Middle of Nowhere Productions

Middle of Nowhere Productions

Joyce. Dubliners. The dead 1

The Dead

Part 1, pp. 175-196.



The first notable difference between « The dead » and the other stories of Dubliners is its length, of course: fifty pages instead of an average twenty-five. The second is the number of characters present. The story, seen mainly through the eyes of Gabriel Conroy, the main character, contains about ten other important characters in praesentia, and one major character in absentia, Michael Furey.

The story is contained within one night, around Christmas, between ten and the small hours of the morning. Most of it takes place at the Misses Morkan’s, a house in West central Dublin, then on the way between it and the Conroys’ hotel and last at the hotel.

The title of the story clearly indicates what is at stake: death, but a fair number of other themes are also present, symphonically, as “The dead” recapitulates all the themes present in Dubliners: Ireland, religion, politics, sex and drinking. Yet, especially because of the end, but also because of the virtuosity of the narration, one could assert that “The dead” is all about writing.

It is difficult, because of the length of the story, to draw a plan. Joyce himself divided it into three parts, but the composition is much more intricate in fact, because of the presence or absence of characters and the number of episodes and events. The simplest way would be to make it fall into two very distinct parts: first, the annual dance and its immediate aftermath, and then the end of the story, when the Conroys are by themselves at the hotel. The first, almost arbitrary part, with which we are dealing here, could be entitled “before the dinner.”



The great John Huston understood the cinematographic qualities of “The dead,” and he translated it in film at the very end of his career. A swan song, since he was actually dying. The device is quite simple: place a certain number of characters gathered together on a special occasion and shift from one to another in order to unveil their personalities and their own stories while also exploring the interfaces between them. The characters thus become organised according to a certain pattern. The Conroys, Gabriel and Gretta, the Misses Morkan, linked by blood and the death of Patrick Morkan (still present in the story through Gabriel’s narration of the horse episode), Freddy Malins and Mr Browne, opposed by religion but united in alcohol. Some secondary characters complete the set: Lily the maid, Freddy Malins’s mother, the tenor John Bartell d’Arcy and Miss Ivors. The great missing character, Michael Furey, is at the same time linked to old Parkinson, and of course to Gretta, with whom he constitutes an everlasting couple.

The main interest of the story, apart from the poetry contained in the end, is the way Joyce manages to make the point of view shift from the omniscient narrator’s to Gabriel Conroy’s. At the beginning of the story, as it is the case in many films, the main character is absent, and the point of view is that of the omniscient narrator (175-176.) From then on, after Gabriel’s arrival, the point of view continually shifts: omniscient narrator on pages 177 and 178, then Gabriel at the bottom of page 178: He waited outside the drawing-room until the waltz should finish. Omniscient narrator again in the middle of page 179, just then his aunts and his wife, down to page 186, when the point of view becomes Gabriel’s again: Gabriel could not listen while Mary Jane was playing. Bottom of page 187, the omniscient narrator returns: Lancers were arranged, down to page 190, when Gabriel meets Mrs Malins, and when for the first time the interface between characters is not in charge of the omniscient narrator, a feature that is made explicit on page 192: Gabriel hardly heard what she said, at the moment when he focusses the point of view on himself. The omniscient narrator once again returns on page 193, but in half-tones, without really leaving Gabriel’s senses: A murmur in the room attracted his attention.



The first Joycean theme evoked is that of drinking, through the character of Freddy Malins, first only evoked in both the familiar and the understated, politically correct  ways: turn up screwed (…) under the influence (176.)  The description of the same Freddy Malins, on page 184, when he shows up, confirms the impression because of the accumulation of negative details about his appearance; a very cruel Joycean description indeed. His protestant alter ego, Mr Browne, is also a drinker, but Joyce takes great care to present him as a decent one, as if drinking were different for the British: worth respect, the young men eyed him respectfully while he took a trial sip (183,) and full of humour: God help me, (…) it’s the doctor’s orders (183.) Through that different treatment, what is at stake is the superiority of the British, albeit satirically presented.

The second theme is that of love, or sex, as it appears in Lily’s bitter and sudden retort to Gabriel’s hint at a probable wedding: The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you (178.) It could only be a simple retort, but the effect it has on Gabriel makes the reader understand that there is a problem there: He was still discomposed (…) it had cast a gloom over him (178,) he had failed with the girl in the pantry (179,) Gabriel was about to ask his aunt some questions on this point (181.) That theme is also present in Mr Browne’s attitude towards the young ladies on page 183, still linked to Ireland, since what makes his phrase shocking for the young ladies is the fact that he had assumed a very low Dublin accent uttering it.

The third theme is that of the British/Irish problem. It appears very softly in the way Gabriel fears that his speech should be a failure because of a cultural gap between him and his listeners. His culture is obviously British, since he intends to quote Robert Browning, but he is afraid of being above the head of his listeners (179.) It appears again, even more softly, in the pieces of needlework hanging on the wall on page 186, evoking Shakespeare again (the international value of Shakespeare is to be noted here, quite different from the Englishness of the Victorian Browning) in the subjects: Romeo & Juliet, and more discreetly, through the murdered princes, Richard III. It appears, this time blatantly, in the character of Miss Ivors, who not only looks Irish because of her freckled face (187,) but asserts herself as Irish. She wears a brooch that bears an Irish device (187,) accuses Gabriel of being a West Briton because he writes a column for The Daily Express, advertises a trip to the heart of the Gaeltacht, the Aran Isles, the place where the Irish language is the purest, expatiates on the virtues of that language, And haven’t you your own language to keep in touch with, Irish? (189,) and eventually uses it: Beannacht libh (196.) Her hurried departure is interpreted in John Huston’s film as her going to a political meeting ; a pertinent interpretation indeed. On the contrary, Gabriel seems to be Joyce’s mouthpiece when he declares: O, to tell you the truth, (…) I’m sick of my own country, sick of it! (190.)

Last, but not least, to make the collection complete, the theme of religion is also dealt with in the first part. On page 195, Aunt Kate bitterly complains about the priorities of the Catholic Church of Ireland. She does it in a very humble manner: I know all about the honour of God (…) O, I don’t question the pope’s being right, but what she point at is actually the sexism of the church, that favours young boys’ choirs and lets women choir singers slaving in that choir night and day. More, one could read in that two latent criticisms: the taste of priests for whipper-snapper of boys, and the contempt for what makes Irish music so beautiful: the specific quality of women’s voices (just listen to Sinead O’Connor, the Corr sisters, Shannon Black, Loreena McKennit, the Cranberries, etc.)



No apparent presence of any death in this first part, except for Patrick Mokan on the first page, and what will be confirmed in the second part: Aunt Julia’s having already a foot in the grave: Though she was stout in build and stood erect her slow eyes and parted lips gave her the appearance of a woman who did not know where she was or where she was going (179.) Her reaction concerning the goloshes (180-181) and all the fuss about her voice on page 194, along with the initials on the cover of her old song-book clearly show that she is a very old and fading woman.


Right from the start, “The dead” clearly stand out as a recapitulation of the themes present in Dubliners, as well as an explosion of all the writing devices used in the previous stories, but this time more thoroughly and intricately exploited, especially Joyce’s ability to play subtly with the points of view.




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