In honor of today's Feast of the Epiphany, I've excavated a paper I wrote many years ago at university (or as Americans who haven't spent much time in Britain say, 'in college') on James Joyce's "The Dead", and I'm presenting here the one section of the paper that still interests me, a reading of the story's final scene. Students should feel free to plagiarize this post. Just don't get caught, because student plagiarism is taken much more seriously than the professorial kind, as the careers of Doris Kearns Goodwin, Moral John Gardner, et al. have shown.
In "The Dead"'s final section--which takes place almost entirely inside the protagonist's mind--Gabriel Conroy is forced to see himself as a typically paralyzed Dubliner, and his heart is opened to a kind of compassion--"a strange friendly pity"--for his wife, for his relatives, and perhaps for the entire world. There is however, as Peter Garrett has noted, a "balanced ambiguity" (Twentieth Century Interpretations of Dubliners, 15) to the ending of the story. Having read it, one is tempted to ask the simplest and, perhaps, the most important question: "So what?" Yes, Gabriel is granted a beautiful and sublime vision of the unity of "all the living and the dead," and he is forced to see himself as a "ludicrous figure," but what can he, an established, middle-aged, bourgeois Dubliner, do with such a realization? Will he begin immediately on a journey to a figurative or literal 'west,' or will he wake the next morning having entirely forgotten his tremendous late-night revelation? There are several subversive elements in the story's final section--'subversive' in the sense that they undermine the surface meaning of the text and provide opportunities to deconstruct it--which suggest that Gabriel Conroy's life will not be significantly altered as a result of his vision--and that he may in fact even forget the epiphany. There is, in the story's final lines, a sense that Gabriel is accepting neither life nor Ireland; instead, he is surrendering to the living death of his Dublin existence.
The first textual clue that should cause us to suspect the impact of Gabriel's final vision is the fact that he has forgotten all of the other, smaller epiphanies of the evening. When he reflects upon the possible causes of his "riot of emotions" in the preceding scene with Gretta, Gabriel thinks, "From what had it proceeded? From his aunt's supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merrymaking when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow..." Gabriel remembers everything, it seems, except the most important events of the evening, the series of epiphanies triggered by Lily, Miss Ivors, and Gretta. These were the events which lead, like the steps in a geometric proof, to Gabriel's "riot of emotions," but he has already successfully forced them out of his consciousness. Joyce shows us here that Gabriel's modus operandi is simply to forget any situations which have the potential to puncture his inflated and (thus) fragile ego. Perhaps, Joyce implicitly suggests, he will forget this final one too.
Another textual detail undermining Gabriel's vision is the fact that it occurs while he is staring through a window. As we have seen earlier in the story, the windows of "The Dead" are places of escape from domestic obligations, not of the re-evaluating of those obligations. The fact that Gabriel turns to a window before embarking on his thought-journey across Ireland suggests that he is not facing Michael Furey's ghost but escaping from it. Gabriel's mind-trip takes him both away from the hotel room where Furey is very much 'alive' and psychologically threatening and to the imagined cemetery where Furey lies as cold and dead as Chuck Heston's hand. Gabriel's final revery is, despite the wonderfully lyrical language, as shallow and escapist as his earlier vision of walking alone through the snowy park.
Another, more general, deconstructive element is Gabriel's now-familiar unoriginality. Conroy, the professional critic, is granted this vision of unity, but--as in his earlier "distant music" vision of Gretta on the stairs--he is not creative enough to express it in his own words. Again, as in his earlier "souls" and "stars" revery about Gretta, Gabriel relies upon a host of borrowed words and images--borrowed, that is, from true artists--for the enunciation of his vision. Joyce scholars have detected traces of Homer, the New Testament, and even Yeats's Stories of Red Hanrahan in Joyce's closing paragraph. Indeed, the imagery itself is so cliched and kitschy--"the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried" with its "crooked crosses and headstones" sounds like a setting from a Gothic story by Poe or Lovecraft, Anne Rice or even Stephen King--that there are probably a nearly infinite number of possible sources. My addition to this list is Keats's late sonnet "Bright Star," which contains prominent images of "moving waters" and snowfall ("Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask / Of snow upon the mountains and the moors") and, very interestingly, ends with the couplet, "Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath, / And so live ever--or else swoon to death." That last line should set off an associational alarm in the mind of anyone familiar with the final sentence of "The Dead." Gabriel's free use of stock Romantic and Gothic imagery suggests that at the end of the story he is still essentially unchanged. He remains a pretentious faux-Romantic with what L. J. Morrissey calls a limited artistic "vocabulary" ("Inner and Outer Perceptions in Joyce's "The Dead"," Studies in Short Fiction 25.1 (1988)).
