Notes on James Joyce’s “The Dead”

Snow at Phoenix Park

Snow at Phoenix Park

“The Dead” is symbolic, or so I understand. The game here, the purpose of this post, it to interpret everything I can in the story before I read any criticism. The Viking edition of Dubliners, the collection of Joyce’s fifteen short stories, also includes eleven critical articles; six of them treat “The Dead.” There must be a lot in it to analyze and interpret.

The story includes three sections: the arrivals, the dancing & eating, and the departures. This could symbolize three phases of life: birth/youth, productive adulthood, and old age/death.

Gabriel Conroy represents the Catholic Church or the Catholic clergy in Ireland and the Morkan family the Irish people, especially its women. Freddy Malins symbolizes the dissolute, drunken men of Ireland, and Mr. Browne the crass English commercialism that abets Freddy’s drinking. Music is a metonymy for learning and literature.

The main women of the story serve distinct purposes: the older Morkan twins, Aunt Julia and Aunt Kate represent older, traditional learning and values; Mary Jane newer, less traditional ways, and Miss Ivors the Celtic Revival. Young Lily, “the caretaker’s daughter,” symbolizes the lower class women (and people) of Ireland. (The class issues are less clear to me. Clearly that’s Lily’s role and the other women seem all to represent some aspects of educated upper classes. More than that, I can’t say.) Mrs. Malins (Freddy’s mother) symbolizes Presbyterian Protestantism, with its Scottish and Ulster connections.

Evidence – Names

An author’s choice of names can tell us a lot. Gabriel is the archangel who announced the coming of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ; this is the role of The Church. So Gabriel = The Church.  His brother’s name is Constantine, i.e. The State. The notion that Joyce saw Ireland as being crushed between the forces of the Church and the State is well-documented and he alluded to this heavily in Ulysses. The name Constantine echoes the 4th Century Roman Emperor who legitimized Christianity, as well as the word “constable,” the ordinary manifestation of state power in Joyce’s Dublin. We  hear only a little of Gabriel’s brother Constantine in “The Dead,” once pictured with their mother, “in a man-o-war suit,” and then as a curate in Balbriggen. The “man-o-war suit” is obviously suggestive; I don’t know what to make of his job as a “curate in Balbriggen.”

“Browne” is an English surname and is also the color of stout and excrement. “Morkan” (or “Morgan”) is an ancient Irish surname that pre-dates the introduction of Christianity, a very telling indication that the Morkan family represents the Irish people. “Malins” is less clear, other than the prefix “mal-” that means “bad or of poor quality.”  Gabriel’s wife’s name, Gretta, is short for “Margaret,” another traditional Irish name. “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter,” bears the name of the symbol for innocence, purity, and virginity.

Character Detail

Mr. Gabriel Conroy lives in Monkstown; he has plenty of money; and everyone in the family defers to him. They are waiting for him, both to preside over the celebratory feast and to look after the wayward drunk, Freddy Malins. He is more educated than the common people; in an unguarded private moment, he thinks to his aunts as “ignorant old women.” The parallels with the Catholic Church in Ireland could not be clearer, “Monks’ Town.”

He is conflicted or ambivalent about his own Irishness, “Conroy” is also an old Irish name, from the western, more rustic part of the island. His mother, Ellen (another good Irish name), married T.J. Conroy of the Ports and Docks. In other words Gabriel Conroy (i.e. the Catholic Church) was imported from abroad, continental Europe to be more precise. Note Gabriel’s enthusiasm for goloshes, “everyone wears them on the continent,” and his preference for a cycling vacation in France, Belgium, or maybe Germany. Perhaps Italy would have been too obvious?

In a tiff with Miss Ivors, she accuses him of being a “West Briton,” essentially a collaborator with the English occupiers, but denies that heatedly.

Western Ireland, where the Irish language still persisted, is seen as true Ireland. That’s where Miss Ivors proposes the vacation; but Gabriel has no interest. His mother looked down on Gretta’s Connacht origins. The symbolism might be a little inconsistent here, but Ireland was viewed as a cultural backwater by the continental Roman Catholic hierarchy, Gabriel’s “mother” church in another sense.

