Written by Sam Fisher
for Prof. Liana Bellon
James Joyce’s “The Dead” explores the theme of being alienated from one’s self. Gabriel, the main character in “The Dead,” is a member of the Irish upper class in early twentieth-century Dublin. Despite being surrounded by a rather conservative family and group of friends, Gabriel identifies himself as progressive, does not believe in class distinctions, and promotes the idea of leaving Ireland to explore the modern world. However, through an analysis of Gabriel’s conversation with Lily, his speech at the dinner table, and his thoughts when observing the snow falling all over Ireland, one can argue that Gabriel ultimately alienates himself from his modern ideas.
During Gabriel’s conversation with Lily, the assumptions he makes about her due to her gender and social class lead him to realize that he may not be as progressive as he would like to be. When Gabriel first enters the Misses Morkans’ house for their annual dance, Lily, the maid, greets him and helps him remove his coat and boots. Gabriel starts a conversation with Lily, which would have been unusual at the time given the gap between their social classes. The fact that Gabriel speaks to Lily can be perceived as evidence that he does not support class distinctions. During the exchange, Gabriel asks Lily whether she is still in school, to which she replies that she is not. Gabriel then tactlessly states that he supposes he will see Lily at her “wedding […] with [her] young man” (Joyce 6). Here Gabriel implies that because Lily is not getting an education and that she has little money, her only resort is to find a man who will marry and support her. This assumption suggests that Gabriel does not think that members of the lower class have a very high potential. There is also arguably some sexism to this assumption; Gabriel may believe that because Lily is a woman she cannot survive alone and needs a man by her side. After Lily replies “with great bitterness,” Gabriel “colour[s] as if he felt he had made a mistake” (6). The fact that Gabriel colours strongly supports the fact that he is ashamed of what he said, but also realizes that he is more conservative and sexist than he used to think he was. To fix his mistake, Gabriel “[takes] a coin from his pocket” (6) and gives it to Lily. Again, because the maid is not wealthy, Gabriel assumes that a single coin will repair the damage done by his offensive remark. Gabriel does not realize that he offends Lily again here, but it is important to note that he assumes that a small sum of money will buy him forgiveness because Lily is poor. Gabriel tells himself that he believes in gender equality and in the abolition of class distinctions. However, his conversation with Lily suggests otherwise. Gabriel realizes this and may begin to ask himself what his principles mean if he does not live according to them.
In Gabriel’s speech at the dinner table, he further alienates himself from his unconventional ideas by promoting nationalist and traditional ones. About midway through the Misses Morkans’ dance, Gabriel gives a speech to all of the guests. The stage is set for him to stand up for his modern ideas for everyone to see. However, Gabriel accomplishes the exact opposite when he glorifies Ireland as well as its traditions. Gabriel says that he “feel[s] […] that [his] country has no tradition which does it so much honour and which it should guard so jealously as that of hospitality” and that “it is a unique tradition […] among the modern nations” (14). Although Gabriel wants to believe that he has a strong disdain for nationalism and traditionalism, he is incapable of admitting this position to his friends and family. Instead, he advertises himself as a staunch patriot who values his country’s traditions. Furthermore, one can imagine that Gabriel, being a writer, has carefully chosen his words for his speech. It is improbable that the words “tradition” and “country” (14), along with their synonyms, were used repeatedly in the speech without Gabriel having knowingly added them in. This word choice supports the idea that Gabriel is consciously alienating himself from his progressive ideas.
As Gabriel contemplates the snow falling from his hotel window, he realizes that living by progressive principles in Ireland is an impossibility. During this scene, Gabriel thinks about the weather report that announced that “snow was general all over Ireland” (20). He thinks about all of the different places the snow “lay thickly drifted” upon, such as “the dark central plane, […] the treeless hills,” and the “churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried” (20). It is conceivable that because of the thick layer of snow, all of these different locations are now indistinguishable from one another. One could argue that Gabriel has an epiphany at this moment: the progressive and unconventional people in Ireland are equivalent to the differences in the landscape of the different parts of Ireland, while the snow is analogous to the predominantly conservative population. Those conservatives drown out the voices of Ireland’s progressivists just as the snow eliminates the differences in the country’s landscape. In other words, Ireland is as homogeneously snowy as it is conservative. I would argue that here, Gabriel has realized that there is no way for him to live a progressive lifestyle in early twentieth-century Ireland.
In conclusion, we have seen how Gabriel first realizes that he does not always live according to his progressive principles when he speaks to Lily. At the dinner table, Gabriel makes a conscious effort to distance himself from his modern ideas. Ultimately, Gabriel has an epiphany while observing the snow through his hotel window: progressive ideology does not have its place in early twentieth-century Ireland. Through these three moments in Gabriel’s night, the readers have seen how he completely alienates himself from his avant-garde ideas
About the Author: Samuel Fisher is a second year student set to graduate from the First Choice pure and applied science program at the end of the current semester. Born and raised in Montreal, Samuel attended French schools until reaching CEGEP, learning English through Harry Potter. He plans on continuing his studies in mathematics and physics at McGill university next year. Outside of school, Sam enjoys playing piano, reading, and basketball.