25 Christmas Things: Day 3 – James Joyce’s “The Dead”

Anjelica Huston as Gretta in the excellent film adaptation of “The Dead”

For the majority of its length, the title of the last short story in James Joyce’s Dubliners makes little sense. The first 75% of the story is just a nice Christmas party thrown by old people for old friends. There are a few younger guests but even they adopt a kind of old sentimentality about them as the night wears on and songs are sung, drinks consumed, and speeches given. It’s not exactly an exciting dinner party, but it does create a certain atmosphere of quiet celebration. Reading this story as a young English major at college, I had little experience with this kind of party but what I read at once enticed and frightened me. Is this the kind of person I would grow up to be? Did I really want to grow up if that was the case? Would I drink too much at an advanced age and make a fool of myself, or develop a reputation for doing so? No, that’s not what I wanted at all. But did I want to have people who would invite me to such a party, even knowing that I might become an idiot? Certainly. These are strange friendships that take a long time to develop and even longer to entrench so that dumb actions wouldn’t be cause for a missing invite the next year. I don’t think I had any friendly relationships at that point and it made me sad. The party was nice to read about but underneath there was a melancholic streak that tinged the celebration.

Maybe, though, the fault was not solely in myself. Like I said earlier, the title only seems odd for the beginning and middle chunks of the story. By the end, “The Dead” is the only possible title the story could have. In the last piece of the story the two younger guests at the party go home together, husband (Gabriel) and wife (Gretta), and have a conversation about Gretta’s  lost young romance, Michael Furey. Furey died from some kind of illness while they were both young. This seems to be the first time Gretta has ever shared this information with her husband and he goes from trying to use it against her to accepting the fact that she’s had something he’s never had: a true, deep love of another person. She cries a bit as she relays the story to Gabriel and then goes to bed, but the force of her story and the emotional reaction she had to telling it deeply upsets Gabriel and he stays awake long enough to consider his lack of romance and have the snow start falling. The last paragraph of this story is the best thing I’ve ever read, as it gets the mood of the early morning world and the melancholy yearning Gabriel has just right.

I’ve gone back to read this story about once a year and knowing the ending enlightens the rest of the piece. It makes that undertone I felt concrete and heartbreaking. Holidays, especially Christmas, are times for celebration and getting together on long, cold nights. We use each other to warm ourselves against the chill of the weather and the sorrow we have for those that are no longer there to celebrate. Last year my family lost one of our brightest candles against that night as one of my cousins succumbed to cancer. She was a Michael Furey type, one who would stand out in the rain to say a final goodbye or cause an old friend to remember her after years and years of her being gone. On the day of her funeral the first snowfall of the season happened and I could not stop thinking of the last lines of this story. So this day of Christmas goes to you, Amy, and everybody whose lives you made better through your incandescence.

Yes, the newspapers were right: 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.

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