The Dead by James Joyce

In The Dead by James Joyce we have the theme of mortality, connection, failure, politics, religion and paralysis. Taken from his Dubliners collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and very early on in the story Joyce delves into one of the main themes of the story, the theme of failure. This is first noticeable when Gabriel is talking to Lily and he asks her about when she might be getting married. It is only through Lily’s reaction that Gabriel senses that he may have said something wrong. There is a sense of failure of communication between Lily and Gabriel with the reader suspecting that Gabriel may have failed to present himself in a positive light to Lily. Another instance that soon follows, which also suggests failure, is when Gabriel is thinking about his speech. He feels that the ‘whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure. Also when Miss Ivors is talking to Gabriel, he fails to understand what she could mean. Joyce further explores the theme of failure at the end of the story, the reader discovering that Gabriel finds it hard to understand (or fails to accept) that Gretta could have loved someone before she loved him.

The incident with Miss Ivors is also important for another reason, as it is through this incident that Joyce is also highlighting to the reader, another theme in the story, the theme of politics. Miss Ivors would be of a nationalist disposition, while Gabriel it would appear has a different outlook. Gabriel also writes a weekly column for the Daily Express, which at the time Dubliners was written would have been considered a conservative newspaper with leanings towards Unionism. The differences, politically between Miss Ivors and Gabriel can also be seen by the fact that she calls him a ‘West Briton’. Also when she suggests that Gabriel should travel to the Aran Islands (Isles) with her, he declines, telling her that he has plans to travel to the continent. Also he dismisses Miss Ivor’s remark regards the Irish language, telling her that ‘Irish is not my language.’

Joyce also appears to attack the Catholic Church in the story. This is noticeable when Miss Kate is arguing with Mary Jane. She criticizes the Pope for turning ‘out the women out of the choirs that have slaved there all their lives and put little whipper-snappers of boys over their heads.’ It is also important that despite Miss Kate’s opinion on the matter, she still remains loyal to the Church, considering the Pope to be infallible, though she does feel his stance is wrong. Joyce may also be attacking the Catholic Church later in the story when Mr Browne hears about the monks sleeping in their coffins. It is possible that Joyce is using the symbolism of the coffins to suggest the idea of paralysis. That regardless of how pious an order the monks belong to, they are paralyzed. It is also possible that Joyce is suggesting that the Catholic Church has failed the Irish people, which again would pull in the theme or idea of failure.

The idea or theme of connection is also evident in the story. There is the fact that Gabriel makes reference to his Aunts during his speech, which touches them. Also Miss Ivors, connects herself to the Irish Movement and the reader suspects she does so sufficiently enough that she allows it to define her. Also Gabriel at the end of the story would appear to be connected to other Irishmen for the first time in his life. As he is lying in bed the reader is aware that the snow fell all over Ireland. The snow is also important for another reason as it suggests a paralysis, as if everything and everybody is under ice. Probably the most obvious sign of connection in the story however is Gretta’s remembering of Michael Furey. It appears to be obvious to Gabriel that when Gretta was younger she was very much in love with Michael, something that disappoints Gabriel, that Gretta was able to connect with (or love) another person before she married him.

With regard to mortality (as a theme), the most obvious reference would be the title of the story. Other notable occurrences whereby Joyce may be referencing the idea of mortality, occur when Gabriel is lying in bed. He starts to think about Michael Furey, then he thinks about Aunt Julia dying and finally he starts to think about his own death. There are also several deaths (or people missing) in the story. Gabriel’s parents are mentioned as too is the Morkan’s grandfather. The story that Gabriel relays regarding the Morkan’s grandfather is also important as it is through the telling of the story that Joyce is again symbolizing the idea of paralysis. The reader finds that the grandfather’s horse, Johnny, went around the statue of King William in circles. This repetitive motion would suggest a sense of paralysis. It is also important that Joyce mentions King William, as it was King William who defeated the Irish at the Battle of the Boyne. It is possible that Joyce may be suggesting that the Irish remain beaten.

How paralysed the characters in the story are can be seen from the setting. The Morkan’s party is a yearly occurrence (repetitive) with the same people invited every year. Also Malins, is expected to arrive drunk every year. Those at the party also dance to the same waltz every year, again the idea of repetition. The same music is played and Gabriel is expected to make a speech, every year and every year it is his responsibility to carve the goose and Miss Daly’s responsibility to carve the ham while Gretta’s job is to serve the pudding. It is through all this repetition that the reader suspects Joyce is suggesting that Ireland too, remains paralyzed and dying as the title of the story may suggest.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "The Dead by James Joyce." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 8 Jul. 2014. Web.


  • Why did Gabriel say he is sick of his country? Does he really mean it?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Cassie. It is possible that Gabriel is sick of Ireland because there are so many changes happening. Changes which leave Gabriel feeling alienated (Irish Revival Movement with Miss Ivors and Gretta’s love for Michael). Rather than knowing who he is Gabriel is at a point in his life whereby things are going to change and this makes Gabriel uncomfortable.

      It’s also difficult to know if Gabriel is really sick of Ireland or whether he says it just out of frustration. As readers we never really know and it is left to each individual reader to interpret the story as they see fit.

  • what is the synopsis of this story

  • Having taught literature at a university, I have read a great many novels, short stories, plays, and poetry. In my humble opinion, “The Dead,” from Dubliners is perhaps the greatest short story ever written in the English language. It is as far from superficial as literature can possibly be. Most of the literary critics have caught the main themes very well; however, the archetypal patterns may be studied for years to come and still not be worn out. I hesitate to speculate. To me, “The Dead” is also a great symphonic work, perhaps composed in four massive movements, akin to those of Mahler, only the Adagietto sehr langsam occurs in the final paragraphs at the end of this musical masterpiece. Onen i-Estel Edain, ú-chebin estel anim, is all I can further say.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the insight Robert. I would agree that there is an awful lot going on in the story.

    • My mother would have known Nora’s family.

      It wouldn’t have been mentioned in the 50’s ireland. Yes the story has profound stuff in it.

      In Trieste having lunch people were taking their photos taken with JJ’s bronze statue. His head was shiney from people’s hands . If it was a real copy of Joyce then he must have been of small stature. Yes you are right, the story is important and touches on some aspects of humanity. The title is about death in so many ways. The glory days of empire were gone. All that is leftover are the remains. Ireland was destroyed by the act of Union and people left in their millions. I have met them all over the world. Joyce was only one of many who left. The story is exponential. The ideas are a domino effect in that the ideas are many lines falling. The graveyard in Galway has the tomb of the dead boyfriend in the story. That’s Rahoon in Galway.

  • This is perhaps the most beautiful short story ever written. All the themes are there, distaste for politics, church, and yes, the ever present paralysis.
    But there is also so much tenderness and compassion for the little party of music lovers, who make merry in a well lit shelter while all around them is dark, cold night.
    Our last end is always at the table with us, declared or not.. And Gabriel is not just a symbol of Irish delusion…he’s the human in us who, at our moment of greatest self satisfaction, step on a rake, bringing us thoughts of how little we are in the world of fate and physics. And the last graf is stunning…how its very grammar and word order mimics the falling of a snow flake…not straight down, but lazily back and forth: “falling softly and softly falling”

  • I also think another instance on failure. It was when he realized through his reflection in the mirror-like thing “A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror.” Earlier in his speech he talked about old generation as good and new generation as hypereducated and lack the goodness of the old one. I like to think that he was proud to refer to himself as belonged to the new generation and it failed him when he regconized how ludicrous he was in the mirror. This detail may represent a certain of feeling of stagnation.

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