James Joyce develops strong female characters in his short story "The Dead" and uses them in contrast to the men. The primary contrast is that between Gretta and Gabriel, and while Gretta is described in feminine terms related to the image of the Blessed Virgin, Gabriel is described in the same terms, creating an interesting shift which carries through the story and brings out differing perspectives on male and female.
James Joyce was born in 1882 in Dublin, Ireland and died in 1941 in Zurich, Switzerland. He is noted as one of the most prominent writers of the twentieth century, noted especially for his experiments in language and literary structure and his contributions to the modern novel. His parents were middle-class, and he was educated by Jesuits. Both elements feature in his works, notably in the short stories that make up The Dubliners, the book which is now ended with "The Dead." His novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is not precisely autobiographical, but many of the personal and artistic difficulties faced by the main character, Stephen Dedalus, mirror concerns in Joyce's young life. As identified as Joyce is with Dublin, however, he left there after graduating from University College in 1902, returning only when his mother was ill and then leaving again after she died. He struggled to support himself and his growing family in France and Italy and worked as a language instructor. The family lived in Zurich, Switzerland while he wrote most of Ulysses (1922) moved to Paris in 1920. Joyce achieved international renown with Ulysses and so gained the financial support he needed to become a full-time writer. Most of his final years were spent on his last work, Finnegan's Wake, published in 1939. Joyce died of a perforated ulcer in 1941 ("James Joyce" (http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/DC/).
Craig Hansen Werner points out that Joyce began his career as an Irishman who looked toward Europe, but who once he left Ireland for the Continent, he turned back to his native land for inspiration. In the nineteenth century, Ireland experienced all of the major movements of the time, but it did so from the perspective of a conquered province, which placed it outside the mainstream. Joyce followed his father's point-of-view and attributed the economic and psychological problems of Ireland to the effects of English oppression on the one hand and Irish self-betrayal on the other:
Grounded in profound cultural differences and ancient racial antagonism, the historical animosity between Irish and English provides the central motif of Irish history from the Norman Conquest to the present. From the irish perspective, England has always appeared in the role of arrogant conqueror, devoted to economic exploitation and cultural imposition. To a large extent, the facts -- repeated economic depression, abusive absentee landlords, devastating famines, the absence of effective political representation -- bear out the Irish complaints (Werner 1-2).
Donald T. Torchiana writes,
Most critics remind us that in Dubliners, his first major publication, Joyce held up a mirror to the average Irishman (Torchiana 1).
Joyce wanted the Irish readers to see themselves in these stories and to recognize their own paralysis, perhaps so they could then do something about it. Torchiana believes that the stories in Dubliners have a particular form and purpose that set them apart:
Dubliners strikes me, then, as a series of representative pictures -- or mirror-images, if you will. That is, they catch a permanence in irish life that has a timeless quality as though each detail in any story had about it a built-in significance that no educated native Irishman could really miss and no outsider, armed with a guide to Ireland and a bit of imagination, could fail to detect (Torchiana 2).
The subject is the aforementioned paralysis, and this paralysis enfolds the city and makes all Dubliners victims. This paralysis is moral, intellectual, and spiritual. Tindall points out that the moral center of the book is not paralysis alone but the revelation of paralysis to its victims:
Coming to awareness or self-realization marks the climax of these stories or of most at least; for knowing oneself, as the Greeks knew, is a basis of morality if not the thing itself... The self-realization of Gabriel, the bitterest and most comprehensive of all, is not only the point and climax of "the Dead" but of Dubliners (Tindall 4-5).
James Joyce was not considered a feminist author, and he often denigrated the idea of the "new woman" trying to achieve "social and economic independence at the end of the nineteenth century" Brivic 117). He expressed his views on many of the leading women of his time:
He took a bemused attitude toward Francis Sheehy-Skeffington's passionate defense of women's rights. And his own relationship with Nora Barnacle swerved erratically between sexual obsession and filial dependence. "I wonder is there some madness in me," Joyce wrote to Nora. "Or is love madness? One moment I see you like a virgin or madonna the next moment I see you shameless, insolent, half-naked and obscene" (Brivic 117)
Brivic further notes, though, that "it would be a mistake to identify Joyce with his misogynist alter-ego, Stephen Dedalus," for Joyce as a mature adult "championed the contemporary 'revolt of women against the idea that they are the mere instruments of men'" (Brivic 117). Brivic further states,
Joyce's own attitude toward women always remained highly ambivalent. The dichotomy in Joyce's mind was not, apparently, between virgin and whore, but between narcissistic virgin and phallic mother?
between the untouched and untouchable ingenue and the experienced maternal female. In the guise of a Dublin coquette, the Virgin Mary of Catholicism became for Joyce a nubile temptress, coyly flirting with adult sexuality (Brivic 117).
Tilly Eggers also notes the prevailing critical view that Joyce is an anti-feminist writer and finds this an unsatisfactory conclusion:
The primary evidence, found in private and literary writings, is Joyce's use of extreme images of women, as virgins or whores or both, images interpreted as means to avoid recognizing women as individuals, either by elevating or by denigrating them. Because both Joyce and Gabriel perceive women in extremes as either spiritual or sensual and because of the autobiographical nature of the story, critics tend to identify the author exclusively with this male character and to equate their attitudes towards women, disregarding the broader perspective Joyce gives on Gabriel by the story as a whole and particularly by the figure of Gretta (Eggers 24).
Eggers says she is not going to try to defend Joyce as a feminist, "but I believe the categorical charge of anti-feminism directed at Joyce and the easy identification of him with Gabriel have ironically provided the excuse to simplify if not overlook the women in 'The Dead'" (Eggers 24). She recommends a reconsideration of the virgin imagery in the story as a way to "free readers, female and male, from an obligation which only prevents understanding of his vision of women" (Eggers 24).
J.P. Riquelme finds that the story is dedicated to undoing certain social hierarchies which would have been prevalent and important in Dublin society, and one of these hierarchies is the male over female hierarchy. The primary hierarchies, which Riquelme says are interlocking, are "those involving class, gender, race, colonialism, nationalism, and regional prejudice" (Riquelme 489). By the end of the story, the gender hierarchy will be shifted -- not dismantled, but shifted enough to create uncertainty about role levels. Riquelme writes,
Women speak in response to Gabriel's provocations throughout the story in ways that he neither anticipates nor intends, and their speech causes him discomfort. In effect, his efforts to hear the confirming echo of his own speech backfire, for the women respond effectively in negative ways to the role he plays as a model of male superiority in an imperialistic, class-structured society (Riquelme 489).
Class structure is of great importance to Gabriel, but he is not always able to differentiate class issues from gender issues, as Riquelme notes:
great deal of Gabriel's anxiety in the story concerns his fear of slipping from the pinnacle that he occupies: that is, his fear that others will not see him as he wishes to be seen. His experiences in turn with Lily, with the nationalistic Miss Ivors, and with his wife indicate to Gabriel and to the reader that the views some others hold about him do not in fact conform to his own (Riquelme 488).
Riquelme cites a moment with Lily and Gabriel as an example:
The first moment includes Lily's pronunciation of Gabriel's surname when she asks, "?
Is it snowing again, Mr. Conroy?" Since Joyce renders the statement by standard spelling, the reader has no reason to suspect a nonstandard pronunciation until Gabriel belatedly notes it in thought: "Gabriel smiled at the three syllables she had given his surname and glanced at her"... Unlike the reader, Gabriel has heard not only her individually intended, semantic meaning but the markers of class difference, which are part of a cultural system's…