative voice,” and even for the claim that “Joyce dramatizes in ‘The Dead’ the politics of art’s determination to conceal its own politically oppressive functions.”

A logical difficulty with this view, however, is suggested by the question of how art can effectively dramatize what it is determined to conceal. If the story is perceived as a drama of this sort, it seems the story then has no such concealing function. The problem is similar to the one we noticed in deconstruction, when taken as a reasoned general theory; the theory is undermined by its own evidence. The critical methods and insights of Marx-ism are often shrewd and valuable, as in the case of deconstruction, despite epistemological difficulties of this sort.

But there is an obvious danger in one easy, elitist solution to the logical problem–the solution that claims that there really is concealment in art because the ignorant masses do not realize they are duped, so that a few capable people (presumably exempt from superstructural self-deception) must elect themselves to educate the rest. It is well to remember that Gabriel’s reverie, in which suffering is assimilated to aestheticism, is that of a literary critic, not an artist. There seems paradoxically to be such an aestheticism in the Marxist critic’s play with political language that is diverted from the effort and risk of serious political conflict, and that, by its conceptual abstraction, in fact floats at a distance from the artistic work. Self-criticism is not Marxism’s strong suit.

Consider the point in “The Dead” when Gabri-el sees himself as a “pitiable fatuous fellow.” A Marxist response is as follows: “The moment is one when false consciousness gives way to a potentially revolutionary insight, when the masks of ideology are lowered.” In view of the multiple, shifting perspectives in Joyce, is it really so obvious which ones are “true” and which ones are “false”? Does everyone get to vote on where to draw the line, including people like those in the story who find Gabriel helpful and appreciate his speech at the party? Are perspectives or ideologies really like “masks,” that can all be removed at once to reveal the true face? The certainty about truth and falsehood, which is introduced into literary criticism from external sources, has the unfortunate consequence that Marxism, by its own reasoning, often becomes one more ideology that art is not allowed to test or challenge. Thus it imposes on itself a separation from art.

The logic of this situation can be illustrated by the fact that “The Lass of Aughrim” has a version that does not speak of “Lord Gregory” but simply of “Gregory.” Is that version of the song devoid of class consciousness, to a fault? Or is it rather evidence that significant conflicts between men and women are sometimes unexplained by Marxist concepts of class structure, and that these concepts are therefore of limited value? One thing that seems needed is a psychology of concealment that recognizes its immense human and social complexity.


It is easy to tack psychoanalysis on to this list of literary theories, since we have been talking about many of its interests: the author’s background; miscommunication and psychic repression; walking around and talking instead of sex in a bedroom; concealment and sublimation; a dream-like reverie and a death-wish. Walzl describes the “maternal domination of both daughters and sons” in Irish society. She quotes a statement that the “Irishman is the world’s prime example of the Oedipus complex,” and adds: “Joyce knew this type well.” We do learn in “The Dead” that Gabriel’s mother was considered by one of her sisters to be the “brains carrier” of the Morkan family, that she is the one who gave Gabriel and his brother Constantine their distinctive names, and that some of her sons’ professional achievements were realized “thanks to her.”

Perhaps she is the one who taught her sons to read, for there is a picture Gabriel notices at the party that shows her pointing out something to young Constantine in an open book, a photograph that critics have noticed is a cropped version of a family photograph that includes Joyce and his own mother in the same pose. Presumably there is some psychological source or mechanism for the artist’s selection of elements from the environment, for one’s fascination with language, for the structures one identifies, and for the oppressions one creates or suffers; and Joyce seems to have thought of these issues along some psychoanalytic lines.

Gabriel also is made to remember at the party his dead mother’s “sullen opposition” to his marriage with Gretta. Is it reasonable to say that “with ‘The Dead,’ Joyce breaks with his need to identify with the father and authoritatively fix the meaning of the mother?” Or that Gabriel has an “oppressive superego,” i.e., is “a thrall to the ghosts of his parents?” Psychoanalysis is another fruitful approach to “The Dead,” although, as with some of the other approaches, the technical external terminology often adds little to perception and in fact, as illustrated by the abstract conclusions I have quoted, introduces another unfortunate dimension of critical self-assurance.


