James Joyce's 'The Dead' - Fantasy vs. Reality
Epifanio San Juan
Epifanio San Juan, James Joyce and the Craft of Fiction: An Interpretation of Dubliners. 1972 Associated University Press.
Other Essays on Fantasy and Reality in Dubliners
Paralysis and the Fantasy of Beliefs in Joyce's 'The Sisters'
Absorption of Language and Connotations in James Joyce's 'The Sisters'
James Joyce 'An Encounter'
James Joyce's 'Araby' and the Loss of Fantasy
'Eveline' - Fantasy, Paralysis and the Mundane
'Clay' - Maria and the Integration of Fantasy into Reality
Joycean Scholar San Juan paraphrased Joyce’s sentiments on fantasy and reality: that Joyce felt firmly the importance of ‘that capacity to face actuality without the screen of self-ingratiating illusions or sentimentality’ (San Juan, p.18 - see grey box on the right for full citation). And after showing us fourteen stories in Dubliners about the process, entrenchment, and inherent tragedy of the paralysing effect of fantastic and illusory thinking, in ‘The Dead’ Joyce shows us what it is to break free of it.
Page References to Dubliners are for the Penguin Modern Classics edition.
Gretta's Revelation to Gabriel about Michael Furey
‘I think he died for me,’ she answered.
A vague terror seized Gabriel at this answer, as if, at that hour when he had hoped to triumph, some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him, gathering forces against him in its vague world. But he shook himself free of it with an effort of reason and continued to caress her hand. He did not question her again, for he felt that she would tell him of herself.
At this point of Gabriel’s wife’s revelation – that long ago in Galway his wife as a young girl had been loved so deeply by another man that he had died for her – he is as self-concerned as Eveline is when she thinks of Frank as her saviour. Just as Eveline thinks that Frank ‘would save her. He would give her life,’ in the earlier story ('Eveline') in Dubliners, so Gabriel’s thoughts centre on himself: ‘against him’ his mind repeats, spiralling inwards as Eveline’s does, concerned only with the self.
Gabriel Conroy's Controlling Nature
Up to this point in the story, Gabriel has been shown to have a controlling nature and a certain vision of Gretta in his mind. To him she is almost a doll, an object under his control, ‘O, but you’ll never guess what he makes me wear now!’ Gretta tells his aunt, after telling her of the will he similarly forces upon his children, ‘making [their son] do the dumb-bells, and forcing Eva to eat the stirabout’ (Dubliners, p.205).
Recalling dancing with her he remembers feeling ‘happy that she was his,’ and later in their room he longs ‘to crush her body against his, to overmaster her’ (Dubliners, pp246, 248).
Gabriel wants to control and he wants to possess; even the task of carving the goose satisfies him because he is in control, ‘he was an expert carver and liked nothing better than to find himself at the head of a well-laden table’ (Dubliners, p.225).
And like other characters, like the boy in ‘Araby’, his desires fire his imagination and he sees his fantasy as real, ‘His heart was brimming over with happiness. Just when he was wishing for it she had come to him of her own accord’, something which seems as fortuitous for Gabriel as it seemed for the young boy when Mangan’s sister ‘at last’ speaks to him (Dubliners, p.249).
But Gabriel’s happiness is even more short-lived than the boy’s, for Gretta’s thoughts are not in accord with his own, as he had imagined, but are of Michael Furey, the boy who died for her.
This is a shocking event in Gabriel’s life and marriage. Gabriel has put his wife on a pedestal; he has a vision of her in his mind as his possession and this new information does not accord with that vision. For Furey is not simply an old boyfriend, but one who deeply loved her – who died loving her – and the strength of Furey’s feelings shock him because Gabriel has ‘never felt like that himself towards any woman’. As much as he feels for Gretta, someone else has loved his wife more than he ever has, and he never knew (Dubliners, p.255). His wife has a hidden life, hidden depths: he thought he knew her, thought she was his, but now he finds that a part of her memory will always be devoted to remembering something of which he can never be a part.
Gabriel Conroy's Epiphany
But then through his jealousy he breaks through the paralysis that this revelation could – and in any one of the other stories in Dubliners would - cause, and suddenly and simply Gabriel sees the wonder of the event – he might never feel as Furey felt, might never even be able to imagine what such a feeling is like, but he gently and generously embraces the beauty of observing the knowledge of such a thing, of knowing that such a thing exists: ‘he knew such a feeling must be love,’ he thinks, without having ever experienced this feeling, and then he loses his essence, comparable perhaps to the ‘life’ and ‘chalice’ that the protagonist in ‘Araby’ holds so jealously in his mind at the Saturday market, and Gabriel’s ‘own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling’ (Dubliners, p.255).
Gabriel's Thoughts Turn Outwards instead of Inwards
As Gabriel loses himself and the paralysis breaks, his thoughts turn outwards, not to Europe, which he cherished jealously when Miss Ivors began to browbeat him to come to the Aran Isles, but ‘westward’ within Ireland – his wife’s birthplace to which she would like to return to visit, and of which he has always felt a little ashamed, snapping ‘shortly’ at Miss Ivors when she mentions that Connacht is where Gretta comes from (Dubliners, p.215). He has let go of his framework of principles and desires and his need to control, and he sees now that the past and the dead and all the things he has eschewed are part of a greater whole.
The Final Paragraph of 'The Dead'
‘Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland’: a factual phrase, echoing Mary Jane’s trivial conversation about the weather and reflecting Gabriel’s new unjudging, unemotional outlook. And for all its beauty and poetry, the mesmerising close to Dubliners continues in the same unadorned way. The snow falls, for that is what snow does: it is its ‘last end’ and its only reason. The beauty it creates is incidental to the snow itself: it does not know, it does not try, it only is (Dubliners, p.256).
The final few lines range over Ireland, ‘the dark central plain […] the Bog of Allen […] the dark mutinous Shannon waves’ (Dubliners, p.255). It is a fantasy of sorts: such a view of Ireland could never be witnessed in actuality, one moment over the waves, the next over the graveyard; but it is a fantasy of reality unadorned by feeling or thinking or longing: the graveyard where Furey lies is observed as dispassionately as the snow falling through the universe: it is beautiful as it is, and there is no forced emotion, no intrusion of sentiment, no manipulation. It is a ‘lonely’ graveyard, but there are no burning or sparkling eyes here, wet with angry or disappointed tears; no loss of fantasy, no garnering of connotations, no striving to join the world, or ache to find a better one (Dubliners, p.256). This final paragraph is the perfect Joycean universe, untainted by expectation, mesmerisingly real, made beautiful and perfect by the snow, and as Gabriel’s ‘soul swoon[s] slowly’ as he drifts into a dream of reality, the snow continues:
falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.