Mr. Browne, while apparently quite sober and of no concern to the family, is always ready for a drink himself, and late in the story is identified as a bad influence on Freddy Malins, who he refers to “Teddy,” familiarly, condescendingly, and inaccurately. Of course, when Gabriel specifically warns him to refrain from giving Freddy alcohol, he ostentatiously gives him a glass of lemonade. The commercial interests, when called upon by the Church, would at least give lip service to Temperance movements and other civic/social obligations. At another point Browne praises Aunt Julia’s singing “in the manner of a showman.” He is cheap, crass, tawdry, English commercialism (another familiar Joycean theme).

Mrs. Malins speaks glowingly of Glasgow, Scotland, and her son-in-law, a great fisherman. “He caught a beautifull big big fish, and the man in the hotel boiled it for dinner.” A humorous, double swipe at the austere beliefs and ways of the Presbyterians: they have boiled the Christian religion down to an unpalatable mush and they eat/live in just such a joyless fashion.

Gabriel and the people

Gabriel (the Church) feels obligated to take care of his family (the people), but he looks down on them and his help to them falls far short of their actual needs. Young Lily is bitter towards men, presumably has been ill-used and taken advantage of; Gabriel gives her a coin as a Christmas gift. It might help salve his conscience, but does little to help the girl’s real (if undefined) problems. Thus the Church with the poor people of Ireland; it would offer a some charity but do nothing to alleviate the causes of poverty.

Gabriel is a college teacher; he loves books and the feel of books. He is a literary man. He’s rather be alone in the snow, walking by the Wellington Monument, rather than being with the people at dinner.  His relationship with his wife is most touching. Towards the end of the story, back in their hotel room, he is sincerely and sexually attracted to her; but she breaks down and tells him of her long lost love for a young man. In other words, while the Catholic clergy, at times and certain places, does try to love the people, be intimate with them, and serve them, the people’s love for the traditional Irish ways (lost revolutionary & literary heroes) stands in the way.

The supper may also stand for the ceremony of the Mass. Gabriel carves the goose (administers the eucharist) to the assembly. Gabriel delivers a homily, full of bland compliments, platitudes about traditional values, and warnings against modernism.

Economic Allusions

The Morkan family has been reduced to renting the upper part of a “dark, gaunt house,” from  Mr. Fulham, a corn-factor. “Fulham” is a neighborhood in London. A clear parallel to the heart-breaking reduction of the Irish people into tenants of English landlords. Note that Mr. Fulham occupies the ground floor, leaving the Irish people with the less desirable real estate.

There’s plenty of rich food available, in the aunts’ routine and especially at their annual dance (which stands for holidays, religious observances, etc.) Food thus stands for luxuries of all sorts, of which food is an important item, that the Morkans/Irish indulge in although their economic circumstances don’t really allow for such.

Political Allusions

Note the mention of the Wellington monument, which Gabriel would frankly rather be walking near, and the statue of King William, which grandfather Pat’s horse insisted on circling around. In both instances, the monuments of English imperialism prevail.

The abrupt departure of Miss Ivors might represent the self-exile of Joyce himself and other Irish intellectuals who felt the need to escape the stultifying environment of Catholic Ireland.

Reality Check

For the record, none of the six critical essays in the Viking edition interpreted the story remotely like this. Undergraduate plagiarists beware! Copy or use the ideas here and you’ll likely end up with a D minus.

However, in Harry Stone’s commentary on “Araby,” he noted some correlations of that story with Roman Catholic liturgy, Then he added, “These liturgical and religious parallels … lie unobtrusively in the background. They are not meant to be strictly or allegorically interpreted; they are meant to suggest, to hint, perhaps to condition. Unconsciously they tinge our associations and responses; they also harmonize the more explicit motifs of the story.” I’d like to think that something similar is going on with the historical and religious  parallels that I found in “The Dead.”