Unraveling the Veil of Mortality: A Probing Analysis of Transience and Epiphany in James Joyce’s “The Dead”

By: Michael Schmalz

Unraveling the Veil of Mortality:

A Probing Analysis of Transience and Epiphany in James
Joyce’s “The Dead”

James Joyce’s short story, “The Dead”,
is a quintessential example of modernist literature that captures the
introspective turmoil of its protagonist, Gabriel Conroy, as he attends a
dinner party with his wife, Gretta. In “The Dead”, James Joyce employs
the dribble of snow to connote the interplay between the supposed generational
transmigration in Dublin and the paralytic self-consciousness of Gabriel, both
of which are steeped in nostalgia. This intricate, progressive human
realization amidst the bleak and frigid setting is epitomized by a series of
stark contraventions and profound paradigmatic transformations that effectively
alter Gabriel’s notion of life. Consequently, Joyce highlights the tension
between tradition and modernity in early 20th-century Ireland while exploring
the complexities of human emotions and self-awareness. 

As a progressive metaphor, the use of snow is
initially presented as a particularly quaint, yet frivolous element that sets
the mood for the rest of the story. However, readers are hastily confronted
with an obscure foreshadowing as Gabriel approaches the party, his overcoat
adorned with “a light fringe of snow” despite “scraping the snow from his
goloshes” (Joyce 1249). The snow is an ingrained aspect of human nature,
connecting the flawed essence of human nature and the unique, random qualities
that constitute a snowflake. Joyce portrays Gabriel's covetous attempt to
escape his human nature through this meteorological lens, further evidenced by
his awkward social interactions with Lily and Miss Ivors. These interactions
denote Gabriel’s lingering with nostalgic, historic tendencies of a rigid
gender hierarchy, which he attempts to uphold through a domineering and
superior authority over female guests, often leaving them uneasy. Gabriel’s
supercilious complex is overtly demonstrated as Gabriel “liked nothing better
than to find himself at the head of a well-laden table,” giving a speech that
he felt was “above the heads of his hearers” (1250 & 1261). The spurious
manner of Gabriel serves to conceal any weakness, denigrating others while
maintaining his privileged social class. In his speech, Gabriel extols the
virtues of hospitality in Ireland, boasting its international exclusivity and
calling on the guests to “cherish in our hearts the memory of those dead and
gone great ones” (1265). He contrasts the present generation with the models of
the past, lamenting the present’s lack of continuance with similar ideals.
Gabriel effectively navigates a liminal space between life and death, where he
must supplant his notion of life with that of famous idols. Gabriel's fixation
on the past and his elevation of historical icons to an idealized status reveal
a form of escapism, a way to usurp the sense of stagnancy and disillusionment
that pervades his daily life with a sense of reverence. 

A salient aspect of snow is its physical
transience, how it thaws to give way to an obscure interior, often challenging
previously individualistic characteristics. In the context of “The Dead,”
the snow that covers Gabriel is emblematic of his initial emotional detachment
and sense of social isolation, which symbolically dissipates under the gradual
acclimation into the warm and lively atmosphere of the party. Correspondingly,
as Gabriel continues to explore himself both socially and independently, he
gradually sheds his previously lauded insularity and expands his perspective,
cultivating a broader and more receptive mindset. This modulation is
exemplified when, shortly after his initial glib speech of memory, Gabriel
urges others to “not linger on the past” (1265). Later, when Gabriel shares a
story about his grandfather’s horse and how he would inexplicably “walk around
the statue” like “he was back again in the mill,” he inadvertently divulges and
acknowledges his similarly paralyzed, incessant state of life (1268). 

Furthermore, as Gabriel “tapped the cold pane
of the window,” he experiences a sudden yearning “to walk out alone” in search
of a more meaningful pursuit, essentially forsaking his former haughty and
urbane demeanor to find some purpose, smothered under the fresh snow (1258).
Comparably, as Gabriel walks back with Gretta to their hotel after the party,
he is clenched with a desire to “forget the years of their dull existence
together and remember only their moments of ecstasy” (1271). The snow’s
physical presence surrounding him appears to emotionally unmask him, sparking
covetousness for a state of emotional transparency or something more profound
and transcendent than the mundane and banal existence that has plagued him.
When Gretta later reveals the reason for her distance towards him, recounting
the story of Michael Furey, a boy who sang to her on a cold night and
ultimately died because of it, Gabriel is forced to confront the fragility of
life and the fleeting nature of love which counteracts his previously
‘controlling’ interactions. As Gabriel grapples with the disquieting
realization that his feelings for Gretta pale in comparison to Michael, snow
continues to fall outside, exacerbating and locking Gabriel into a paralyzed,
psychological quandary, where he is impelled to recognize his powerlessness
over Gretta’s choices, the indiscrimination of death, and the subsequent notion
that merely existing does not equate to truly living and that some who have
passed on may have lived more fully than those who remain. Amongst Gabriel’s
epiphany of the contiguities between life and death is a realization of his
“wayward and flickering existence,” spurring the abandonment of previous
narcissistic pulses and the adoption of a more altruistic version of love,
characterized by percipience, impartiality, and a willingness to embark on a
“journey westward” (1276) towards what Homer Obed Brown describes as a “death
of egoism” (Brown 99).

Conclusively, James Joyce utilizes the
symbolic power of snow as a multifaceted metaphor that operates as a magnifying
glass, offering readers an intricate glimpse into the complex psychological
landscape of Gabriel. Through this lens, Gabriel's internal struggle with his
innate humanity and his unrelenting longing for moral ascension are acutely
portrayed, demonstrating Joyce's skillful ability to explore the complexities
of the human psyche. The progressive epiphany of Gabriel throughout “The
is an essential reminder for readers to examine their past
constantly, how it affects them presently, and to consider the complexities of
human emotions and relationships. 

Works Cited

Brown, Homer Obed. James Joyce's Early Fiction: The
Biography of a Form.
Cleveland,     The
Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1972.

Joyce, James. "The Dead." The Norton
Anthology of English Literature
, edited by Stephen  Greenblatt, 10th ed., vol. 2, W. W. Norton & Company,
2018, pp. 1248-1277