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Dubliners James Joyce Argument Essays

"The Dead" Joyce, James

The following entry presents criticism of Joyce's short story "The Dead," published in his collection Dubliners (1914). See also James Joyce Short Story Criticism.

Joyce was the most prominent writer of English prose in the first half of the twentieth century. Many critics maintain that his verbal facility equaled that of William Shakespeare or John Milton, and his virtuoso experiments in prose redefined the limits of language and the form of the modern novel. "The Dead," the final and longest story of his collection Dubliners, is considered one of the most beautifully executed stories in the English language and the culmination of Joyce's critical and ironic portraits of everyday life in turn-of-the-century Dublin. Its subject is the epiphanic revelation of Gabriel Conroy, who, as his illusions are dispelled, realizes the shallowness of his love for his wife, Gretta.

Plot and Major Characters

"The Dead" takes places on the religious feast of Epiphany, at the holiday party of Julia and Kate Morkan, the spinster aunts of Gabriel Conroy. Gabriel, a teacher and literary reviewer, favors continental culture to that of his native Ireland, and thus arrives at the party with an attitude of disdain for the provinciality of his aunts and their guests, although he keeps his thoughts largely to himself. His pomposity and self-centeredness appear in his several encounters with the other guests, including Miss Ivors who playfully rebukes him for his loyalties to England as a reviewer for the pro-British newspaper Daily Express, calling him a "West Briton." Gabriel mistakes this banter for a personal attack, and attempts to redeem himself before the gathered attendees in his annual speech, a smug and highly self-conscious display of rhetoric and cliché. Near the close of the party, Bartell D'Arcy, a noted tenor in attendance, sings an old Irish song, "The Lass of Aughrim." Later, after retreating to the Hotel Gresham, Gabriel speaks to his wife, Gretta, a beautiful woman from the Irish west. Distracted from the conversation, Gretta is haunted by the song, which has reminded her of a former love. When Gabriel presses the subject, she reveals that many years ago she knew a young man who worked in the gasworks named Michael Furey. Afflicted with consumption, Furey died after leaving his sickbed on a rainy night to keep vigil outside Gretta's window on the eve of her leaving Galway for Dublin. Gretta later observes, "I think he died for me." Gabriel, contemplating himself in a mirror, becomes aware of his own pettiness, and realizes that he has never loved his wife as Michael Furey did. At the close of the story Gabriel looks out the window of his room and watches the snow; "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."

Major Themes

The title of "The Dead" points to its underlying subject, though critics have continued to argue exactly which "dead" are to be emphasized in explication, and even which characters comprise the "dead." To some, "The Dead" refers only to those mentioned in the story as dead, most notably Gretta's tragic love, Michael Furey. To others, "The Dead" signifies everyone at the Morkan's party but Gabriel, and through association, everyone in Ireland. Also widely debated is the ambiguity surrounding Gabriel's epiphany at the conclusion of the story, which closes with his assertion that it is time to begin his journey westward and his vision of the snow falling over all Ireland and metaphorically throughout the universe. The meaning of the journey westward is sometimes associated with death, but a more prevalent recent view is that Gabriel's journey westward signifies a rejuvenated view of life. Similarly, the meaning of the snow, which in some readings signifies the pall—or even shroud—of death covering Ireland, in others represents universal cleansing, bringing expanded consciousness and renewed life to all upon whom it falls. Florence L. Walzl has asserted that ambivalence and ambiguity were purposefully written into the narrative by Joyce to reflect his changing, somewhat more positive attitude toward Ireland at the time he wrote the story.

Critical Reception

When it was first published, and for several decades thereafter, Dubliners was considered little more than a slight volume of naturalist fiction evoking the repressive social milieu of Dublin at the turn of the century. It was overlooked in favor of Joyce's later, highly innovative works, most notably A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Ulysses (1922), and Finnegans Wake (1939). In the ensuing years most critics have recognized that Dubliners holds a greater significance than had previously been attributed to it, and subsequent studies have examined the symbolic significance, structural unity, and autobiographical basis of the stories. Critical interest in "The Dead," in particular, has remained intense in recent decades as scholars debate the thematic importance of this final story in the volume, especially its presentation of Gabriel's spiritual awakening—a theme which likely transcends the moral and spiritual paralysis of the entire cast of Dubliners. Likewise, the story is the primary focus of this collection, which has been said to illustrate the multidimensional narrative method that would revolutionize modern literature. Overall, "The Dead" is thought the masterpiece of Joyce's most accessible collection of work.

Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements for “The Dubliners” by James Joyce that can be used as essay starters or paper topics. All five incorporate at least one of the major themes in “The Dubliners” and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements offer a short summary of The Dubliners in terms of different elements that could be important in an essay. You are, of course, free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them for your essay. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from “The Dubliners” by James Joyce at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent essay.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: The Monotony of Routine in Joyce’s Dubliners

If there is one thing that many of Joyce’s characters in The Dubliners have in common, it is the boredom that they find when inundated with routine and many of them, such as the character Eveline (click here for an in-depth character analysis of Eveline), to name one of a few, wishes for escape. However, it seems as if when the character makes a concentrated effort to break free of routine, they are met with disaster, such as in “An Encounter". However, when they allow routine to rule their lives, they self-destruct, such as in “Counterparts". What do you think Joyce is saying about the necessity of routine here? Pick two or three stories and give detailed examples behind this phenomenon, along with your opinions regarding Joyce’s thoughts on routine.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: Death and Its Effects on the Dubliners

The Dublinersbegins and ends with stories that involve death. In “The Sisters", a priest, who has befriended a small boy, has just passed away, and in “The Dead", a woman recounts to her husband the story of a man who died for her love. What is significant about the way these two works frame the other pieces in Joyce’s novel? Pick one or two other works and discuss the way in which they relate to the first and last story in terms of mortality. What do you think that Joyce is saying about death and how does it relate to the other themes in The Dubliners?

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: The Role of Money in James Joyce’s The Dubliners

While James Joyce’s The Dubliners deals with several bigger themes, one prevalent motif throughout the novel is the use of money. Talk about money shows up in nearly every story, and it is spoken of with desire and envy. As Joyce’s novel is very realistic, so his characters embody the spirit of Dublin in every aspect, including their lower class. Find references to money in two or three of the stories, and describe the characters attitude towards it. Are they resentful? Jealous? Greedy? Then examine whether or not the characters receive the money that they need and how that money (or lack thereof) affects their life.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: The Role of Colonization and Political Climate in The Dubliners

One key element in almost all native Irish literature is the involvement of colonization and politics, and Joyce’s The Dubliners is no exception. From the insults hurled at Gabriel in The Dead to the attitude of Gallaher in “A Little Cloud", there is the underlying attitude that Ireland should be making strides for freedom. Anyone who shows favoritism towards England, or is perceived to be spending too much time away from Ireland is chastised. What is Joyce saying here about the effects of the Irish nationalist movement? Find two or three stories to support your thoughts, and deconstruct the emotions and historical background that cause such passionate feelings towards the relationship between England and Ireland.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #5: The Desire to Escape and the Inability to Follow Through in Joyce’s Dubliners

While Dublin is full of eclectic lives and personalities, nearly all of the inhabitants visited by Joyce express the desire to escape. That desire is fueled not only by the monotony of routine, but also by the desire to do something greater, the desire to flee the bleak political landscape and the hope of starting anew. Little Chandler, for example, wishes to join Gallaher in his pursuits of other nations, yet he’s too afraid to try his hand at a new career. Likewise, Mr. Doran does not want to marry Polly in “A Boarding House" but he can see no other alternative. In what ways are Joyce’s characters trapped within their lives? What is it that holds them back from breaking free and starting over? Be specific, using only two or three short stories.

Still looking for ideas?Here is a great character analysis of Eveline that also discusses several major themes in “The Dubliners” through the lens of this one character.

This list of important quotations from “The Dubliners” by James Joyce will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from Joyce’s “The Dubliners” listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes and explanations about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned and explained. Aside from the thesis statements for “The Dubliners” above, these quotes alone can act as essay questions or study questions as they are all relevant to the text in an important way. All quotes contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of the text they are referring to.

“‘I think he’s what you call a black sheep. We haven’t many of them, thank God! but we have a few..” (104)

“After three weeks she found a wife’s life irksome and, later on, when she was beginning to find it unbearable, she had become a mother.” (131)

“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.” (192)

“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." (224)

“Besides, the invariable squabble for money on Saturday nights had begun to weary her unspeakably. She always gave her entire wages–seven shillings–and Harry always sent up what he could but the trouble was to get any money from her father." (31)

“Uphold the National Honor" (95)

“Well, I’m ashamed of you,” said Miss Ivors frankly. “To say you’d write for a paper like that. I didn’t think you were a West Briton.” (220)

“Corley halted at the first lamp and stared grimly before him. Then with a grave gesture he extended a hand towards the light and, smiling, opened it slowly to the gaze of his disciple. A small gold coin shone in the palm.” (46)

“Mahoney said it would be right skit to run away to sea on one of those big ships and even I, looking at the high masts, saw, or imagined, the geography which had been scantily closed to me at school gradually taking substance under my eyes.” (13)

“He remembered the books of poetry upon his shelves at home. He had bought them in his bachelor days and many an evening, as he sat in the little room of the hall, he had been tempted to take one down from the bookshelf and read out something to his wife. But shyness always held him back; and so the books had remained on their shelves." (62)

Source: Joyce, James. The Dubliners. Clayton, DE: Prestwick House, 2006.