The Dead

The Dead: Summary

"The Dead" is about Gabriel Conroy's experiences at a Christmas party and his wife Gretta's revelation of a past love, prompting Gabriel's reflections on life, death, and Irish identity.

Please consult the helpful list of introductory articles on "The Dead" in case you are doing further research on the story.

Overview & Analysis

"The Dead" is the longest story in James Joyce's collection "Dubliners". The narrative is set in early 1900s Dublin, primarily at the annual Christmas party hosted by Kate and Julia Morkan, Gabriel Conroy's aunts. The story's main themes include love, loss, and the question of Irish identity.

The protagonist, Gabriel, is a well-educated man who writes for a Unionist newspaper, "The Daily Express". He attends the party with his wife, Gretta. At the party, Gabriel faces several minor conflicts that all contribute to a feeling of unease. For instance, he has an awkward encounter with Lily, the caretaker's daughter, which sets the tone for the evening. Furthermore, his anticipatory anxiety about the speech he is to give, coupled with the fear that his academic references will not be understood, build up a sense of disconnection between him and the other attendees. This sense of isolation is heightened when he is confronted by Molly Ivors, an Irish nationalist. She teases him for being a "West Briton", symbolizing his detachment from the Irish community. His inability to offer a satisfactory rejoinder intensifies his unease, as he states, "he gets 15 shillings a week, and 'the books he received for review were almost more welcome than the paltry cheque'".

The evening progresses with dinner, speeches, toasts, and music. Gabriel is increasingly introspective, contemplating the falling snow and his impending speech. His alienation from the surrounding festivities is further exacerbated when Gretta expresses a desire to visit her childhood home in Galway, a place with which Gabriel has no connection.

The story's climax unfolds after the party when Gretta, seemingly lost in thought, reveals a past love to Gabriel. She confesses that the song sung by Bartell D'Arcy, "The Lass of Aughrim", reminded her of Michael Furey, a young man who courted her in her youth and died prematurely. This moment serves as the root of Gabriel's "epiphany". He is stunned to discover a significant part of Gretta's past that he was unaware of, prompting him to reflect on the power of the dead over the living.

Gabriel's reflection on death, in the end, is a profound affirmation of life. He is portrayed standing at a window, watching snowfall, contemplating the omnipresence of death and its impact on life. The story concludes with Gabriel's realization that "everyone he knows, himself included, will one day only be a memory". Gabriel's resulting contemplation of life and death, the living and the dead, spans across "the entirety of Ireland", symbolizing the universal nature of his thoughts.

The themes of love and loss, as well as the question of the Irish identity, are all intricately woven into the fabric of the story. Gabriel's interactions with the other characters, his internal monologue, and the revelation of Gretta's past reflect these themes. His character represents a clash of identities, where he struggles between his Irish roots and his European aspirations.

"The Dead" provides a critique of a society gripped by a "deadening paralysis of the spirit" and contrasts it with the enlivening effect found when the living contemplate the lives of those who have died. Gretta's poignant recollection of her lost love, Michael Furey, and the profound effect it has on Gabriel, reflect this contrast powerfully.

In conclusion, "The Dead" presents a multi-layered narrative encompassing themes of love, loss, identity, and the eternal influence of the dead over the living. It paints a vivid picture of early 20th century Irish society through the lens of its characters' personal experiences and internal struggles. The story beautifully captures Gabriel's self-realization and the ensuing shift in his perspective as his understanding of life, death, and his identity deepens. This succinctly illustrates Joyce's masterful storytelling, where he interweaves personal experiences with broader social and philosophical themes. As T. S. Eliot reputedly said, "The Dead" stands as "one of the greatest short stories ever written".

My favourite line of the English short story (and probably one of the most poignant, insightful, and beautiful lines ever written) is the wonderful last sentence of the story:

"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."


Character Description
Gabriel Conroy The main character, a teacher and part-time book reviewer. He contemplates life, death, and Irish identity.
Gretta Conroy Gabriel's wife. Her revelation of a past love prompts Gabriel's reflections.
Kate Morkan and Julia Morkan Gabriel's aunts. They are elderly sisters who host the annual Christmas party.
Mary Jane Morkan Niece of Kate and Julia Morkan.
Lily The caretaker's daughter.
Molly Ivors A long-time acquaintance of the family who confronts Gabriel about his political leanings.
Mr Browne The only Protestant guest at the party.
Freddy Malins An alcoholic and friend of the family.
Mrs Malins Freddy Malins' mother.
Bartell D'Arcy A tenor whose song triggers Gretta's memories of a past love.