This sample of critical approaches is sketchy and incomplete, but perhaps useful still for some broader reflections.

First, each of these approaches has its strengths and each, taken in isolation, seems about as good and as bad as the others in accommodating “The Dead.” This should not be surprising, since I have deliberately chosen one useful story for illustration, and a complex, much-studied story at that. There are also insightful interpretations of this story that utilize very different perspectives, from Irish mythology to the effect of structure and pace on the reader’s response. Perhaps the critical history of the story would now permit an equally successful historical hermeneutics, in which the various approaches could be seen and evaluated as links between Joyce and the various social or moral cultures of his readers.

There is a detailed recent study of the story which finds “all major film techniques” in it, such as varying focal lengths, flashbacks, soft focus, dissolves, zooms, backlighting, and the rest. “The Dead” (the story, not the movie) contains “six sequences, fourteen scenes, and one hundred and eighty-four shots,” with a certain pattern in the “Average Number of Words per Shot.” One earlier reading referred to a “dialectical form” in the story, like that of Plato’s Theaetetus, and suggested that you might call “The Dead” “the narrative equivalent of a Platonic dialogue.” Well, why not? Perhaps not the equivalent. But there is something to the comparison with Platonic dialogue.

Second, the utility of diverse theories in interpretation does not imply the simultaneous truth of all the claims in the theoretical inventory. One critic says “the central question of the text” is “whether or not art serves a political function”; another that “the story’s major commitment is to noise, to noise as social disturbance and cosmic disorder, the two functions performed by D’Arcy’s singing”; and a third that the “irreverence of Joyce’s depiction of Epiphany Day nineteen centuries later is the crucial element of ‘The Dead.”‘ It seems to me that there is not a clear enough conception of evidence or a clear enough formulation of principles to warrant any of these conclusions. The same applies to several other interpretive claims we have encountered, partly because they are often influenced by ideas uncritically imported from other fields of interest or inquiry.

Even apart from the exclusivist claims of some critics there is a conflict of emphasis among the different approaches, versions of each often needing some puncturing of rhetorical pretension. It was a rare pleasure to read in John Kelleher’s brilliant and groundbreaking study of “The Dead” the following qualification: “I consider almost nothing of what I have spoken of today as primary to the story. It is all atmospherics. . . .” In any description or interpretation, emphasis occurs in some context and for some purpose, and need not be construed to assert its own priority for all other contexts. Whether one theory is better than another depends in part on one’s interpretive goals, which have not been, and probably cannot be, managed into a single universal goal.

Third, the different approaches, even taken as heuristics rather than universal theory, often mix with and depend on one another far more than I have indicated. The structuralist can quote documents from Joyce’s biography, the Marxist may draw insights from psychoanalysis, the feminist could study the impact of incompleteness of meaning on the status of women. Moreover, in some contexts it seems futile to claim discovery of fundamental intentions or causes, not only because of individual, social, or artistic complexity, but because the very notion of “cause” is a relative and interpretive concept, an agency for construing recognizable situations in a manageable way, or perhaps for changing them. The same event may have many “causes,” none intrinsically more fundamental than the others.

It may not even be heuristically useful to modulate the various competing interpretations of “The Dead” into one consistent, umbrella interpretation, except to deflate the pretensions of the individual theories. For the interpretive competition is productive; even the logical inconsistencies found in a single theory, may help it to be suggestive and fruitful in construing art. It is a familiar notion that teaching students of literature to read and understand could well use all of the critical approaches we have glanced at, and more. The complexity of “The Dead” can help us appreciate why. Since my own view of the individual theoretical approaches to literature is pragmatic and skeptical, I am personally taken by Gretta’s honest recognition of limitation in knowledge, regarding something as important in her life as Michael’s illness: “He was in decline, they said, or something like that. I never knew rightly.”

Source: Roland Garrett, “Six Theories in the Bedroom of ‘The Dead’,” in Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 16, No. 1, April, 1992, pp. 115-27.

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