Saturday, October 28, 2006

Essay on Joyce's "The Dead"

The Dead-Gabriel’s Reactions to the Revelation about Michael Furey

Before Gabriel learns about Michael Furey from Gretta, he is already in a state of emotional turmoil. He is filled with desire for his wife, yet she seems unresponsive and distant. Unable to open his heart to her about his “sinful” intentions, he makes small talk. Inside he is consumed with anger and frustration, both at his wife for her detachment and at himself for his lack of self-control. When Gretta praises his generosity and kisses him, he is flooded with sudden joy. He believes that Gretta has been in synch with him all along. In a mildly condescending way he asks her what she is thinking about, a question to which he thinks he already knows the answer. He probably assumes that she is still bothered by his brusqueness about the trip to Galway. In any event, he seems sure that what ever is distracting Gretta is directly related to him. Yet he finds that once again he has misjudged her. He is stunned when she bursts into tears over the song. His complete loss of emotional orientation is illustrated by his reaction to his own reflection in the mirror: “He caught sight of himself . . . the face whose expression always puzzled him . . .” (55). Not only does he find his own expression indecipherable, but he seems to have lost control over the tone of his own voice as he tries to draw the cause of Gretta’s sadness from her in a “ . . . kinder note than he had intended . . .” (55).

When Gretta admits that the song arouses memories of someone from her past in Galway, Gabriel’s emotional state begins to be dominated by anger. All the time that he has been thinking of her, lusting after her, and believing that she had been thinking of him, he had been wrong. Instead, she has been thinking of someone that she knew during the time in her life that was before Gabriel knew her, a time that Gabriel looks upon with some measure of contempt for its lack of sophistication. He uses sarcasm to cover his anger, asking her flip questions. Now that he finds that his passion is being frustrated by another, his anger and suspicions grow. He says that she loved this person from her past and she does not deny it, and in fact reinforces Gabriel’s suspicions by telling him that she “ . . . used to go out walking with him . . .” (56). Gabriel’s anger grows cold when he connects his wife’s past in Galway and Michael Furey with the Galway trip. Still unable to express his true feelings, he obliquely accuses her of wanting to use the Galway trip as a means to see this person. When Gretta informs him that his imagined rival is long since dead, he tries to maintain his facade of angry sarcasm. However, in another sudden rush of emotion, his facade crumbles.

Realizing the absurdity of his anger in light of Furey’s demise, Gabriel enters into another characteristic fit of self-deprecation. He seems to see his misreading of the situation as a metaphor for his entire existence: “A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure . . .idealizing his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror” (56). Realizing with shame his insensitivity and the futility of his lustful intentions, Gabriel begins to comfort Gretta. Then, she makes the revelation that threatens to plunge him into yet another abyss of self-doubt. She believes that Michael Furey died for her. However, after a moment of terror, Gabriel manages to retain his composure and continues to try to comfort Gretta. The irony drops from his tone as he gently draws the rest of the story from her. No longer angry but still unable to really relate to Gretta’s sorrow, he withdraws.

After Gretta falls asleep, Gabriel reflects quietly on the events of the night. The emotions that ran out of control earlier are in perspective now, and he searches for the reason for their severity. He has entered a state of relatively detached melancholy. His thoughts turn to death. An awareness of his mortality and that of his loved ones brings the realization to him of the necessity of living life to the fullest: “Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, that fade and wither dismally with age” (58). His thoughts begin to drift as he thinks in increasingly abstract terms about the life, love, and death.

Throughout the story, and especially in the last scene, Gabriel’s emotional state is like a roller coaster ride. First he is full of lustful anticipation, and then is gradually frustrated by Gretta’s distraction. With her unexpected show of affection for him, his emotions soar as he feels suddenly connected to his wife. Then this feeling is once again overturned when he realizes that she is thinking of Michael Furey, not him. This angers him, and then when he learns the fact of Furey’s death, his anger turns to shame which manifests itself as a kind of detached pity for his wife. Each of these changes is caused by Gabriel’s inability to relate on an emotional level with those around him, particularly with Gretta. He is constantly mistaken in his reading of the situation. Under the false impression that Gretta feels one way, he throws all his emotional energy, negative or positive, into that assumption. When he finds that he has been mistaken, he crashes as he did when Gretta tells him that she is upset about the memories that the song stirred up, or soars as he did when Gretta unexpectedly kissed him. He doesn’t reach an equilibrium until he finds himself alone.

In this story Joyce gives us a difficult task: look into the hidden emotions, thoughts, and doubts of an imperfect man and try to find something redeeming there. Much of the understanding of this is tied up in the point of view from which the story is told. Joyce could have chosen a detached or critical or sympathetic 3rd person, but instead chose a view like that of one telling of his own experience in brutally honest detail. Granted that Gabriel is insecure, socially awkward, and insensitive at times, but we get somewhat of a distorted and magnified view of these aspects of his personality because they are the aspects that he dwells on. This in itself could lead one to realize that there must be some good in him, for if he only concerned himself with showing us the positive side of himself, he would strike us as vain. I think that Joyce wanted us to see Gabriel as a real person, an imperfect person who struggles with a kind of emotional impotence, but still a person who is worth our time to try to understand, and maybe thereby gain deeper insight into our own experience.

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