Bibliography for Dubliners —
The Dead

Author Title Type
Blanco Outon, Cristina. "Two Connecting Aspects between James Joyce's 'A Little Cloud,' 'Clay,' 'A Painful Case' and 'The Dead'." in: BELLS Barcelona English Language and Literature Studies 6 (1995), p.23-30. Article
Brown, Richard. "'As if a man were author of himself': Literature, Mourning and Masculinity in 'The Dead' and Ulysses," in: Masculinities in Joyce. Eds. Christine van Boheemen / Colleen Lamos. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001, p.73-92 (= European Joyce Studies 10). Article
Foran, Jack. "The Strange Sentence in 'The Dead'," in: MLN 113.5 (December 1998) (= Comparative Literature Issue), p.1151-1159. Article
Gana, Nouri. "The Poetics of Mourning: The Tropologic of Prosopopoeia in Joyce's 'The Dead'," in: American Imago 60.2 (Summer 2003), p.159-178. Article
Gerber, R. J. "'The Walken Dead': James Joyce's 'The Dead'," a musical play, book by Richard Nelson, music by Shaun Davey," in: JJQ 36.2 (1999), p.340-347. Article
Gibbons, Luke. "'The Cracked Looking Glass' Of Cinema: James Joyce, John Huston, and the Memory of 'The Dead'," in: The Yale Journal of Criticism 15.1 (Spring 2002), p.127-148. Article
Hederman, Patrick Mark. "'The Dead' Revisited," in: The Crane Bag, 2.1/2 (1977), p.29-38. Article
Hart, Clive. James Joyce and the Making of 'The Dead'. Gerrards Cross (Colin Smythe) 1980. Book
Ingersoll, E. G. "The Gender of Travel in 'The Dead'," in: JJQ 30.1 (1992), p.41. Article
Jones, A. A. "Linking lost voices: reading 'he Dead'," in: International Journal of Psychoanalysis 80.1 (1999), p.133-142. Article
Kelleher, John V. "Irish History and Mythology in James Joyce's 'The Dead'," in: Review of Politics 27 (1965), p.414-33. Article
Kelman, Edna. "Song, Snow, and Feasting: Dialogue and Carnival in 'The Dead'," in: Orbis Litterarum 54.1 (1999), p.60-78. Article
Morgan, Jack. "Queer Choirs: Sacred Music, Joyce's "The Dead," and the Sexual Politics of Victorian Aestheticism," in: JJQ 37.2 (2000), p.127-152. Article
Murphy, Michael. "'The Dead': Gabebashing in Joyce Country," in: English Studies 81.1 (February 2000), p.41-55. Article
Norris, Margot. "Stifled Back Answers: The Gender Politics of Art in Joyce's 'The Dead'," in: Modern Fiction Studies 35.3 (1989), p.479-503. Article
O'Leary, Joseph S. "The Musical Structure of 'The Dead'," in: Harp 11, p.29-40. Article
Reilly, Séamus. "Rehearing 'distant music' in 'The Dead'," in: JJQ 35.1 (Fall 1997), p.149-152. Article
Rice, T.J. "Dante... Browning . Gabriel .. Joyce: Allusion and Structure in 'The Dead'," in: JJQ 30.1 (1992), p.29. Article
Roos, Bonnie. "James Joyce's 'The Dead' and Bret Harte's Gabriel Conroy: The Nature of the Feast," in: The Yale Journal of Criticism 15.1 (Spring 2002), p.99-126. Article
Schwartz, Daniel R. (Ed.). James Joyce's 'The Dead'. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. Boston (Bedford) 1994. Book
Wheatley Lovoy, C. D. "The Rebirth of Tragedy: Nietzsche and Narcissus in 'A Painful Case' and 'The Dead'," in: JJQ 33.2 (1996), p.177-194. Article
Whelan, Kevin. "The Memories of 'The Dead'," in: The Yale Journal of Criticism 15.1 (Spring 2002), p.59-97. Article
Winston, Greg C. "Militarism and 'The Dead'," in: A New & Complex Sensation: Essays on Joyce's Dubliners. Ed. Oona Frawley. Dublin (Lilliput Press) 2004, p.122-132. Article
Zhou, Xiao-qun. "A Comment on Repetition in 'The Dead'," in: Nanjing li gong da xue xue bao = Journal of Nanjing University of Science and Technology 14, iii (June 2001), p.14-18. [In Chinese with English abstract.] Article
Zhou, Xiao-qun. "Looking into the Art of Presentation in Joyce's Dubliners." in: Yancheng shi fan xue yuan xue bao = Journal of Yancheng Teachers College, iii (2000), p.54-57. [In Chinese with English abstract.] Article