The Dead - the plot

The Dead


James Joyce was born in Dublin on 2nd February 1882. He was the oldest of ten children in a family which, after brief prosperity, collapsed into poverty. He was none the less educated at the best Jesuit schools and then at University College, Dublin, where he gave proof of his extraordinary talent. In 1902, following his graduation, he went to Paris, thinking he might attend medical school there. But he soon gave up attending lectures and devoted himself to writing poems and prose sketches, and formulating an 'aesthetic system'. Recalled to Dublin in April 1903 because of the fatal illness of his mother, he circled slowly towards his literary career. During the summer of 1904 he met a young woman from Galway, Nora Barnacle, and persuaded her to go with him to the Continent, where he planned to teach English. The young couple spent a few months in Pola, then in 1905 moved to Trieste, where, except for seven months in Rome and three trips to Dublin, they lived until June 1915. They had two children, a son and a daughter. His first book, the poems of Chamber Music, was published in London in 1907, and Dubliners, a book of stories, in 1914. Italy's entrance into the First World War obliged Joyce to move to Zürich, where he remained until 1919. During this period he published A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Exiles, a play (1918). After a brief return to Trieste following the armistice, Joyce determined to move to Paris so as to arrange more easily for the publication of Ulysses, a book which he had been working on since 1914. It was, in fact, published on his birthday in Paris, in 1922, and brought him international fame. The same year he began work on Finnegans Wake, and though much harassed by eye troubles, and deeply affected by his daughter's mental illness, he completed and published that book in 1939. After the outbreak of the Second World War, he went to live in Unoccupied France, then managed to secure permission in December 1940 to return to Zürich. Joyce died there six weeks later, on 13th January 1941, and was buried in the Fluntern Cemetery.

Plot (synopsis)

Every year the Misses Morkan (Miss Kate, Miss Julia - and Mary Jane) celebrate the New Year's Eve with their annual dance. Everybody who knows them comes to it, members of the family, old friends of the family, the members of Julia's choir, any of Kate's pupils that are grown up enough and even some of Mary Jane's pupils too. Never once has it fallen flat. For years and years it has gone off in splendid style as long as anyone can remember. As every year also Gabriel Conroy (nephew to Miss Kate and Miss Julia) comes with his wife Gretta.

There's a lot to talk about this evening, and most guests also don't miss the opportunity to dance or just listen to the music. Mary Jane plays even her Academy piece on the piano, full of runs and difficult passages - but although Gabriel likes music, the piece she is playing has no melody for him and he doubts whether it has any melody for the other listeners, though they have begged Mary Jane to play something.

Finally the great meal is ready, Gabriel carves the goose and everybody is satisfied by the large choice of different dishes. The society talks about opera companies, famous tenors and about music at general. Gabriel takes no part in the conversations, but sets to his supper and goes through the text of his upcoming speech again. After also the raisins, almonds, figs, chocolates and sweets have been eaten, silence comes and Gabriel pushes back his chair and stood up to begin his speech. He thanks the Misses Morkan for the unforgettable evening, speaks about the Irish hospitality at general and finally calls Miss Julia, Miss Kate and Mary Jane the three Graces of the Dublin musical world. Suddenly the table burst into applause and laughter and then all the guests stand up, glass in hand, and, turning towards the three seated ladies, sang in unison For they are jolly gay fellows.

In the very early morning the last guests say good bye and go home by cab. Gabriel has not gone to the door with the others, he watches his wife Gretta leaning on the banisters, listening to something. He is surprised by her stillness and strains his ear to listen also. But he can hear little except the noise of laughter and dispute on the front steps, a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man's voice singing. "He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something."[1] Gabriel is fascinated by his wife; his eyes are bright with happiness, the blood goes bounding along his veins and his thoughts go rioting through his brain, proud, joyful, tender, valorous.

Finally also Gabriel and Gretta leave. In their hotel room Gabriel notices that Gretta seems not only tired but also sad. He persuades her to tell him what she is thinking about - and Gretta informs him that the song she has been listening to before has remembered her of a person she used to know in her hometown, Michael Furey. Gabriel tries to find out more about him and his wife tells him that she has been in love with him until he died, only seventeen years old. It was in the winter and Michael was ill - "And then when it came to the time for me to leave Galway and come up to the convent he was much worse and I wouldn't be let see him so I wrote a letter saying I was going to Dublin and would be back in the summer and hoping he would be better then. [] Then the night before I left [] I heard gravel thrown up against the window. The window was so wet I couldn't see so I ran downstairs as I was and slipped out the back into the garden and there was the poor fellow at the end of the garden, shivering. [] I implored of him to go home at once and told him he would get his death in the rain. But he said he did not want to live." Then Michael went home and when Gretta was only a week in the convent he died.

