James Joyce's "The Dead" and a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Entrapment and escape are common themes uncovered in James Joyce's literature. Joyce often utilizes society as a symbol of entrapment for his characters, and through moments of realization, they often experience an epiphany that allows them to escape their paralysis. In his novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and his short story, "The Dead," Stephen and Gabriel are victims of entrapment. Each man undergoes a transformation through a moment of realization that changes his life. Through setting, language, and point-of-view, Joyce explores different concepts of entrapment and how they affect his characters.
In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen learns over the course of his life to escape, or fly toward his freedom. The significant moment for Stephen occurs late in the novel as he stands on the beach after he decides that he will pursue a life of art. While his friends mock him, Stephen felt as though their name-calling "flattered his mild proud sovereignty. Now as never before, his strange name seemed to him a prophecy" (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man 168). Incidentally, Stephen's name is extremely significant to the novel. His last name, Dedalus, is obviously taken from Deadulas, the mythical man who constructed himself a pair of wings in order to escape to freedom. In fact, as Stephen stands there at the water, he catches a glimpse of a "winged form flying above the waves" (169). While he ponders the significance of the sight, he thinks of the mythical winged man and wonders if it could be a symbol or prophecy of the "end he has been born to serve and had been following through the mists of childhood and boyhood, a symbol of the artist forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being" (169). This image is certainly a symbol of Stephen's new
Stephen's joy at his decision leaves him "unheeded, happy and near to the wild heart of life" (171). Stephen then sees the girl standing midstream before him. The mysterious bird girl represents Stephen's freedom. "Heavenly God! cried Stephen's soul in an outburst of profane joy" (171). "Her image had passed into his soul for ever and now word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy... To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life!" (172). We are told that the vision of the bird girl is a "wild angel" (172). She is essential to the story because her presence reinforces Stephen's point-of-view that he had indeed made the correct choice. He is changed by this epiphany and it brings to mind all that he has accomplished.
While Stephen's entrapment is resolved in a positive way, Gabriel Conroy's is less so. When Gretta reveals the passion she felt for Michael, it is as thought Gabriel sees her and, more importantly, himself for the first time. Her secret uncovers a hidden world for Gabriel. We are told, Gabriel "felt humiliated by the failure of his irony and by the evocation of this figure from the dead... A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him... He saw himself as a ludicrous figure... A nervous well-meaning sentimentalist, eating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror" (The Dead 737). This scene is significant because it is a metaphor for Gabriel's realization. After Gretta drifts into sleep, Gabriel is left in the silence to recognize that his wife felt a passion for Michael that she did not have for him. As he lays in the darkness, he feels his "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" (739). He was finally discovering he is not who he thought he was.
The setting in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and "The Dead" is essential to understanding each character's entrapment. Stephen's epiphany taking place on the beach is significant because it is a stark contrast to the life he has known. He finds a sandy nook where he lays down and experiences the "vast indifferent dome and the calm processes of the heavenly bodies" (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man 172). When he closes his eyes, his soul was "swooning into some new world, fantastic dim, uncertain as under the sea, traversed by cloudy shapes and beings" (172). These images present Stephen experiencing a spiritual transformation that allows him to finally escape from his past in a way that excites and revitalizes him
In contrast, Stephen's experiences at Clongowes can be identified as a series of defeats. For instance, he had "tried to build a breakwater of order and elegance against the sordid tide of life without him and to dam up, by rules of conduct and active interest and new filial relations, the powerful recurrence of the tides within him" (98). Stephen is feeling bewildered by life at this point. As he attempts to make something of his life, his efforts seems fruitless. His scholastic endeavors seem to torment him more than anything does. In addition, he struggles with writing poetry. He is scorned for thinking Byron is a better poet than Tennyson. All of these scenes make Stephen feel as though he does not fit into his society. In fact, we are told that he is "only happy when he was far from them" (84).
In addition, when Stephen rebels, he finds himself wandering through a "into a maze of narrow and dirty streets. From the foul laneways he heard bursts of horse riot and wrangling and the drawling of drunken singers" (100). His sexual encounter and his previous life are associated with images that are depressing while his epiphany is associated with images of the beach, which brings him comfort and peace. Joyce sets this contrast in place to further emphasize Stephen's transformation.
Gabriel's world represents the upper-class society in Dublin in the early nineteenth century. Joyce carefully places scenes of well-mannered individuals dancing, dining, and having fun. It is a bright and lively scene, which intensifies the action that takes place in the dimly lit hotel room. In addition, the constant references to snow reinforce the feeling of isolation that Gabriel will experience. The images of darkness coupled with the cold weather while light is linked with warm weather work toward the paradoxical meaning we discover at the end of the story. Interestingly, the dead are symbolically more alive while those who are alive seem symbolically dead.
Powerful language illustrates the significant aspect of Stephen's entrapment. Perhaps the most striking can be seen in the preacher's sermon. He speaks of the "eternal punishment of sinners" (The Dead 119) that involves unforgettable descriptions of hell. He says, "Hell is a straight and dark and foulsmelling prison, an abode of demons and lost souls, filled with fire and smoke" (119). He describes the awful odor in hell as "intolerable stench; and the bodies of the damned themselves exhale such a pestilential odor that saint Bonaventur says, one of them alone would suffice to infect the whole world" (120). In addition, the physical torment of hell is the greatest "to which the tyrant has ever subjected to his fellowcreatures" (121). Repeated images of fire and punishment cause Stephen to feel more entrapped. His guilt overcomes him and his confession allows him to realize the path to a new life.
Joyce also employs vivid language to emphasize Gabriel's entrapment. The scene as the couple makes their way to the hotel room is filled with images of darkness, pointing toward death. For instance, the porter leads them down a dark corridor with a candle. In the room, a "ghastly light from the street lamp lay in a long shaft from one window to the door" (734). In addition, Gretta's memory of The Last of Aughrim, which causes her to move away from her husband and cry, is a foreshadowing of Gabriel's sudden cause for tears. Gabriel's epiphany occurs in the darkened room as he lay on the bed. We are told, "One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, then fade and wither dismally with age" (739). Gabriel begins to cry, realizing that he had "never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew such a feeling must be love" (739). Sadly, he realizes what real love must be like.
The images of snow continue to demonstrate the ice-cold truth that Gabriel must acknowledge. He realizes the significance of self-sacrifice for brought about by love.
He watches the snow falling outside the window and knows that it is falling "upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where…