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James Joyce's The Dead: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:01 Background of the Story
  • 0:30 Story Setting
  • 0:51 Principal Characters
  • 1:53 Plot Summary
  • 4:58 Story Analysis
  • 7:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ben Nickol
In this lesson, we examine 'The Dead', by James Joyce (1882-1941), one of the best known stories from the Irish writer's famous collection 'Dubliners'. Following the lesson, take the quiz to review what you learned.

Background of the Story

'The Dead' (1914) is a short story by Irish writer James Joyce, who lived from 1882-1941 and is best known for his pioneering of Modernist literary techniques, such as stream-of-consciousness. While we do see 'The Dead' has some evidence of this Modernist experimentation, this story is most remarkable for its ruminations on Irish culture and history and its insights about the trials of growing old.

Story Setting

'The Dead,' along with the other stories in Joyce's Dubliners, takes place in Dublin, Ireland, in the early 20th century. It is winter, and the characters are attending a holiday party at the home of the main characters' aunts. At the end of the story, the setting shifts to a cab ride through the early morning snow and then to a hotel room where the protagonist and his wife will be spending the night.

Principal Characters

Gabriel Conroy is the principal point-of-view character and the nephew of the party's hostesses. He is a professor and intellectual, and, in his middle age, is suspicious of the younger generation's radical politics.

Gretta Conroy is Gabriel's wife and the object of his sincerest affections.

Molly Ivors is a younger guest at the party who leaves early. She espouses the younger generation's politics, and for this reason doesn't get along with Gabriel.

Miss Kate and Miss Julia are Gabriel's aunts and the hostesses of the party. While healthy now, they have grown quite old, and Gabriel worries they will die soon.

Michael Furey doesn't physically appear in the story, but he plays an important role. He is the young man who years ago was in love with Gretta Conroy and died of exposure from coming to see her on a rainy night.

Lily is Miss Kate's and Miss Julia's servant.

Plot Summary

The story opens with Gabriel and wife's arrival at his aunts' holiday party. It is snowy outside, and Gabriel and his wife come in from the cold and get warm and start visiting with their hostesses. There is a good mood in the house, though at a certain point Gabriel goes downstairs and visits with Lily, the maid, whom he notices has grown up. He asks if she will be married soon and gets a curt response. It is the first of several times in the story that Gabriel is reminded of his disconnect from the younger generation.

Soon, the guests are playing music and dancing. Gabriel enjoys music, but one of the first songs is what he calls an 'Academy piece.' It isn't stated explicitly that this music belongs to the younger generation, but it is played by a younger pianist and is full of difficult and unmelodic tones - Gabriel doesn't like it. After his encounter with Lily, it is the second indication of his disconnect from newer, mainstream culture.

Gabriel's least pleasant moment at the party comes shortly thereafter, though, when he finds himself dancing with Molly Ivors, a younger woman who believes deeply in her generation's politics. Most notably, she shares her generation's pride in all things Irish and is impatient with Gabriel's love for the broader European, or 'Continental,' culture. Twice during the dance, she calls Gabriel a West Briton, which is a derogatory term for an Irishman who loves English culture more than his own.

The dance concludes, and the party moves in to dinner. Gabriel sits at the head of the table and takes great pride in carving the goose. The dinner conversation is mostly between the older generation and has to do with great opera singers they remember from an earlier time. At the end of the meal, Gabriel is asked to give a speech (a speech he has been preparing all night). He does so, and inserts at the beginning of that speech some remarks about 'true' Irish culture, and how the most important part of that culture, in his opinion, is the hospitality they see in the room around them. The remarks are meant as a dig against Ms. Ivors' politics, but after delivering them, Gabriel remembers that Ms. Ivors did not stay for dinner, that she has already left the party.

After dinner, the story jumps ahead to the early morning hours. The party is ending, and guests are hailing horse cabs for rides to their homes and hotels. It's a nice moment for Gabriel. He has enjoyed the party, and now in the cab is enjoying the beauty of his wife. When they arrive at the hotel, he begins to fantasize about being alone with her and making love. However, just as they're about to become intimate, Gretta bursts into tears and tells Gabriel about Michael Furey, a boy she once had dated who had been in poor health and died after coming to see her on a rainy night. She remembers the boy because of a song played earlier, at the party.

At the end of the story, Gretta is asleep, and Gabriel is watching the snow fall. He realizes that his aunts will be dead soon, and that he himself is growing older, and he imagines the falling snow as a force that covers people up and buries them in the forgotten depths of time.

Story Analysis

'The Dead', beyond being a moving story, explores several key themes and illustrates one important aspect of the Modernist literary technique.

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