Already before he knows all a shameful consciousness of his own person assails Gabriel. It hardly pains him now to think how a poor part he, her husband, had played in her life. "He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts."


The home of Miss Kate, Miss Julia and Mary Jane

It's a dark gaunt house on Usher's Island. The three ladies have rented the upper part from Mr Fulham, the cornfactor on the ground floor.

The dining-room is described very exactly, every detail of the arrangement of the dishes is known. The middle of the room is occupied by two square tables placed end to end, on the sideboard are arrayed dishes and plates, and glasses and bundles of knives and forks and spoons. The top of the closed square piano serves also as a sideboard for viands and sweets.

In the drawing room hang a picture of the two murdered princes in the Tower and a picture of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. Also a photograph of Gabriel's mother stands there before the pierglass.

The hotel room (of the Conroys)

It's early morning when Gabriel and Gretta arrive there. A ghost light from the street lamp lays in a long shaft from one window to the door; the Conroys don't turn on the light.

Main Characters

Gabriel Conroy

Gabriel, a language teacher, is a stout tallish young man. The high colour of his cheeks pushes upwards even to his forehead where it scatters itself in a few formless patches of pale red; and on his hairless face there scintillates restlessly the polished lenses and the bright gilt rims of the glasses which screen his delicate and restless eyes. His glossy black hair is parted in the middle and brushed in a long curve behind his ears where it curls slightly beneath the groove left by his hat.

He writes a literary column every Wednesday in The Daily Express, for which he is paid fifteen shillings. But the books he receives for review are almost more welcome than the paltry cheque. He loves to feel the covers and turn over the pages of newly printed books.

Gretta Conroy

She has bronze hair and wears a blue felt hat and a dark skirt with terracotta and salmonpink panels. That's all what is mentioned about her physical appearance. Gretta seems different from the other people, she is described as a very fragile, slim and young person, while all others are stout and/or old.

First it seems like she doesn't play a major role in the story, for at the beginning she is neglected by the storyteller or at least described as a normal wife - in the shadow of Gabriel. But in the early morning Gabriel gets attentive of her and her personality is getting increasingly mysterious. Even after she told Gabriel the story about Michael Furey the mystery remains.

Miss Julia: She is about an inch taller than her sister Kate. Her hair, drawn low over the tops of her ears, is grey also, with darker shadows, is her large flaccid face. Though she is stout in build and stands erect her slow eyes and parted lips give her the appearance of a women who does not know where she is or where she is going.

Miss Kate: She is more vivacious than Julia. Her face, healthier than her sister's, is all puckers and creases, like a shrivelled red apple, and her hair, braided in the same old-fashioned way, has not lost its ripe nut colour.


In "Dubliners" Joyce describes his hometown and especially its inhabitants. But "The Dead" is more than just a story about a small society in Dublin.

Joyce's stories always circle around a very special moment in the live of one person. In this moment the person suddenly understands something completely or gets more clear about himself. Joyce called it "sudden spiritual manifestation" or "epiphany". In "The Dead" is it the moment when Gabriel realises that he played a less important role in the life of his wife than he expected; the moment when he sees himself "as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts".

In the story are also lots of autobiographical details; most of the figures have a "real" counterpart.

But the main theme of the novel is the relationship between alive and dead people. Gabriel is jealous because of a dead boy who used to love his wife years ago, while a poem in the novel expresses the anger of the dead: they want to be alive - so they are jealous, too.

Interesting is also that both loves of Gretta bear the name of an archangel (Gabriel and Michael).

Personal comment

"The Dead" is a great example of Joyce's fascinating ability of writing. He said he didn't write, he composed - nearly every word is individually chosen (e.g. because of its sound), his prose must be handled like lyric. John Cage, a famous modern composer, converted some of Joyce's texts into music and he said it was very difficult because of the incredible independence of the text itself.

Although I've read other books by Joyce in German, his works can't be translated without loss; especially not his last work, "Finnegans Wake", which is still not translated into German.