The Dead by James Joyce, 1914
The magic trick:
Balancing a richness of detail with a more hands-off thematic approach
Congratulations, we have made it through our three-week run of Dubliners stories. The stories to this point have been almost uniformly good, some utterly brilliant. But today we reach a new level of genius. “The Dead” is unquestionably the best story in Dubliners, and probably the best story among the 500 or so I’ve read for this blog.
It’s one of those prism stories that reflect light in a new direction from every angle at which you look at it. Seriously, there is so much going on here in this story – from political commentary to Irish cultural changes to symbolism to characterizations to lyricism – I can’t possibly wrap my brain around it yet, let alone cram it into one magic trick blog post.
I will say that Joyce, now fully formed here as if the previous Dubliners stories were but mere apprenticeships, strikes me as the intersection between Chekhov and Dickens. He has all of the rich, colorful detail of Dickens but without those Dickensian occasionally overcooked, emotional sugarfests. Or to flip it: Joyce lets the story breathe in a very Chekhovian way while still filling the pages with characters and humor and plot.
Every scene is vivid. Every feeling, especially those of our protagonist Gabriel, rings true. There isn’t a single false step, a single wasted word. That’s not to say that every sentence points to a single effect. They don’t. As I said, this story is a prism. There are hundreds and hundreds of thoughts and feelings and literary devices to mull over by the story’s end. But everything points in the same direction. It never feels scattered or overwhelming. The reader is given this Dublin in pure technicolor and then left to sort out what it all means. And that’s quite a trick on Joyce’s part.
“0, to tell you the truth,” retorted Gabriel suddenly, “I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!”
“Why?” asked Miss Ivors.
Gabriel did not answer for his retort had heated him.
“Why?” repeated Miss Ivors.
They had to go visiting together and, as he had not answered her, Miss Ivors said warmly: “Of course, you’ve no answer.”
Gabriel tried to cover his agitation by taking part in the dance with great energy. He avoided her eyes for he had seen a sour expression on her face. But when they met in the long chain he was surprised to feel his hand firmly pressed. She looked at him from under her brows for a moment quizzically until he smiled.
Then, just as the chain was about to start again, she stood on tiptoe and whispered into his ear: