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Dubliners | Study Guide

James Joyce

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The Dead

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of "The Dead" from James Joyce's short story collection Dubliners.

Dubliners | The Dead | Summary



Gabriel Conroy arrives late to his aunts' annual Christmas party and blames his wife Gretta for taking too long to get ready. When Lily, the housemaid, takes his coat, he asks her about school and speculates she will marry her "young man" soon. Lily says men are all talk and only interested in what they can get, which embarrasses Gabriel for bringing up the subject. He gives her a coin, which she resists, but he insists because it is Christmas.

He waits to enter the party, nervous about a speech he is to give, thinking he will embarrass himself again with references to poetry people will not understand. Aunt Julia and Aunt Kate greet him and Gretta warmly along with their other guests. They worry that Freddy Malins will be drunk when he arrives and send Gabriel to meet him, insisting Gabriel not let Freddy in if he is drunk. The party continues with song and dance. Gabriel returns with Freddy, who appears a little tipsy.

Mary Jane, Gabriel's cousin raised by their aunts, presents a complicated musical piece not to Gabriel's taste. He busies himself looking at his aunts' embroidery on the walls and a photo of his dead mother reading to his brother. He then dances with Miss Ivors who claims she is ashamed of him secretly writing book reviews for a Unionist newspaper and teases him about being a West Briton. She invites him to visit her family in the west of Ireland in the summer, but Gabriel says he and Gretta have plans to go to Europe. Miss Ivors does not understand why Gabriel would want to go to Europe and learn other languages instead of seeing his own country and learning his own language. He says he is sick of his country, and when she calls him a West Briton again, she is not teasing.

After the exchange with Miss Ivors, Gabriel is even more nervous about his speech, but everyone settles in for dinner after Aunt Julia sings. Gabriel sees Gretta and Mary Jane trying to convince Miss Ivors to stay for dinner, but Miss Ivors is adamant about going home. She refuses Gabriel's offer to escort her. Dinner is plentiful, but Gabriel hangs back from conversation as the guests talk about great singers, and a monastery where monks sleep in coffins to remind themselves of their "last end."

At the end of the dinner, Gabriel delivers his speech. He talks about Irish hospitality as their culture's defining trait and advocates for the preservation and honoring of past artists as new generations progress. He praises his aunts' and Mary Jane's musical talents. The speech draws applause and a chorus of "For They Are Jolly Gay Fellows." The party comes to a slow close as Aunt Julia and Aunt Kate see off their guests, and one of the guests sings a song called "The Lass of Aughrim."

Gabriel and Gretta get a cab to their hotel, and he thinks about the early days of their marriage and their life together. He looks forward to possibly rekindling their passion in the hotel, but Gretta is distant and quiet. She is tired when they reach their room, but she kisses him briefly. He asks what she is thinking about, and she tells him how the last song of the night reminded her of a young man named Michael Furey whom she loved as a young woman in Galway. He died at age 17, just before she came to Dublin. He came to say goodbye to her in the rain and got sick. She tried to send him home, but he told her he did not want to live. Gretta is overcome with grief and sadness.

After Gretta falls asleep, Gabriel thinks about Michael Furey. He compares his role in Gretta's life with Michael's and finds himself lacking. He realizes he has never felt about a woman the way Michael felt about Gretta. He thinks about Michael's death and how they are all slowly dying, turning to shades. He watches snowfall obscure the world, and thinks about how the world itself is constantly dissolving, turning the living into the dead.


"The Dead" ties together a number of the themes and ideas presented throughout the other stories from Dubliners. When Lily the housemaid talks about her breakup with her "young man," she says men are only interested in what they can get from a woman, echoing the activities from "Two Gallants." Mary Jane's accomplishments as a pianist echo the talents of Kathleen in "A Mother." Freddy Malins's unpredictable drunken antics reference the ill-effects of alcohol seen in "Grace," and the aunts' fear of Freddy's misbehavior at their party is reminiscent of Maria's concern about Joe's party behavior in "Clay." Gabriel's desire to travel to Europe and his reasoning for it—being sick of his home country—recalls Gallaher's departure and travels in "A Little Cloud," just as Gabriel's literary reviews echo Little Chandler's poetic aspirations in the same story. His argument with Miss Ivors about his level of patriotism and loyalty to his country recalls the political debates of "Ivy Day in the Committee Room." From a structural standpoint, then, "The Dead" ties the collection of stories together, showing how these struggles with social expectations, personal relationships, the yearning for adventure and escape, the love of country, and the meaning of life and death are defining characteristics not just of the Dublin experience or the Irish experience, but of the human experience.

In the most notable connection within the book, Dubliners begins with a child learning to cope with death in "The Sisters" and ends with a grown man still learning to cope with death. Neither has come to grips with the concept of mortality, which is another common thread of the human experience. Memories of the dead fill Gabriel's experience at his aunts' party from the moment he sees the photo of his mother on their wall. He thinks about her intelligence and how her encouragement helped him and his brother become educated, successful men. At dinner he listens to a conversation about monks who sleep in coffins to remind them of their own mortality. In his speech he talks specifically about the importance of honoring those who have made a difference in previous generations, saying "we shall ... cherish in our hearts the memory of those dead and gone great ones whose fame the world will not willingly let die." It should come as no surprise to him, then, to discover his wife has done this exact thing, preserving the memory of Michael Furey and the sacrifice he made in dying so he could see her one last time. Gabriel's speech refers to preserving the memory of people who have achieved fame, primarily in the arts, and done great things, but Gretta's story of Michael reveals the importance of remembering ordinary people whose great acts have occurred on a smaller scale.

Gabriel's crisis about his own mortality, then, arises partially from the act of taking his abstract appreciation for the memory of the dead and bringing it into the personal realm. Gabriel's thoughts turn to the idea of doing something great, instead of quietly passing into obscurity. His mother did a great thing before she died by preparing her sons for a successful life. Michael Furey did a great thing before he died, making a sacrifice to see the woman he loved desperately. Gabriel dreads the loss of his aunts, but he knows they have been great patrons of the arts in Dublin, and Aunt Julia has been a talented performer in her own right. Part of Gabriel's problem as he comes to terms with the realities of life and death is his realization that he has not done anything great or memorable. While he is personally successful, he feels he will fade away without making any great contribution. He has never even loved a woman with passion as great as Michael Furey's. In fact, he suddenly feels he does not truly know his wife at all, having never learned of this important influence from her youth. This realization also affects Gabriel's sense of mortality. His marriage is a defining aspect of his life, but the terms of his relationship with his wife are suddenly different. Although Gabriel's mind is in turmoil, the snow falling in the last image of the story provides a peaceful reassurance. Snow erases everything beneath it and leaves only vague shapes behind. Death erases the actions of life and leaves only a memory behind, but the shapes and the memories are still visible, a core of truth in an uncertain world.

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