Tuesday 12 December 2017

Snow is general, 'The Dead' perfect

There's a reason why 'The Dead' is thought to be the greatest short story ever, says Joseph O'Connor

Joseph O'Connor

JAMES Joyce's story The Dead, set in the week of Little Christmas, is often considered the greatest single short story in the English language, and part of the greatest collection, Dubliners. It's arguably the most perfect thing he ever wrote and published, a beautiful part of every Irish person's inheritance. You probably have a copy on your bookshelf; the text is easily available on the internet. But what is the story about?

The plot, such as it is, concerns a man called Gabriel Conroy who is attending an annual party at his aunts' house in Dublin. It's the feast of the epiphany, or Nollaig na mBan, as it was known, the end of the yuletide season. Gabriel, a Dubliner, is married to Gretta, who is from Galway, in the remote and beautiful west. He has a task to perform at the party -- he must give a speech in tribute to his aunts -- and as he arrives, slightly late, he is nervous and preoccupied because he doesn't want to make a mess of this duty.

Other guests arrive. There is dancing for the young people. Gabriel continues feeling out of place. The ritualised formality of the dancing, while it allows for physical closeness, seems a pale and lifeless substitute for something else. Everyone is waiting for something to happen. Outside, in the world, troubles swirl like the snow.

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