Élodie Gaden (novembre 2005)

Joyce, The Dead

James Joyce is an Irish writer of the XXth century. He has a great importance in the English-language litterature since he has renewed the novel an deeply influenced the first half of the XXth century. He wrote Dubliners, a collection of short stories which take place in Dublin.

"The Dead" is the last short story of the collection. The scene takes place in Dublin, during a family party. The extract we have chosen shows a moment at the end of this party : Gabriel, one of the main characters, is observing his wife and we have access to his thoughts and his imagination.

Gabriel had not gone to the door with the others. He was in a dark part of the hall gazing up the staircase. A woman was standing near the top of the first flight, in the shadow also. He could not see her face but he could see the terracotta and salmonpink panels of her skirt which the shadow made appear black and white. It was his wife. She was leaning on the banisters, listening to something. Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also. But he could hear little save the noise of laughter and dispute on the front steps, a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man's voice singing.

He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.

The hall-door was closed; and Aunt Kate, Aunt Julia and Mary Jane came down the hall, still laughing.

-Well, isn't Freddy terrible? said Mary Jane. He's really terrible.

Gabriel said nothing but pointed up the stairs towards where his wife was standing. Now that the hall-door was closed the voice and the piano could be heard more clearly. Gabriel held up his hand for them to be silent. The song seemed to be in the old Irish tonality and the singer seemed uncertain both of his words and of his voice. The voice, made plaintive by distance and by the singer's hoarseness, faintly illuminated the cadence of the air with words expressing grief:

O, the rain falls on my heavy locks
And the dew wets my skin,
My babe lies cold . . .

-O, exclaimed Mary Jane. It's Bartell D'Arcy singing and he wouldn't sing all the night. O, I'll get him to sing a song before he goes.

-O do, Mary Jane, said Aunt Kate.

Mary Jane brushed past the others and ran to the staircase but before she reached it the singing stopped and the piano was closed abruptly.

-O, what a pity! she cried. Is he coming down, Gretta? Gabriel heard his wife answer yes and saw her come down towards them. A few steps behind her were Mr Bartell D'Arcy and Miss O'Callaghan.

-O, Mr D'Arcy, cried Mary Jane, it's downright mean of you to break off like that when we were all in raptures listening to you.

-I have been at him all the evening, said Miss O'Callaghan, and Mrs Conroy too and he told us he had a dreadful cold and couldn't sing.

-O, Mr D'Arcy, said Aunt Kate, now that was a great fib to tell.

-Can't you see that I'm as hoarse as a crow? said Mr D'Arcy roughly.

He went into the pantry hastily and put on his overcoat. The others, taken aback by his rude speech, could find nothing to say. Aunt Kate wrinkled her brows and made signs to the others to drop the subject. Mr D'Arcy stood swathing his neck carefully and frowning.

-It's the weather, said Aunt Julia, after a pause.

-Yes, everybody has colds, said Aunt Kate readily, everybody.

-They say, said Mary Jane, we haven't had snow like it for thirty years; and I read this morning in the newspapers that the snow is general all over Ireland.

-I love the look of snow, said Aunt Julia sadly.

-So do I, said Miss O'Callaghan. I think Christmas is never really Christmas unless we have the snow on the ground.

-But poor Mr D'Arcy doesn't like the snow, said Aunt Kate, smiling.

We can wonder how this passage is situated between the realism effect and the abyss of the imagination.

We'll firstly study how James Joyce depicts a portrayal of manners based on reality and realism. Then, how he emphasizes on the paradoxical relationship between Gabriel and his wife. Finally, we'll see the symbolism of the scene : the conflict between love and death, and the importance of the snow in Joyce's poetics.

A portrayal of manners based on reality and realism.

James Joyce bases the story on reality. Ireland, and more particularly Dublin, forms the background of all his works.

In the extract, we can find two evocations of Ireland and Dublin. At first, on line 31, "to be in the old Irish tonality." It creates an atmosphere with folk music. Using the expedient of music, the author immerses the reader in the Irish culture: the sense of hearing is mobilized and it permits to create realistic effect. On line 70, "the snow is general all over Ireland" is also an evocation of typical fact (its weather). Moreover, the song on lines 36 to 38 has a national significance : it is taken from The Lass of Aughrim. Aughrim is a real village and the site of the Irish defeat at a battle in 1691. So the national spirit is indirectly conveyed by this song and it creates a connivance with the reader (at least the Irish reader).

The scene takes place in an Irish family, during a party. James Joyce succeed in refunding the atmosphere of the party. Besides, he restores the dialogues of the guests in direct speech. It gives to the story more authenticity and it restores the rhythm of the party. But the use of direct speech is also a manner to show the characters as puppets. The narrator doesn't adjust them. The author shows the vacuity oh their speech and it is a way to depicts the society with irony. For example, the dialogue is totally empty between Mary Jane, Aunt Kate and Mr. D'Arcy. "Still laughing" (line 34) is also ironical about Mary Jane and so is "the singer seemed uncertain both of his words and of his voice" (line 32) : there is a gap between the quality of "singer" and "uncertain (...) of his voice." James Joyce depicts a portrayal of manners both realistic and ironical.

