Burning with a Jim-like flame

Today James Joyce turns 129, and I have been thinking about “The Dead,” the long story that ends Dubliners.  It is Joyce at his most Poldy and his least Stephen, that is to say, his most warm-hearted and his least bitter and crabby.

Joyce sometimes shared with his hero Dante the habit of using his fiction to settle scores both personal and general.  For example, he once had a bizarre dispute with a British consular official in Zurich, over who would pay for said official’s costume for an amateur production of The Importance of Being Earnest.  In Ulysses the fellow (I think his name was Carr) turns up as a boorish drunken redcoat in the Dublin red-light district.

Joyce was also tormented by a truly weird kind of jealousy–on one occasion he seems to have bullied his wife into coming on to a friend of theirs and then (I guess this must have been the point) chewed out and snubbed the friend.

But The Dead lacks this grudging, vindictive spirit.  The Christmas party where the story takes place is a panorama of unpretentious Irish culture, exemplified by the elderly hosts, the Misses Morkan, who sing the kind of old Irish songs that Joyce loved.  The obligatory drunk is relatively harmless in this setting, and even the Church gets off pretty easy, with some chiding for its failure to respect the contributions of women (and who’s going to disagree with that?).  At the same time, the central character, Gabriel Conroy, gradually recognizes that his wife, Greta, has a culture and a life apart from him that he has never really botherred to grasp–for one thing, he has never traveled to the West of Ireland, the less Anglicized region that she is from (as was Nora Joyce).  He learns of a boy named Michael Furey who used to sing beneath Greta’s window but who died before he was twenty.

Here is the last paragraph, as the couple drift off to sleep in their hotel room.  I strongly recommend that you read it aloud, it’s worth it even if the guy in the next cube looks at you funny:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

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15 Responses to Burning with a Jim-like flame

  1. Sam p says:

    read it aloud to a dozing pitbull named henna. she didn’t even stir when i tapped the windowpane…. guess joyce is lost on some

  2. Mary Evelyn White says:


  3. Megan Kasten says:

    Having enjoyed a long, leisurely walk with my dog on a sunny sixty-degree afternoon, I shouldn’t complain. But that paragraph did make me wish for just a dusting of the snow everyone else seems to have had. A really lovely choice, Roy.

  4. beth mchugh says:

    Wow, Roy! As Mary said, lovely! This paragraph holds one of my all time favorite phrases from Joyce….”as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling,”. Such beauty! Thank you for bringing back a special memory…..it was County Antrim in Northern Ireland, a February wedding, with a lovely soft snow falling around the old stone church. The vision of the bright white snow against the truly emerald grass is one I don’t think I’ll ever forget! The inside of the church had a mountain-high ceiling and no heat, and the bride was beautiful and blue in a strapless gown! Loved the suggestion to read out loud…it calls for that!

  5. beth mchugh says:

    Whatever, Roy….you reminded me of two words I had completely forgotten from Creative Writing classes! Thanks for keeping us well informed! I had to look up both of them to be sure I remembered them correctly. I welcome anything that sends me to the dictionary to clarify something! Boodle

  6. Ann Foxen says:

    What brought “The Dead” to mind? Did you see it in Jeffrey Eumenides’s collection of love stories, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead?

    • Roy says:

      Yes, maybe six months ago, and probably enjoyed it more than I had before (you mean Eugenides, the Eumenides are the Fates I think, or were you joking?). Joyce came to my mind because it was his b-day.

      • Ann Foxen says:

        Well, there’s feckin eejit for you. I was distracted by wondering if I had the spelling of his first name right. Anyway, Eugenides is a much better name, so I shouldn’t be making that mistake.

      • Roy says:

        I did enjoy the anthology, as I may have mentioned. I even enjoyed the Harold Brodkey story, though it sounds like Brodkey was an exceedingly tiresome man. As Ed White says, only Harold could write a page and a half about his imminent death from AIDS and manage to irritate the reader.

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