Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Dead by James Joyce-read in observation of Bloomsday

"The Dead" by James Joyce (1914, in his The Dubliners, 45 pages, read  at

Ulysses by James Joyce (1888-1941 Dublin) takes place on June 16, 1904.    Every year for a long time now Bloomsday (Leopold Bloom was the central character of the book) is observed in Dublin and elsewhere by oral readings of parts or even all of Ulysses in marathon sessions.       In observation of this day I decided to read his story, "The Dead".    I have also started to read Ulysses on   At the pace I have set for myself it should take about sixty days.   I read it once long ago but I want to experience it again in the context of my recent readings of Woolf, Ford, and Mansfield.

Whether or not Ulysses is the greatest novel of the 20th century is a matter of literary taste.   Vladimir Nabokov, whose Lectures on Reading I am now being edified by, says it is.    If you love it, if you hate it, or if you see it as  a work that can be read only by those with a serious literary education and lots of reading time,  it cannot be denied its place as the most influential novel of the 20th century (and so far nothing has come along in the 21th century to threaten this position).    About two months ago I began to overcome a life time misguided aversion to the short story as a literary form.   As I began to read various authors I decided I would read the very best short stories first so I would have something to compare others with.    In doing a lot of Google searches on "best short stories of all time" in numerous variation, James Joyce's "The Dead" came up over and over.  

"The Dead" is not written in an experimental style that you  need a hypertext guide to follow. It has a plot, a beginning and end.     It is set in 1904 at a party given every year by the Moran sisters.   The central character is Gabriel Conway.   Gabriel seems fairly well read, he likes Robert Browning, he is self conscious, reflective and seems a good man.   He is also tentative and does not quite feel comfortable in the company of others.   In his conversations with others at the party, most of whom seem his social inferiors in his eyes, he uses the standard bits of Irish nationalism to come up with something to say.     His wife Gretta came to the party with him but he did not seem to pay much attention to her.   He sees an attractive looking woman sitting on the stairs and it takes a moment for him to realize it is his wife deep in thought.    I do not like spoilers myself so I will stop here but Gabriel does achieve an epiphany that may change the rest of his life and his marriage.   I will quote from the opening of the story to give a glimpse of his style:

He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they would recognise from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better. The indelicate clacking of the men's heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his. He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would think that he was airing his superior education.

He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry. He had taken up a wrong tone. His whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure.

As the story advances  the prose becomes increasingly  more and more beautiful until the last few sentences in which Gabriel achieves his epiphany and we read some of the most beautiful lines in the English language.    It is as if the progression of the prose is pushing us to our own epiphany.    The story ends in the snow as Gabriel requires the cold now as maybe we readers do also.   

In summery,  do not think this story is "hard' or readable only by the seriously over-educated.    "The Dead" is an open work, enjoyable to read and it is fun to feel you are at a country party in Ireland in 1904.   I think once I have completed reading the short stories of Mansfield and Woolf I will then read the rest of the stories in The Dubliners.  

I thank DS of Third Story Window  for suggesting I read this story.    If anyone has any  suggestions as to short stories I might like please leave a comment-thanks

Mel u


Laura Kozy Lanik said...

HI Mel U,
I am here to present you with a Blogging AWARD. Come and pick it up at

Suko said...

Mel, you are a connoisseur of short stories, and provide yet another astute suggestion. I have a copy of Dubliners (from my college days)--maybe it's time to to open it up again.

Mel u said...

Booksnob-thank you very much-I am honored

Suko-thanks-I will read Dubliners latter in the year I hope

Chelle said...

Nice review! The protagonist is such a snob! He makes me laugh but I feel sorry for him, too. He just doesn't know how to relax and appreciate what he has.