But Joyce seems to go beyond this aspect of realism, laying the emphasis on two characters : Gabriel and his wife.

A paradoxical relationship between Gabriel and his wife

Indeed, the author draws the reader's attention to the two characters Gabriel and his wife.

The role of these protagonists is paradoxical. They seems to be both very close to each other and very distant. The reader has to see the scene in the perspective of Gabriel. This is an internal point of view centered on Gabriel. So the reader discovers the scene through Gabriel's eyes. The name of "Gabriel" echoes to the Bible because Gabriel was an angel in the christian religion. In the text, he is a sort of angel who contemplates the scene without taking part to it. Gabriel is far from the other guests : "Gabriel had not gone to the door with the other." (line 1). Moreover, Gabriel is also rather far from his wife : "He could not see her face" (line 4), "he could hear little" (line 9). There is a sort of confusion of the senses, as if there was a filter between Gabriel and his wife, and between the scene and the reader. It is suggested by some phrases as "dark part" (line 2), "in the shadow" (line 4), "something" (line 8).

But then, on line 28 : "now that the hall-door was closed the voice and the piano could be heard more clearly." The point of view becomes clearlier. This writing technique could be compared to a cinematographic writing and it is a prove of modernity. We can also add that we haven't access to Gabriel's wife thanks to a canonic description : it is rather a description with touches. All these techniques echos in painting to the impressionnists : the reader and the narrator must adjust the point of view, they can't see Gabriel's wife entirely. It was also a narrative technique used by Marcel Proust in his works.

It even seems that Gabriel must use art to describe his wife. It is impossible to show her in a simple description : it is more than a desprition, it is a contemplation of the woman. On line 13 to 22, he sees his wife as an object of desire "the grace and the mystery", "the symbol of something". He goes so far in his inconscious desire to turn her into an object that he wants to paint a picture of her : "if he were a painter", "Distant music he would call the picture if he were a painter." This description of the painting is an ekprasis because it echoes to All in the Dark, by Sheridon Le Fanu (1865). The woman becomes both an object of desire and an artistic object, and she doesn't belong any longer to the reality as the narrator says line 86 : "She was in the same attitude and seemed unaware of the talk about her." We can also make a parallel with the Preraphaelites in England : they painted many women, always in their thoughts, as Gabriel's wife in this extract, especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti. (To go further : see : http://www.articons.co.uk/rossetti.htm and http://www.artmovements.co.uk/preraphaelites.htm)

A symbolism conflict between love and death

There is a symbolical tension between death and love. The love is conveyed in the passage by the fact Gabriel contemplates his wife. The last sentence also underlines the love : "A sudden tide of joy went leaping out of his heart."

The theme of death is present several times : firstly in the lexical fields of coldness. Coldness occurs in several times ("dreadful cold" (line 55), line 66, line 79) and particularly in the song : "My babe lies cold." It shows the immobility and it underlines the destiny of the baby. It sounds very pessimistic with the use of the verb "lies". But at the same time, the love is entirely conveyed by the song since it evoks a mother and its baby, we can imagine that she loves her.

Moreover, the lyrics of The Lass of Aughrim tel the story of a young girl who has a child by a Lord Gregory, who seduced her and then left her. So the song is a love song but it shows the complexity of the feeling of love. There is a conflict in the passage between the evocations of love and death, a tension between Eros and Thanatos.

We can add that it is also the death of the traditionnal writing (as we already noticed) : the writing becomes poetry and is no longer a description, it lays the emphasis on imagination and poetry.

There are two levels in the passage : the general setting (with all the guests) and the level of Gabriel and his wife which is the level of imagination. On line 13, "He stood still in the gloom of the hall" shows that we enter in the darkness, in gloom. The author creates an abyss : an abyss in the imagination in which the reader is invited.

There is another theme very important in James Joyce's poetics : the symbol of snow. Indeed, the snow is already present in the passage : "the snow is general all over Ireland" (line 70). It is an important theme in "The Dead": it bespeaks the theme of fall : both the fall in death and the fall in love. Indeed, this theme of fall is shown physically by snow. The sentence "the snow is general all over Ireland" is a proleptic for the final paragraph where Joyce does something unusual, strange, and new for fiction: he takes a line from dialogue here and transfers it to the narration in the final paragraph of the short story : "snow was general all over Ireland." This is a method that will be much used in Ulysses. These sorts of echoes coincide with the exigence of brevity since Joyce wrote short stories. He instaures reference points which guide the reader and which create connivance between the author and the reader.

To conclude, we can say that the passage restitutes some writing devices that build Joyce's poetic. The characters are shown in a certain point of view which is not clear, rather fuzzily. The realism is a base for the writing (especially the role of Ireland) but the author goes beyond and emphasis on the imagination so that the reader doesn't know any longer if Gabriel's wife is still there or if she is a pure product of the imagination. The passage to a symbolical interpretation is obliged in Joyce's works. He is interested in mythic material, in the symbolism of the conflict between Eros and Thanathos, and in the symbolism of snow.