The Dead by James Joyce

While browsing through the website of the Academy of American Poets, I noticed an excerpt from James Joyce’s great story, The Dead. Gabriel Conroy is reflecting on his wife’s former lover, Michael Furey. This excerpt constitutes the last three paragraphs of the entire story:

The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. 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.

Yes, the solid world seemed to dissolve as he became conscious of the flickering existence of the vast hosts of the dead. So ironic perhaps to even hear the snow falling faintly upon all the living and the dead. Was this an epiphany for Gabriel, a deep awareness that the living and the dead are connected as one? But I doubt I’m capturing the essence.

The story was made into a wonderful movie by John Huston as his last great project before his death a few months later. The movie is very true to the story, and when I think of the story, images from this movie always come to mind.

Roger Ebert has a wonderful review of this movie here. This review is well worth reading and gives great insight into the story, which if you haven’t read I highly recommend.

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  1. Mardé’s avatar

    “The Dead” was one of Cynthia’s favorite stories. She first told me about it. I read the story and we watched the movie together at least once.

  2. Kate’s avatar

    Sounds like heavy reading. I may have to take a stab at it.

  3. Mardé’s avatar

    It’s really just about an Irish dinner party in Dublin around 1904. Lots of interesting characters. The movie is great. I think I’ll be getting it tomorrow from Netflix.

  4. Kate’s avatar

    Thank you for letting me borrow the DVD. I enjoyed the quite, subtle story… and am now reflecting on the film.

    Neither Roger Ebert’s review nor yours, though, answers one question I have. Maybe it is insignificant, but, what was the piece of paper Gabriel kept pulling out of his pocket to read in the early part of the party? I couldn’t read it, and it seemed to me that it would come up later.

    Oh wait. I think I just figured it out. It was notes for the speech he made at the end of dinner! Which later, he ridiculed himself for.

  5. Mardé’s avatar

    Yes, that’s right Kate. These were his notes to himself about his dinner party speech. His speech was wonderful, I thought, and it made the lady hosts feel good. They were so pleased, especially the older one who had trouble hearing. He himself was highly critical of his speech and couldn’t acknowledge that it was a fine one.


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