Dubliners is a novel in the loosest of senses, much in the same way that The Martian Chronicles is a novel. Both books contain vignettes that can stand alone as separate short stories, although they contain characters and a sort of story arc that holds the whole entity together. One of the main elements that holds the story together is the plight of the poor in Dublin; despite the fact that most of the characters are poor, the truth of their poverty comes to the reader indirectly, through such details as the fact that Lenehan has not eaten all day, while he waits for the return of Corley with his cash; until then, he must make do with a simple repast of peas and vinegar. “The Dead” is the story that encapsulates the ideas that have been developing throughout the whole collection, and is a counterbalance to the ideas and plot of “The Sisters,” the very first story. Both of these entries analyze the ways in which life and death interact, with the effect of casting a pall over the rest of the book.
The snow is falling, in “The Dead,” on the night of the party at the Morkans’ home. The rituals of socialization that take place in this story are just a part of the desiccating way of life that makes existence in Dubliners a dreadful cycle. All of the clichés of the Dublin way of life take place at this party: Freddy arrives, already smashed; Gabriel gets up and gives an impassioned speech; when the guests get up and dance, they follow the same old steps; there is a shared meal. Gabriel shares the tale of the horse, who follows the same route around the mill; the Dubliners at this party follow an exact routine as well. Because the people at this party cannot escape from their routine, they stop living a life of growth; instead, they begin to die. The very food on the table is suggestive of death: it shows up on opposing ends of a table, met with rows of dishes. The fruit in the middle of the table stands guard duty, while there are “three squads of bottles” (Joyce) overlook the whole affair. Instead of a warm, friendly meal, this promises to be a perilous event, what with the battlefield imagery that is put into place.
This story takes place during the observance of Epiphany, which reflects the awakening that happens to Gabriel as “The Dead” and Dubliners draw to a close. Gabriel becomes introspective during the story, examining not only his own life but that of humanity as a whole. Gabriel views himself more as a specter than a whole person, simply flickering like a shrinking candle in the place where dead and living come together. It is true that, in his speech, Gabriel insists on a sharp demarcation between the dead and the living, in terms of the line between past and present. However, once he hears that the memory of Michael Furey continues to live on, he realizes that the division between the living and the dead is, at best, arbitrary. He looks out of the window in his hotel and sees the snow tumbling to the ground. He imagines how it would look as it slowly covers Michael Furey’s grave; at the same time, though, it covers all of the living, throughout all of Ireland. There is a possibility that Gabriel will change his view (after all, he shares a name with one of the more important angels in the Bible), but as the story ends, he is somber, contemplating the darkness that has swallowed Ireland, accepting of the idea that, at some point, he will stop living and fade from memory.
While many of the stories in Dubliners have to do with themes that are applicable to life in general, “The Dead” is focused on the ways in which life and death intersect in Ireland. Part of Gabriel’s speech is a lamentation over the passing of the manners of times past; ironically, though, he follows that up with the idea that it is important to spend more time embracing the present than wallowing in the past. When Gabriel envisions a time when snow covers the entire country, he shows that he is more attached to the past than to the present. The very fact that Gabriel has the time to be introspective, though, indicates that the ability to escape one’s surroundings might well hold true for the people of Ireland as well. After all, the snow must eventually melt.
Although Dubliners was published in 1914, it was written somewhat earlier, and the mood in the book reflects what was going on in Ireland at the start of the twentieth century. The last part of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century marked a dramatic cultural revival in Ireland, as the country began to explore its unique identity; the Gaelic language and culture underwent an invigoration. This led to an increased sense of cultural pride. However, Irish unity and independence proved to be impossible to bring about, in large part because of the scandal of the nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell, whose affair with the married Kitty O’Shea ruined his political future and left all of Ireland in chaos, as the country divided into religious factions (Catholics and Protestants). Also, the Irish Nationalist Party remained at odds with the Conservatives, and the crosscurrents of political and religious conflict made any attempt at creating a stable, unified country impossible. It was this maelstrom into which Joyce came of age, and which defined the affective setting for his writing. The political and religious conflicts that inform his writing come from these days.
As with many musings about human nature, there is a great deal of ambiguity that appears at the end of “The Dead.” Ireland stood at a crossroads when Joyce was growing up, and there is that sense of incompletion at the end of “The Dead” – and in the prospect of a future united Ireland. However, in a sense, all of us face this crossroads, which is why Joyce leaves the ending unsettled. There is snow falling on Ireland; there is, in a sense, snow falling on all of us. In a very general sense, the mere passage of time causes the snow to fall, as we age, on an individual and a social level. With the ticking of time comes entropy, which is the decay of matter and of relationships. If we do nothing to combat the snow, then it will cover us and leave no mark of our having passed there, which would indeed be tragic. However, there is also the possibility of action and rejuvenation.
While it is not possible to stop the physical aging process, it is possible to stop the decline of a culture, and to find peace and energy. It is the neverending cycle of clichés that makes “The Dead” such a depressing tale: much like the robotic movements of the women in The Stepford Wives, the way in which these people act follows an easily predictable routine. What makes things worse, of course, is that these people have not been turned into robots; instead, they have simply been conditioned by their times. There is nothing wrong with waxing eloquent at a party, or dancing in a group, or even getting a little sloshed on the way to an evening out. What Joyce finds to be so paralyzing is that these events have come to encapsulate culture – that what it means to be Irish is nothing more than these rituals. This might come across as somewhat patronizing, especially given the fact that Joyce spent most of his adult life on the European continent, rather than in Ireland, but his call is for a more energized culture that has more significant images and rituals at work. The snow that is falling on Ireland is quite similar to Hemingway’s tolling bell and Fitzgerald’s ever-retreating green light on the end of the dock: all three images show how close, and how far away, happiness and authenticity can be for all of us. Making the jump from the status quo to the potential seems difficult, is barely possible, but brings infinite rewards.
Joyce, James. Dubliners. . Web.