James Joyce is one of the most well-known Irish writers of the twentieth century. Many of his works draw upon his personal thoughts and experiences and are rich in symbolism and allusion. Joyce's "The Dead," the last short story in Dubliners, follows Gabriel Conroy as he attends his aunts' annual holiday party. Throughout the short story, the theme of death is constantly present in the characters, the party, and recollections of the past and the future. In "The Dead," Gabriel and Gretta Conroy, Freddy Malins, and Mr. Browne are depicted as dying, emotionally dying, or being emotionally dead in several instances.
Gabriel Conroy, on whom the short story centers, is constantly interacting with death on multiple levels. Symbolically, Gabriel's name can be associated with the archangel Gabriel, who is often referred to as God's messenger and associated with revelations (Hopler, n.d.). Throughout "The Dead," Gabriel comes to recognize how death influences the behaviors of individuals, such as his wife, Gretta, and how it is emphasized by the past. One of the most prominent examples of death and dying occurs at the beginning of the story as Joyce describes Gabriel's family history and introduces his aunts, whose party he and his wife are attending. Joyce explains Kate and Julia Morkan, Gabriel's aunts, have been putting together the holiday gathering since the death of their brother, Pat (Joyce, 1914). As such, it can be argued that the holiday party was born out of death and that through its thirty year run, had not allowed life to commence nor flourish. Moreover, Joyce insinuates that the parties will continue to be thrown for as long as the Morkan sisters are alive, thus establishing that the Morkan sisters' death will also be a death for the party, as well as a death in tradition. Gabriel is also highly impacted by the death of his mother, who voiced her disapproval of his marriage to Gretta. Joyce (1914) writes, "A shadow passed over his face as he remembered her sullen opposition to his marriage. Some slighting phrases she had used still rankled in his memory; she had once spoken of Gretta as being country cute and that was not true of Gretta at all." Which later will demonstrate that Gabriel was blinded by Gretta's other characteristics to fully understand or recognize that the Gretta he saw was not who Gretta truly was.
The decline in Gabriel's family can also be seen through the death of his relationship with his wife, Gretta. While Gabriel and Gretta's relationship may appear to be healthy and without issue at its surface, Gabriel's perception of his wife is slowly destroyed throughout the course of the party and after they leave the party and settle in the hotel for the night. One of the first clues that Gabriel did not know his wife for who she truly was is his failure to recognize her as she stood at the top of the staircase mesmerized by Bartell D'Arcy's singing. Paradoxically, Gabriel asks himself, "[What] is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of?" (Joyce, 1914). Gabriel's inability to recognize his wife demonstrates that he does not know his wife as well as he thought he may have, thus further killing the relationship he has with his wife. Unbeknownst to him, Gabriel instigated the end of their relationship earlier in the night as he refused to give in to her desire to travel to Galway together and inadvertently casts her off. In "Structural Symbol in Joyce's "The Dead," O'Hehir (1957) contends, "Gabriel has released [Gretta] to return alone to Galway, and that is exactly what she does. Every action now will hasten Gabriel to his doom" (p. 8). Ironically, it can be argued that the relationship between Gabriel and Gretta was dead from before the party even started despite the fact that Gabriel was unaware. During the brief conversation revolving around galoshes, Gabriel reveals that Gretta is constantly courting death thus establishing that she does not care for their relationship and does not see it as a living entity. In conjunction with Gabriel's comment that Gretta would "walk home in the snow if she were let," Gretta also reveals that she has gone against Gabriel's wishes and refuses to wear galoshes. It will later be revealed, through her confession to Gabriel at the end of the story that the one true love of her life, Michael Furey, died after going to visit her at a convent before she was to leave despite her telling him "he would get his death in the rain," which he did when he died a week after his visit to the convent (Joyce, 1914).
The death of Gabriel and Gretta's relationship is finalized at the end of the story as Gabriel learns the truth about Gretta's past and realizes that he never knew his wife for the person she really was and was only in love, or he thought he was in love, with the shell of the person she used to be. Through her revelation of her former love for Michael Furey, Gabriel realizes inadvertently kills how he saw himself. Joyce (1914) writes,
Gabriel felt humiliated by the failure of his irony and by the evocation of this figure from the dead, a boy in the gasworks…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. Instinctively he turned his back more to the light lest she might see the shame that burned upon his forehead.
Gabriel's innate reaction to hide himself from his wife further highlights the emotional divide that has forever plagued their relationship.
Death can also be in the lack of vitality between the sexes at the holiday party. In addition to the death of Gabriel and Gretta's relationship, the party also serves to emphasize that the gatherings will never be a source of life, but rather an end to it. Throughout the course of the party, all sexual advances between its attendees, including the Morkan sisters' housemaid and the caretaker's daughter, are rebuffed to signal that there is no chance of sexual reproduction and subsequently no chance of life being a consequence of attending the Morkan sisters' party. One of the first indications of a failed sexual advance is Lily's retort to Gabriel's inquiry of her future prospects of marriage. Lily comments on the death of social convention and states, "The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you" (Joyce, 1914). The death of the socially accepted and expected convention of marriage, and Lily's reaction to the new expected convention, appears to indicate that Lily is opposed to the new convention and as such, will not engage in any sexual activity -- which is required for the creation of life -- for as long as she can. Lily is not the only woman that rebuffs men's sexual advances during the party as Aunt Kate quickly escorts three of her students away from Mr. Browne after he begins to boast of his sexual prowess. Mr. Browne claims, "I'm the man for the ladies," [as he pursed] his lips until his moustache bristled and [smiled] in all his wrinkles. "You know, Miss Morkan, the reason they are so fond of me is-" (Joyce, 1914). Mr. Browne is rebuffed for a second time after he directly approached the young ladies and "leaned forward a little too confidentially and [assuming] a very low Dublin accent so that the young ladies, with one instinct, received…