James Joyce: “The Dead” (1914)

Joyce is one of the authors we literary folks are supposed to like. Ulysses is the greatest novel ever written, turning more tricks with the styles of prose fiction than anyone knew were in the bag. It is also the novel people like to say is their favorite, because that sounds good to say (I said it was my favorite while in college). In truth, Joyce’s work is hard to love, but certainly easy to be impressed by. He writes in literary puzzles, games that well-read individuals can play against him. He always wins. There is a chapter in Ulysses structured to mimic the evolution of English prose from translated Latin through Middle English to the different identifiable styles of famous Anglophone authors. The idea is that you play the "Name-That-Authorial-Style" game that Joyce has set up for you. This sort of thing sounded very cool to me during my grad school, clove cigarettes, emo music period. Now, as a mature(-ish) writer and professor, it’s both impressive and mildly annoying. Joyce is a genius, for certain, but perhaps not the sort of guy you could love, or even enjoy as a dinner guest.

But there are things I love about Joyce. The last page of Ulysses, culminating in Molly Bloom’s reminiscence about a sexual encounter, is heavenly prose-poetry. The last page of “The Dead” is likewise a gorgeous reinvention of what English can do. In fact, the last one-third of “The Dead” is incredible, but what’s the deal with the first two-thirds?

The bulk of the 15,000 word short story (which some consider a novella, due to its length) is a wash of intentionally-mundane conversation at an annual dinner and dance party hosted by the elderly aunts of our protagonist, Gabriel Conroy. As a reader, I understand the reason for this segment of the story: we see Gabriel as insecure and socially-awkward, and we observe the banality of those at the party (whom we might consider to be examples of “the dead” referred to in the title). All this mundane detail helps to set up the real meat of the story, when Gabriel returns to a hotel with his wife, whom he suddenly desires more than ever, only to learn a secret about her past that makes him realize that he knows her less than he thought. But as a writer, I would have asked Joyce why we need a good 10,000 words to set up this banal contrast to the last 5,000 words. The whole could have been accomplished in a tenth of the space. My eyes glazed over as I read on and on about who said what at the party, none of it interesting beyond a few strokes of Gabriel’s awkwardness. Inflicting this section upon us in order to get to the good part seems like another Joycean trick. He wants us to glaze over, because glazing over is what Gabriel does while stuck in the midst of a party he’d rather not attend. It’s clever—making us suffer with Gabriel—but it doesn’t make for the most fun reading.

That was my initial reaction, at least. But I was sure that I was missing something, and of course I was. It took some research on my part, and words of encouragement from my editor at the New Haven Review, for me to fully appreciate what the first two-thirds accomplishes, and the reason to admire it, and not to just see it as a means to set up the ingenious, soaring final third.

The real interest of the first two-thirds of “The Dead” comes down to Joyce’s virtuoso use of what’s called “free indirect speech.” This is a fancy way of describing what today is an entirely common narrative technique, but which Joyce pioneered in English: the use of third-person narration to provide the essence of first-person perspective. The omniscient narrator takes us inside the head of his protagonist to describe what the protagonist thinks. By way of example, here is a sentence written in four ways: third-person direct speech, third-person indirect speech, first-person narration, and third-person free indirect speech.

Direct speech: He stood in the batter’s box and thought of hitting a home run. “What if I can knock one out of the park?” he wondered.

Indirect speech: He stood in the batter’s box and thought of hitting a home run. He wondered to himself, What if I can knock one out of the park?

First-person narration: I stood in the batter’s box and thought of hitting a home run. What if I could hit one out of the park?

Free indirect speech: He stood in the batter’s box and thought of hitting a home run. What if he could knock one out of the park?

The last example features the omniscient, third-person narrator stepping into the character’s head and asking aloud a question that the character is actually asking himself. Melding across the boundary between omniscient third-person and subjective first-person narration was one of Joyce’s preeminent technical advances, and what he was able to make this technique do was truly revolutionary. It may seem like a subtle distinction to more casual readers, but it certainly gets the lit majors excited, and provides authorial fireworks for the astute reader to marvel at during the otherwise rather dull initial section of “The Dead.” We marvel not at what is said and what happens in this section, but at what Joyce as a very much present author is capable of, if we take the time to notice such narrative effects.

Now, it is interesting to note that my full appreciation of “The Dead” required an intervention. It is hard to grasp on one’s own, even for a seasoned reader, just as Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are the sort of books that are probably best read as part of a course. I can’t imagine settling down on a beach with a piña colada in one hand and Finnegans Wake in the other. But with concentrated examination—and maybe with a literature professor as your co-pilot—pearls rise out of the sand.

What’s undeniable is that “The Dead” is impressive for its expression of male lust, and for showing a wife as object of such lust, and for the mixed interior thoughts and emotions of Gabriel when he gets his much-desired wife back to the hotel room. His hunger for her is foiled as she cries over a memory of a first love, of which Gabriel was unaware, a memory triggered by a song sung at the party. From the moment Gabriel and his wife close the hotel room door, “The Dead” lights up like a lantern in the darkness. Circa 1914, it was certainly risqué to write so openly about sexual desire and private emotions, even within the confines of marriage. Joyce paints a picture of great tension, cycling us through Gabriel’s sine wave of feelings, frustrations, childish pouts, and ultimate acceptance of what his wife experienced before he arrived in her life. The story ends with a cascade of a final page, written in lyrical, rhythmic prose that flutters on the page like the snowflakes drifting to the Dublin streets outside the darkened hotel window in which Gabriel stands.

“The Dead” is Joyce in microcosm: brilliant, with strokes of great beauty, ingenious, and frustrating, but with the good over-powering the dullness. A view that can only come from reflecting back on the reading experience, which might be why Joyce is such a favorite of professors in the first place. For reading Joyce is not a Sunday stroll in the park, but an experience that requires work—and rewards the effort.

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