To be sure, James Joyce's The Dead is one of the best examples of the short story in English Literature. Indeed, the artistry, depth of feeling, and acute insights into the human psyche are all on striking display in the piece. However, although many note the remarkable internal angst of Gabriel, and the role of the obvious theme of death and "the dead" throughout the story, there remains a strong theme of women, and their role as "catalyst touchstones" grounding Gabriel as well as the reader in the realization of the inevitability of suffering and death.
One of the interesting aspects of interpreting any of the works of Joyce as feminist in nature, is the common criticism of Joyce's actual life. One typical example of this problem is touched on in the article "Banking on Joyce," in which he is described as despising intellectual women, and taking pride in his wife's near illiteracy.
Although their may be merit in acknowledging the difficulty of reconciling the discrepancies in any author's life with their literary work, there are considerable difficulties that arise from such a form of literary criticism in Joyce's work or that of any other author. After all, how many individuals, authors or no, fully live their ideals?
There is, however, significant indications that Joyce did have at least ideological leanings toward feminist views. Indeed, these "leanings" are noted extensively. Take, for example Jennifer Brea's observation in her work, "Penelope: In search of the Feminist in James Joyce:"
Joyce rebelled against ... repressive attitudes toward sexuality and social relationships as evidenced in his unconventional relationship with Nora, his reshaping of the idea of "women," the female artists and intellectuals that formed his inner circle, and his support of their movement.
Even Joyce, himself, touched on his feminist views in various interviews that he would give over the years. One notable example was related in the work, Conversations with James Joyce, in which he commented on Ibsen's Doll House:
You do not understand the spirit which animated him. The purpose of The Doll's
House, for instance, was the emancipation of women, which as caused the greatest revolution in our time in the most important relationship there is between men and women: the revolt of women against the idea that they are the mere instruments of men.
That aside, there remains the question of whether it is even necessary to consider the question of whether Joyce is traditionally feminist in his message in The Dead. Indeed, many would argue that the "plight of women," although quite poignantly portrayed in the story, is only a device by which the author grounds the reader in the stark reality of mortality and inevitable death -- and in the realism of the darkness of human motives. Of course, this is not to say that there are not clear feminist themes -- take for example, Kelly Anspaugh's observation that:
James Joyce uses Gothicism to subvert patriarchal notions in his short story 'The
Dead.' Among the elements of Gothic literature found in 'The Dead' are confusion of realms, a dark castle, ghosts and live burial. Sheldon Brivic misinterprets this
Gothicism as merely an elaboration of Joyce's dark vision. There have been recent
literary studies about the feminist subversive function of Gothic literature. Joyce's
Lily, Miss Ivors and Gretta, who challenge Gabriel Conroy's masculinity, suggest that Joyce intended to subvert patriarchal notions through 'The Dead.'
Although it is true that Joyce's female characters in The Dead "challenge Gabriel Conroy's masculinity," as Anspaugh observes, her observation that to view the story as a device to "subvert patriarchal notions" while attributing the themes of darkness, "other realms" of reality, and mortality only as props bolstering that message is simplistic.
Indeed, one wonders whether the consideration of feminist themes is mutually exclusive to the interpretation of The Dead as a masterful observation on the dual realities of human life -- an existence precariously perched on the divide between acute awareness of mortality and the numbing fear of the unknown that knowledge evokes, the realm of the "inner mind" and the resulting projection of a "false reality." Is it not possible to consider those feminist themes to be, in fact, a further striking example of the "dual nature of reality?" Of the vast chasm between joyful appearances (in the party), and the often, sad reality of female life in specific, and human life in general?
Consider, for example, one of the opening scenes of The Dead in which Lily, the young caretaker's daughter, and the exchange between her and Gabriel while she is helping him with his coat:
"Tell me, Lily,' he said in a friendly tone, 'do you still go to school?'
"O no, sir,' she answered. 'I'm done schooling this year and more.'
O, then,' said Gabriel gaily, 'I suppose we'll be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man, the?'
The girl glanced back at him over her shoulder and said with great bitterness:
"The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you.'
To be sure, one can note the feminist and social message in the exchange between Lily and Gabriel -- the tragedy of a poor girl without education, her fatigue at being overworked, her symbolic "serving" of the men attending the party (while the women serve themselves upstairs), and, finally, the bitterness of the girl with regard to the nature of men and marriage. However, to view these themes without taking into consideration the first example of Gabriel's discomfort with a "reality" he is not ready to acknowledge -- his naive faith in a "false world" of educated girls, and the good news of marriage hitting the wall of stark reality that Lily presents in her bitter reply, is a grave error.
Even the format of the setting -- a festive Christmas party -- parallels this theme of two worlds or two realities. Further, the hostesses of the party, itself, echo the joy/darkness dichotomy by their very role and position in life. After all, on the surface, the two "spinster" aunts are happy, good natured hosts of an annual revel reinforcing the bonds of the society in which they belong -- yet the reality of their situation as spinsters is underscored by the "beautiful" song performed by Aunt Julia concerning "lost love," poignant both because of her position, and in the foreshadowing of Gretta's later admission of her lost love. Yet, again, the point is not only the sad position of Aunt Julia -- the pure feminist interpretation, but in the terrible dual-experience of the same event as both beautiful and horrible.
That Gabriel in effect "presides" over the festivities (giving a speech, carving the goose), is fitting. After all, he, more than any other seems to be the one most mired in his delusions of reality, yet still precariously perched on the brink of unwelcome discovery as indicated by his frequent episodes of discomfort -- his embarrassment with Lily, worry over his speech, discussion with Miss Ivors (and his awareness of people "listening"). Further, as feminist critics cannot fail to notice, the fact that he is a man is not insignificant. Clearly, Joyce could have narrated the story from a female character's point-of-view. The fact that he instead chose Gabriel not only illustrates the feminist message that is present, but underscores the dark reality that "society" as it is headed by men, too often ignores.
That men in particular are out of touch with the reality of life, especially as it is related to mortality is further underscored by the dinner discussion of the monastery on Mount Melleray where "the monks never spoke, got up at two in the morning, and slept in their coffins." Here, the reader notes that whereas the women seem to fully understand the significance and merit of the monk's coffin slumber, as Mary Jane notes, " ... To remind them of their last end," the men in the discussion either fail to understand the idea completely, "Mr. Brown still seemed not to understand," or misinterpreted the significance, " ... The monks were trying to make up for the sins committed by all the sinners in the outside world." Further, Mrs. Malins final observation amidst the uncomfortable silence following the explanation, "They are very good men, the monks, very pious men," drives the point home.
Interestingly, it is the final scenes with Gretta, Gabriel's wife in which the dual realities becomes most apparent. The reader sees that as the party progresses, Gabriel is continually buffeted by the discomforting events of the party. Yet, despite the scene in which he sees his wife at the top of the stairs in shadow, and imagines that she reminds him of something he cannot recall, he falls back into his customary denial -- shaking off the unease that is clearly a result of the evocation of the reality he wants to avoid, and allows his mind…