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
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.
What is brilliant is the series of subtle ways in which Joyce invites you to empathise with Gabriel. His gift of money to the serving girl, Lily, establishes him as a decent and generous man. His nervousness -- his constant checking his notes for his speech -- reveal him to be concerned to make his elderly aunts feel appreciated.
Indeed, his nervousness itself is a clever form of appealing to our empathy. Most of us have occasionally felt uneasy in a social situation. Joyce is quietly appealing to us to remember this unease, and thereby to identify with his character.
Joyce understood well that all stories are about conflict, and how it generates narrative tension, making the reader want to stay on board. Cleverly, all the way through The Dead, he is generating conflict all the time. You feel Gabriel, really, would rather be somewhere else. Perhaps back at his home, perhaps in the Dublin hotel room he has taken for the night with his wife, to whom he has a clear and strong attraction. And you notice how his aunts are constantly leaning on him to perform little tiresome duties: looking after the drunkard Freddie Mallins, carving the goose at dinner. People are constantly telling Gabriel what to do. There is a strange encounter with his former college friend, Molly Ivers. She calls him "a west Briton", half flirtatious, half aggressive, yet appeals to him to come on a holiday he doesn't want to undertake.
The Dead is full of beautiful music from start to finish.
There is music in the prose itself -- very muted and quiet -- and John Huston replicates this in his brilliant film version of Joyce's masterpiece by his use of muted and quiet colours. Much of the reminiscing the characters do is about music in one way or another. And a song plays a major part in the stunning conclusion to the story, as the snow falls into the waves of the mutinous Shannon and becomes general over the land of Ireland.
Every able writer can get a story going, and most can come up with an ending. But where Joyce's extraordinary genius is most to be detected is in what is happening in the middle of The Dead. Without springing any huge surprises, he continuously makes Gabriel a more ambiguous character. And he uses the middle of the story to gently ease the minor characters into the centre of the action: the stories of poor Georgina Burns, the singer who died long ago, and of the strange rites and rituals of the monks at Mount Melleray, hint at what is to come at the end. This particular function -- foreshadowing -- is almost always best done in the middle of a story, but it has rarely been done with such subtle brilliance. The ending of The Dead has been hailed by critics and readers alike as a masterpiece, almost in its own right. Joyce's use of the poignant traditional song The Lass of Aughrim changes the atmosphere of the story immediately. It slowly reveals the amazing reality that the story has in fact never been about Gabriel Conroy, or about Gretta, or about anyone we have met. It is as though a ghost has been haunting the proceedings right from the beginning. The ending has changed the entire story into a story about something else, and it works so beautifully by being so carefully arranged. The end makes it a story about us. It's a story of love, of solidarity with one another. It says there is no destiny waiting, no preordained path; it is only that those we love become that destiny. It is really a matter of recognising them.
Joyce knows that the week of Little Christmas can be a moment of spiritual miracle: the end of the old, the start of the new. He says it is possible to walk out of the tomb of the past, with bravery, courage, and wisdom. We mustn't cling to old bitterness, old trinkets, old nothings, when the future is waiting to be faced. At this moment in our national story, when snow is general over Ireland once again, it is the perfect new year reading, perhaps.
Joseph O'Connor's Wednesday radio diary is commissioned by RTE One's Drivetime with Mary Wilson. His new novel, 'Ghost Light', will be published in May.