26 pages 52 minutes read

James Joyce

The Dead

Fiction | Novella | Adult | Published in 1914

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Dead”

“The Dead” is a short story by Irish writer James Joyce. The story is a part of Joyce’s renowned Dubliners collection, first published in 1914, which portrays daily life in the Irish city of Dublin in the early 20th century. In “The Dead,” a literary young man attends a party with his wife. The events at the party prompt him to reflect on his life and his place in the universe. The short story has been adapted for theater, music, and film. This guide uses an eBook copy of the 2004 Barnes & Noble edition of Dubliners.

Kate and Julia Morkan host a party around the time of the Christian celebration of Epiphany. Each year, the party is thrown “in splendid style” (373). They invite their friends and family, including their nephew Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta. Gabriel is a teacher and, occasionally, a book reviewer. He is the favorite nephew of Kate and Julia; they eagerly await the arrival of Gabriel and Gretta, though the couple is running late. A servant named Lily greets the other guests as they arrive. When Gabriel and Gretta finally reach the party, Gabriel explains that they are late because Gretta “takes three mortal hours to dress herself” (375). Lily awkwardly welcomes them into the house. She does not want to answer Gabriel's questions about her “young man” (376). Feeling embarrassed, he tries to tip Lily, but she tries to refuse his money. Gabriel enters the house, still thinking about the speech he will need to deliver to the other guests. He is anxious not only because of his encounter with Lily but because his speech is heavy with literary references which he fears may be lost on his audience, thereby making him seem “ridiculous” (377).

Gabriel finds his aunts talking to Gretta. Their warmth helps him to relax as he is “their favorite nephew” (377), though they tease him about his choice of footwear. Gabriel explains that he and Gretta have booked a hotel room in the city rather than travel all the way home immediately, which the aunts agree is “by far the best thing to do” (379). Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of Freddy Malins. As Kate and Julia feared, Freddy is drunk. Gabriel interjects, checking with Freddy to ensure that he is just about sober enough not to cause a scene at the party. Meanwhile, the other guests talk, drink, and dance. Mr. Browne is a mature man who attempts to dance with young girls, insisting that he is “the man for the ladies” (380). Gabriel seeks out his help, asking him to help Freddy get his head straight.

In “the hushed drawing-room” (382), the party guests listen to Mary Jane play the piano. Mary Jane is a niece of Kate and Julia who lives with her aunts after her father's death. As he listens to the music, Gabriel thinks about his mother and her “sullen opposition to his marriage” (383). Gabriel, now free of Freddy, dances with “a frank-mannered talkative young lady” (384) named Miss Ivors. As they dance, Miss Ivors talks about her interest in Irish nationalism. She teases Gabriel for his lack of patriotism as he writes book reviews for a conservative newspaper. Gabriel rejects her claim that he is a “West Briton” (384); Miss Ivors invites Gabriel to prove his patriotic credentials by joining her at an Irish-speaking summer “excursion” (385) in the Aran Isles. Gabriel politely declines, explaining that he has a European vacation planned and that “Irish is not [his] language” (386). When Miss Ivors again chides his lack of interest in his own country, Gabriel explains that he is “sick” (386) of Ireland. When the dances finish, he retreats to a corner of the room. Though he talks to other people, he cannot shake Miss Ivors’s words from his head.

As dinner is being prepared, Julia entertains the guests with a song. Gabriel looks through the window at the falling snow and thinks “how much more pleasant” (388) the outside seems. Much to Gabriel’s relief, Miss Ivors makes her excuses and leaves for the evening. She declines his offer to walk her home and then worries that he is “the cause of her abrupt departure” (391). Mary Jane and Gretta are surprised to see her go so early. When the food is ready, the guests sit down for dinner. Gabriel takes the place of honor at the head of the table. He carves the goose and the guests begin to eat. During dinner, they talk about opera singers and monks who sleep in coffins “to remind them of their last end” (395). At last, the time comes for Gabriel to give his speech. He stands “nervously” (396) and thanks his hosts and praises their hospitality, which he claims is a hallmark of Irish culture. However, he shares his concern that such “qualities” (397) are lacking in the modern age. People no longer value hospitality, he believes. Nevertheless, Gabriel continues, they should not dwell on the past. He does not want to waste his life thinking about the dead. Instead, he wants to live in the present and celebrate the living. The guests cheer, raising their glasses to Kate, Julia, and Mary Jane.

The party draws to a close. As the guests depart, Gabriel tells a story about his grandfather. His grandfather, he explains, once owned a horse which worked in a mill. Even when the horse left the mill, the horse followed its years of experience and continued to walk “round and round” (401) in small circles around a statue in Dublin. As he finishes his story, he realizes that a man named Mr. Bartell D’Arcy is singing a song in the drawing room. Gabriel sees that his wife Gretta is fascinated by the song; he is “surprised at her stillness” (402). Bartell finishes and, as the song ends, the other guests prepare to leave. Gretta still seems distant, as though she is still thinking about the song. As they leave, Gabriel ponders why his wife seems so struck by a random song. He remembers their early romantic life as they exit and he feels “proud, joyful, tender, valorous” (404). He wants to “remember only their moments of ecstasy” (405). They take a taxi back to the city of Dublin and to their hotel.

Gabriel and Gretta settle into their hotel room. Gabriel feels “a keen pang of lust” (406) toward his wife but he becomes increasingly annoyed with Gretta. He longs “to be master of her strange mood” (407). His romantic memories prompt him to draw close to her, but she pushes him away. As he tries to coax her into a physical embrace, she begins to cry. In an “outburst of tears” (408), Gretta admits that she cannot stop thinking about Bartell’s song. She remembers when she was a young girl in Galway; a young man named Michael Furey once sang that same song to her. They were romantically linked, and Michael stood in the cold outside her window and sang to her. However, Michael is now dead. Gabriel is ashamed of his lusty thoughts now that he knows about his wife’s hidden grief. Gretta explains that Michael sang to her on a cold night when he was already ill. She fears that his devotion to her is what killed him and lays sobbing on the bed.

Eventually, Gretta is able to fall asleep. Gabriel cannot rest. He cannot stop thinking about Gretta and Michael, how “a man had died for her sake” (411). Everything in his life seems inconsequential and absurd next to his wife’s grief, and he wonders how she seems almost like a different person now. He lays on the hotel bed and watches through the window as the snow falls. Gabriel imagines the snow falling all over Ireland, covering everything in a thick white blanket. He imagines the snow falling on the grave of Michael Furey, as well as “all the living and the dead” (412).