The main theme of the short story “The Dead” written by James Joyce is the mortality and uselessness of life that is lived without any passion. Although the reader does not realize this until the very last paragraph of the story, Joyce gives a number of hints throughout the story. Perhaps the biggest hint the story is regarding dead and mortality is the title itself. The main part of the story concerns a Christmas party full of dance, laughter, music and gaiety. This is strange and a big hint that something is amiss, considering that the story is titled “The Dead”. Also, the very first word of the story is the name of the caretaker’s daughter, Lily. The lily flower is a symbol of death and used at funerals.
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As the story progresses, Joyce continues to give several other hints regarding the theme of his story. When Gabriel first reaches the party, he teases his wife using the words “three mortal hours to dress herself” (Joyce 1). Gabriel is a well read man and considers himself superior to those around him. He finds it difficult to understand why anyone would want to spend so much time in getting dressed. As a practical man with little use for beauty and passion, the idea of wasting three hours on such a frivolous undertaking is beyond his comprehension. Even though he later appreciates the result of all the effort Gretta had put in dressing up, his wives beauty only serves to make him happy and not passionate. According to Joyce, a life without passion is as good as a death, something we realize much later in the story.
Gabriel obviously considers himself superior to other people in the party as evidenced in his thinking that his speech would “be above the head of his hearers” (Joyce 2). But towards the end he realizes that despite all his education when compared to his wives first love, Michael, he had not really lived his life. Michael, who died young, had lived a much better, if shorter life because he had discovered passion in that life.
There are several other references to death in the narration. While thinking about the circumstances of his marriage to Gretta, he remembers how Gretta had nursed his mother “during all her last long illness” (Joyce 7). Such thoughts were completely out of place in the gay environment of the Christmas party.
Finally, when Gretta tells Gabriel the story of her first love, Michael, who died for her, Gabriel realizes that despite being so well educated and successful, he had been living life like dead because he had never known any passion. In contrast, Michael, who had died at seventeen, had lived a passionate life and hence was alive in his wife’s heart even though he had been dead for years.
Several references to the frigid snow throughout the narration further enhance this theme of death. While looking out of the window, Gabriel wishes to walk alone in the park when “the snow would be lying on the branches of the trees and forming a bright cap on the top of the Wellington Monument” (Joyce 9). The monument was built to commemorate the victories of the Duke of Wellington. Even though the monument supposedly celebrates victory in war, no war is complete without thousands of death. The cold, frigid snow seems to understand the tragedies behind the war victories and forms a “cap” on the monument as if in honor of the dead.
The next instance when snow further enhances the story’s theme is when Gabriel is about to give his speech after the dinner and thinks about the pure air of the quay outside. Thinking about outside once gain reminds him of “the park where the trees were weighted with snow. The Wellington Monument wore a gleaming cap of snow” (Joyce 15). Joyce once again refers to the Wellington Monument in the same way. The snow on the trees also has significance. During the spring and summer months, trees are full of life and bear fruits and flowers. However, as the autumn sets in, they shed their leaves, akin to old age and finally in winter, they get covered in snow, which can be compared to death and being buried. Thus the tree covered in snow is an allusion to old age and death.
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Finally, the story ends with Gabriel lying on his bed thinking about the falling snow.
“Snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead” (Joyce 27).
In this paragraph, snow is likened to cold frigid death. Just as snow is all over Ireland, so is death. The “spears” and the “barren thorn” are but instruments of death which are covered by snow. And death does not just mean the end of life but even the living can be dead if they do not have any passion in their heart. Just as the land covered with snow is barren and frigid, so is a heart which has known no passion. The falling snow makes Gabriel realize that Michael may have been dead and buried for years, but he was still alive in Gretta’s heart. And even though he lusted for Gretta, his lack of passion meant he could never have the same place in Gretta’s heart that Michael still held. And so within Gretta’s heart, Michael was still alive was he was already dead.
The names of Gabriel and Michael also have a religious reference in the story. Both Gabriela and Michael were archangels who had helped mankind on several occasions. In the Book of Daniel, Archangel Gabriel helps Daniel interpret the dreams. However, when Gabriel is held up in a conflict with the Prince of Persia, archangel Michael has to come to his help before Gabriel can reach Daniel and help him interpret his dreams. In “The Dead”, Gabriel is similarly unable to see his own foolishness and conceit until he is “rescued” by Michael. The name Michael means “like God”. In this sense, Michael was like God to Gabriel in that he helped him understand the true meaning of life.
After hearing about Michael from Gretta, Gabriel realizes how empty a life he had been living. Throughout the story, Gabriel had come across as an extremely conceited and proud person who thought that he was superior to all others attending the party. He changed his speech which included quotations from Robert Browning because he thought that the other guests at the party will not understand it. When his interaction with Lily about her love life ends up in his being embarrassed, he tries to assuage the embarrassment by giving a coin to Lily. Later during his argument with Miss Ivors, he avoids using a phrase which he considers “grandiose” because he did not want to be ridiculed by her. Even in his wanting his wife, his attitude is that he wants to possess Gretta.
However, after hearing the story of Michael, Gabriel realizes the futility of his all his achievements and his pride. He realizes that he had spent his whole life trying to avoid embarrassment and getting an education which much superior than that of others around him. On the other hand, Michael had lived a short and uncomplicated life in which he feared no one and nothing. Unlike Gabriel, Michael was not afraid to make mistakes or to pursue what he wanted. He lived his life in passion and died in passion leaving an indelible mark on the one person who mattered most to him. And Gabriel, for all his sophistications, could not achieve the same status because he lacked the passion of Michael.
Joyce, James. “The Dead”. Short Fiction Classic and Contemporary. Ed. Charles Bohner. 6th ed. USA: Prentice Hall, 2005. Print.