The Meaning of Death in “The Dead” by James Joyce

Category: Death
Last Updated: 20 Jun 2022
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“The Dead” is a story written by James Joyce as a part of the collection that was later on entitled as Dubliners. It is the last story that he composed but certainly was one of the first stories on the “rivalry between the living and the dead. ” It is considered to be one of the best written stories and account of Ireland in terms of the city’s geographical, historical, and political details. It is even said that most of the local references are “painstakingly exact” as that of the original scenarios in an everyday Dublin life (Joyce, 2008).

While the title of the story suggests gloomy scenes such as a funeral or a wake ceremony, a first reading of the story would tell us that the story is all about an annual Christmas gathering where friends and old friends meet to catch up with everything that is happening in their lives. However, if we look at the story real deep, we will notice that the story really revolves into the characters of the couple Gabriel and Gretta Conroy. Like all the other couples in the said party, Gabriel and Gretta are an epitome of a happy couple.

It can be said that the love of Gabriel to Gretta is so great that instead of traveling home from the party, they decided to stay in a hotel because he was afraid that she might be ill due to the weather. Gretta, on one hand, is giving back the love that she receives from Gabriel. This is evident in the couple’s treatment of each other in the Christmas gathering. However, there is something in the party that made Gretta feel strange. This is when she heard the song that reminds him of a boy she once fallen in love with. It was a young boy I used to know, she answered, named Michael Furey. He used to sing that song, The Lass of Aughrim. He was very delicate (Joyce, 2008). ” Gretta confessed this while they were in the hotel room that they rented to stay for a night when Gabriel is anticipating a romantic night with his wife. At first he felt really jealous. Furthermore, he inquired into the very nature of their relationship. Gretta confessed everything that made Gabriel angry at one moment.

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He even suspected that the reason why Gretta would want to that one place is because she wanted to see her first love. However, as the narration progresses, which speaks of Michael Furey’s death by reason of Gretta herself, his anger ebbed to the point of it being replaced with an epiphany in relation to love, death, and the past. He then realized that lost loves are the most difficult thing to let go in ones lifetime (Joyce, 2008). So she had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake.

It hardly ained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life. He watched her while she slept, as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife. His curious eyes rested long upon her face and on her hair: and, as he thought of what she must have been then, in that time of her first girlish beauty, a strange, friendly pity for her entered his soul. He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful, but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death (Joyce, 2008).

This epiphany leads Gabriel to recall and reflect on the speech that he had delivered in the party: his idea that the past is dead and that it should be buries in oblivion because it will just bring memories that would either hurt them or impair their anticipation of the future. In the words of Gabriel, “There are always in gatherings such as this sadder thoughts that will recur to our minds: thoughts of the past, of youth, of changes, of absent faces that we miss here tonight. Therefore, I will not linger in the past. I will not let any gloomy moralising intrude upon us here tonight (Joyce, 2008).

However, he also enunciated his admiration of the past especially of the old values of tradition and love in which he said that “a thought-tormented age: and sometimes I fear that this new generation, educated or hypereducated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity, of hospitality, and kindly humour which belonged to the older day (Joyce, 2008). ” Therefore, the idea of death that the story is trying to paint to us is the death of old traditions and values that are still living to those who have experienced such in the past like that of Gretta.

The death in the story is the deterioration of values that the Irish are known for that Gabriel mentioned in his speech. However, this is an irony because while he talked about the old values that should be retained, he himself is not doing his part in this endeavor of preserving the old Irish values and tradition. As observed by Ms. Ivors, he has become a West Briton because he prefers to travel to places like France, and Germany instead of seeing the countryside of Ireland. He denounced his own place of birth in exchange for the West and rejected his own native language.

The West, even though, more industrialized than Dublin, is still a land of ghost and a land of unhappy things. The West is a place “where the ghost of the past have a terrible hold on the living, where tradition leads to bigoted religion and terrorism (Hodgart, 1978). The death can also be attributed to a death of the traditional love that everybody would want to have. In the story, while it is evident that Gabriel loves Gretta, his love for her is limited to that of the physical love. When they were in the hotel, all he can think of was a romantic night with her.

Like distant music these words that he had written years before were borne towards him from the past. He longed to be alone with her. When the others had gone away, when he and she were in the room in the hotel, then they would be alone together (Joyce, 2008). ” However, after Gretta had told him the story of Michael Furey, he felt very small and inadequate. This is for the reason that his love to Gretta is nothing compared to that of the love of Furey. After hearing the story, he was quick to realize that his love for her is limited and not the kind of love that she has expected of him.

His love is so puny to the love that Michael Furey has given his wife. He cannot in any way give up his life just for his love for Gretta. This further suggests that love died along with the death of Furey and that the love that Gabriel offered to Gretta, cannot be considered love in her standards. The image of death in the story is not the same as what we normally perceive, a wake, a funeral, and grief. But the death is on how the glorious past is buried in everyone’s memory that will for a long time or for a lifetime haunt them.

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The Meaning of Death in “The Dead” by James Joyce. (2016, Oct 03). Retrieved from

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