Saturday, November 04, 2006

Another Essay on Joyce's "The Dead"

How Does Joyce Want Us to Evaluate Gabriel?

Throughout the story Joyce gives us an enormous amount of insight into Gabriel’s mind and soul. We see him as a man who is full of apprehensions and flaws. It is easy to take these flaws as evidence to Gabriel’s shallowness and lack of humanity. However, I think that Joyce had more in mind than to paint a portrait of a hollow, “flat” man. The fact is that we see much more of what is going on in Gabriel’s mind than anyone really sees in another person. Maybe even more than we usually see in ourselves. This insight that we have into the turmoil that seems to be going on in our hero’s mind is disquieting. His constant questioning of his own actions and thoughts makes us realize how often we find ourselves unsure and afraid. Luckily for us, mental health-wise, we seem to be able to gloss over moments of extreme self-doubt once the moment is over. The situation for Gabriel is different, though. All of his conscious thoughts are on record for us to review over and over again, unlike the situation in real-life where one moment’s anxiety melds into the next moment’s boredom or joy. In a living person this cycle repeats itself continuously, with the high points and low points having an effect of canceling each other out. We rarely have the opportunity to reflect backwards on what our emotional states were at a particular time in the past. I suppose that if we really knew anyone as intimately as we know Gabriel (at least for the one night), we might not like him. On the other hand, I think we have to admit that the portrayal of Gabriel is one that is very real and completely honest.

The final scene helps to make this all the more clear. Gabriel has had a stressful evening. He has fulfilled his social obligation to his aunts by attending their annual dance (anyone who has had to endure relatives during the holidays--even loved relatives--knows how crazy it can be) during which time he has had to screw up his courage to make a speech, the importance and appropriateness of which are dubious, but which is nonetheless expected as part of the tradition. Old, disturbing memories have been recalled as they often are on such occasions. The emotional chaos of the evening seems to have awakened a spark of love and desire towards his wife, yet even that becomes frustrated in light of the story of Michael Furey. Now Gretta is asleep and Gabriel’s emotions have calmed. He is overtaken by a feeling of detached melancholy. He is aware of his and his loved ones’ frailties and eventual mortality, and is deeply moved. A sense of perspective seems to have moved into his thoughts and he no longer dwells on his own petty failings.

I don’t really think that Gabriel and Gretta’s marriage is going to change significantly because of this episode. Certainly Gretta had no fears in relating the story to Gabriel. Of course it would be difficult for a husband to find out that the only way to outdo his wife’s former suitor would be to die for her. But it seems like Gabriel’s reaction to the revelation about Michael Furey is only seen accurately when looked at in relation to the state of heightened passion that he was in at the time. Considering the intensity of his feelings towards his wife, as well as his expectations, it is easy to see why he crashes so hard upon finding that his wife’s emotions are focused on something completely different.

All in all, I think that Joyce has successfully attempted to depict a real human being, complete with insecurities and faults. It is natural for us to look at this individual critically, to examine his contradictions and complexities. The story could have had a very different effect if it had come from the point of view that saw Gabriel as a pompous fool, or a martyr suffering the indignities of a boorish society. But Joyce chose to show us all sides of Gabriel, even the insides. I am not sure if he wanted us to like Gabriel, and I, for one, reserve judgment. What I think he wanted was to create as honest a portrayal of a person living in that time and place as he could.

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