Yet another interesting--and possibly even more subtly subversive--textual element is Joyce's sandwiching of Gabriel's final epiphany between two unattributed quotes from Gabriel's cousin, Mary Jane. Gabriel's phrase "snow was general all over Ireland," which he attributes to "the newspapers," is actually an almost exact quote of Mary Jane's statement earlier in the story, " '...I read this morning in the newspapers that the snow is general all over Ireland.' " (It is multiply telling that Gabriel's memory attributes the line directly to the newspaper and elides the female messenger who brought him the news.) At the end of Gabriel's vision, he again quotes Mary Jane with the jarringly repetitive phrase "...of their last end..." (During the earlier dinner table discussion of the monks at Mount Melleray, Mr. Browne asks why the monks sleep in their coffins, and Mary Jane replies that the coffin "is to remind them of their last end.") The importance of these quotes becomes clear when it is recalled that Mary Jane's only significant act in the story is the playing of what Gabriel calls "her academy piece," a long, virtuosic piano composition "full of runs and difficult passages" to which Gabriel and the other listeners only pretend to pay attention. Gabriel's eyes and mind wander during Mary Jane's tedious virtuoso performance, and four unidentified young men slip quietly out of the room to return only when the piece nears its end. Perhaps, by enclosing Gabriel's revery inside quotes from Mary Jane, Joyce is suggesting that Gabriel's final thoughts, with their flashy borrowed imagery and unprecedented lyricism, are the trills and runs of his own literary "academy piece," a pretentious self-indulgence which the reader should probably not take at face value. It seems true for "The Dead"--but not for all of Joyce's work--that, as Hugh Kenner says, the " 'poetic' passages mean that something is being evaded" (A Colder Eye 231).
The question of what exactly Gabriel is 'evading' in these last lines can perhaps be answered by a consideration of his final action in the story. Most commentators interpret the swooning soul and soft, whisper-like eloquence of the story's last sentence as a representation of Conroy joining his wife in sleep. While this final image anticipates Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, in both of which the same concluding image (but can we really call anything in the Wake 'conclusive'?) symbolizes a tenuous kind of domestic order amidst the chaos of modern life, here in "The Dead" it may represent (with apologies to John Cleese) something completely different. When Gabriel drifts off to sleep while experiencing a vision of the unity of living and dead, he is symbolically taking his place among those dead--the passionless, powerless, living, walking dead of dear dirty Dublin. One is reminded of Peter Garrett's remark that the people of Dubliners "appear as joined both in a kind of community and a kind of living death"(15). Gabriel's final act is his final and ultimate evasion. By accepting his position as a Dubliner, he successfully evades Miss Ivors' Romantic challenge to change his own life, to embark on a "journey westward." In fact Gabriel evades all the evening's Romantic challenges--even Michael Furey's--by accepting the "living death" of Dublin. He sees, and momentarily accepts, himself as a "ludicrous figure," merely another passionless, impotent Dubliner who can only surrender to what Joyce calls the "paralysis" of the city. In response to Michael Furey's passionate Romantic challenge, Gabriel falls safely asleep.
In "The Sisters," the first of the Dubliners stories, Joyce introduces a theme that unites the collection: the physical, psychological and institutional paralysis of Dublin. If Gabriel accepts anything in swooning to sleep, he seems to accept this inescapable paralysis. Why is escape an impossibility for Conroy while for another Dubliner, James Joyce, it was not only possible but necessary? To answer, let us consider the relationship between creator and creation, dancer and dance. We must remember Harry Levin's comment that Gabriel is the kind of person Joyce "might have become, had he remained in Ireland..." (The Portable James Joyce 18). Such a future would have been completely unacceptable to the young, quasi-Byronic Joyce. In this sense, Joyce's embrace of the echt-Romantic principle of flight enabled--indeed, compelled--him to escape Dublin, to flee to the continent, to embark upon a very Byronic-Shelleyan-Keatsian type of self-imposed artistic exile. Joyce's true Romanticism (a phrase that jars upon ears too accustomed to a polemical opposition between Romantics and Moderns) enabled him to escape; Gabriel Conroy's shallow, false Romanticism--a flight from reality rather than a response to it--is probably one reason why he will never escape that "center of paralysis" (Letters of James Joyce 2:134) that is Joyce's Dublin. Where Joyce/Dedalus flies, Conroy is grounded. At the end of Dubliners, as at the beginning, paralysis is as general as the snow.