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Self Realization and Tragedy in James Joyce's "The Dead"
In James Joyce’s “The Dead”, the lead character Gabriel is portrayed as a man with a conflicting set of values. The language in the story describes the characters distinctly through alliteration and tone.
In the protagonist’s case, three key character defects prevent him from coming to terms with his identity: self-honesty through language, superficiality and emotional distance from others.
When the time finally arrives that he does come to terms with himself, the psychological damage has already been done.
In the process of having an epiphany, the duality of Gabriel’s character revealed throughout the text is all he is left with. Thus, Gabriel remains the same conflicted man he was at the beginning of the story, yet fully aware of his actions.
Lack of Honesty
According to Eric Rapp’s article “Short Stories from Students”, the title of the book is in relation to how Gabriel is “one of the spiritually dead” (Rapp 2). His inability to honestly relate to those he associates with presents three difficult problems.
The first problem is what he would like to say compared to what he believes he must say. When Miss Ivors begins questioning Gabriel, regarding writing for a conservative newspaper, the narrator implies that Gabriel wanted to say, “literature is above politics” (Joyce 2179) to Miss Ivors. But knowing that Gabriel and Miss Ivor’s “careers had been parallel” (Joyce 2179), he regresses and would not “risk a grandiose phrase with her” (Joyce 2179).
This is an example of someone who has a hard time expressing how he really feels, because of his insecurity and tries to keep his writing a secret. If he were able to take criticism a little more constructively, then he wouldn’t feel so conflicted.
In fact, Gabriel cannot even express how he feels about his wife as he “longed to cry to her from her soul” (Joyce 2196), but diverted his feelings by talking about Freddy Malins— a person who people at the party were afraid of showing up “screwed” (Joyce 2173).
The second problem regarding Gabriel is that there are far too many times where he makes statements or conclusions that reflect how superficial he is.
For example, when Gabriel is getting his speech ready for the party, he makes awkward attempts of socializing with his friend Lily. Gabriel displays a smug sense of patronization towards Lily regarding being out of school, to which Lily responds “I’m done schooling this year and more” (Joyce 2173).
This passage creates a tension early between the two that Gabriel may look down on her and others without any reason. Later in the night, Gabriel observes the partygoer’s bodily features and they “reminded him that their grade of culture differed from him (Gabriel)” (Joyce 2174).
Again, this is a reflection of Gabriel’s smug nature between himself and the partygoers. He feels that he is above others, yet is obsessed about what people think of him. This lack of transparency between the collective attitudes of the group he is with and who he is as a person is a reflection that his ignorance, ironically, is the source of the party’s entertainment.
Gabriel is made to look foolish by his friends and family members “for Gabriel’s solicitude was a standing joke with them” (Joyce 2175). Though intended to be sarcastic, the narrator’s perspective reveals that Gabriel can no longer stay true to who he is as a person, because of the person he has become.
By attempting to establish a career, Joyce suggests that Gabriel should be re-examining the people in his life he has taken for granted, but Gabriel has voluntarily chosen to keep surface relations with them.
The third problem is that Gabriel appears to be significantly distant from everyone he speaks with and has no emotional connection with anyone, as reflected by those he is supposedly is close with.
From Gabriel patronizing his wife for how long she takes to get ready (“three mortal hours" (Joyce 2173)), to how he “continued blinking his eyes and trying to smile” (Joyce 2179), after Miss Ivors made Gabriel backpedal from her interrogation about the newspaper, Joyce makes it clear how spiritually lost Gabriel appears to be.
How “Gabriel does transcend his own paralytic self-conscious” (Rapp 1), is a reflection that he is spiritually unconscious to himself and those around him. These three problems: self-honesty through language, superficiality, and emotional distance from others are what leads to his epiphany later in the story.
The epiphany Gabriel experiences is that he initially is unable to love. By realizing this, he allows himself to cry, knowing that “such a feeling must be love” (Joyce 2199), when he thinks about his wife at the end of the story.
But Gabriel’s epiphany in itself does not ease the tension between he and others throughout the story. According to Rachel V. Billigheimer’s article, “The Living in James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’”, Gabriel had missed “a close communion” (Billigheimer 5) with his wife “through his lust and shallow pleasures” (Billigheimer 5).
His inability to be compassionate towards his wife is a reflection of how Gabriel put himself in front of others, thus paralyzing himself to the point where he is in an unloving, unfeeling state of mind.
The epiphany attempts to transform Gabriel from an arrogant unfeeling bore, to one who finally experiences humility. The only time Gabriel truly comes to terms with himself, is when he is reduced to tears, because of the epiphany.
The symbolism with Gabriel’s epiphany is that he is looking out at a graveyard as he looks upon “all the living and the dead” (Joyce 2199). This is a reflection that love may only be in an ideal state when someone is in dreams (like his wife was when Gabriel was crying) or after someone is dead. The tragedy that exists is that Gabriel cannot change who he is to appease his wife or others so he remains among the dead; a perfect idealization of love does not exist.
Sympathy for Gabriel
The epiphany however does change Gabriel for the better in other aspects. After reflecting on what has happened throughout the party and how he treated people, Gabriel’s epiphany provides him with peace.
According to C.C. Loomis’ article “Structure and sympathy in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’”, Loomis suggests that Joyce is effective in relaying that “true objective perception, will lead to true objective sympathy” (Loomis 1). Gabriel’s epiphany is a reflection of “intellect” and “emotional intuition” (Loomis 2) coming together when Gabriel finds peace looking out onto the graveyard.
Thus, Gabriel can accept that he is no better or worse then the people at the party. The emotion of his tears, coupled with his wife’s gentle yet condescending demeanor towards Gabriel makes him realize how grateful he should be. The reader should still look at Gabriel from an objective perspective throughout the story and by not doing so the reader may lose, “critical insight into him” (Loomis 2).
What is your favorite work from James Joyce?
Typically, in a work of art such as “The Dead”, the reader must realize that there is something beyond Gabriel having an epiphany. All the events leading to that moment are what make the story a true work of art.
The language in the story takes a playful tone as the first line of the story states that Lily “was literally run off her feet” (Joyce 2172).
The foreshadowing suggests that the frenetic pace of the party will be the focal point of the story. This opening line sets a tone that perception will also be a key mechanism as to how the plot unfolds.
Joyce’s description of body language is also revealing in that it enhances Gabriel’s character defects. In some cases, it is more revealing than anything Gabriel says.
There are also many examples of oxymorons in the play as well which all relate to Gabriel and others lacking a true identity. Gabriel’s mother never approved of his wife because she felt her family was superior to hers. Ironically, his mother married into Gabriel’s father’s wealth.
Unlike Gabriel’s mother however, Gabriel is allowed to come to terms with his own shortcomings through the text. Through language as an art form, Gabriel is systematically categorized with his character defects and allowed to have some resolution. His self-honesty through language, superficiality and emotional distance from others are relieved in silence and through Joyce’s artistic language, there is a resolution for Gabriel.
Rapp, Eric. "Short Stories for Students". Gale Literature Resource Center. Gale Publishing, October 2010.
Billigheimer, Rachel. “The Living in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’.” CLA Journal 31.4 (1988): 472- 83.
Loomis, CC. "Structure and Sympathy in Joyce's 'The Dead'". PMLA : Publications of the Modern Language Association, Vol. 75, no. 1 (Mar. 1960).
Joyce, James. The Dead. 1914.