Summer Reads: THE DEAD, by James Joyce

16 Jul

I did my senior symposium on James Joyce. It was a long semester, but I walked away with a short story that took over my mind as perfection. The plot, story, characters, symbolism – how many layers you can read this on. . .The ending and the demolition of what you think you see and feel as a person who can’t honestly see inside another.


I’ve forced this short on many of my friends and ended up in cafe’s with coffee (ok, tea. I don’t drink coffee) discussing the more easily missed symbolism that is common enough if you read a lot of Joyce. Even the walk on characters have a very clear role in the heavy picture of things. 


Did I mention it neared perfection.


It basically tells the story of Gabriel Conroy spending an evening at a house party thrown by two spinster, piano teaching aunts and their odd collection of friends. The evening turns into Gabriel’s own personal firewalk.


Of course, the academics say in a different way:  “The Dead” is a story about “man’s withdrawal into the circle of his own egotism” (Daiches, The Novel and the Modern World)


Surprisingly, this story carried personal weight for me as well. Graduating from college, I had a lovely coffee (tea) with one of THOSE professors – you know the ones. Older than the ivy clinging to the side of the dean’s center and just as brilliant. The one that when he asks you for coffee, you’d turn down dinner at the white house to go.


The conversation turned down a frightening path when he asked me what my greatest fear was.  Being a Short writer, I replied that it was to be Poe: Brilliant at shorts and sucking at the novel. . .yes, I said sucking. We referred to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym  as the original ‘read it and weep’ ….

The good doctor turned to me and said, “Ms. Quinlan, I believe you can do anything you set your mind to even half-heartedly. My biggest fear for you is that you will be Molly Ivers.”


I have never been quite so stunned in my life. At that age, in that competitive environment, it never dawned on my to fear personal outcomes instead of academic or professional. It saddened me that (in this era) we can still as women educate ourselves out of the marriage pool.


So, read the short HERE and let me know, was Gabriel trapped by his own ego? Did Molly lose her femininity through education? Was Gretta truly never in love with him or did he only come second or gain her love eventually? Did the catholics treat Mr. Brown differently? AND, most importantly – what does it mean?


I know, I know. A horribly broad question. But with Joyce and his focus for that collection of shorts and his view of Ireland, family and life, it really is the most important place to begin.

5 Responses to “Summer Reads: THE DEAD, by James Joyce”

  1. quescaisje July 16, 2008 at 1:21 pm #

    I always liked the interpretation that Gabriel is what Joyce thought he would become if had not left Ireland. Of course, I am not writing this excluding the other interpretations. I have the classical male problem of not being able to read a book without identifying myself with the main character.

  2. briaq July 16, 2008 at 4:56 pm #

    Thanks for stopping by!

    I have to agree with that as part of his character – definitely! Especially when you look at the parallels he seemed to have drawn between Gretta and Nora (his wife and Gabriel’s)

    I think it’s perfectly normal to identify with the leach character. I think that’s what avid readers look for, is some type of connection that makes them real – just like in the people we meet.

    But, perhaps you should stay away from books like Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan or anything by Mario Puzo? 😉

  3. quescaisje July 18, 2008 at 12:07 pm #

    Yeah, but I wished it were possible to make other people real without trying to make them similar to ourselves. Or if it were possible to comprehend a character from a multitude of perspectives.

  4. Morton Thomas August 27, 2008 at 6:16 pm #

    Well, there is also the theory that Gabriel is Jame’s brother (and keeper) Stanie!
    Gabriel is also Gabriella in Pigone’s modern day spoof of “The Dead” called “The Ugly”. I don’t know, plagarism taken to new heights perhaps, but it might add some insight. Funny too.

  5. briaq August 27, 2008 at 9:17 pm #


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