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.