Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Haunted: The Dead in “The Dead”

Who is dead in James Joyce’s “The Dead”? Well, in the climactic story of the collection Dubliners, each of the deceased characters mentioned have died before the story begins.

Pat Morkan, the brother of the two women who raised Gabriel Conroy, the main character, died long ago. It was after his death that the two aunts moved, started their own music school began putting on their annual dance that serves as the setting for the story.

Michael Furey died long ago, as well. He enters the story in the mind of Gretta Conroy, Gabriel’s wife, aroused by the words of an old song he used to sing. And how did he die? Stricken with some serious illness, he sneaks out in the middle of the night to see Gretta one last time before she leaves for Dublin. Gabriel only finds out about this romantic entanglement because he misinterprets his wife’s graceful repose as she listens to an old song. The way she stands arouses a great lust in her husband’s heart. After building up a sexual encounter in his mind that will restore the ecstasy in their marriage, Gabriel seeks answers when his wife does not respond to his advances. He perversely forces the tortured history of Gretta’s love Michael Furey’s out (Leonard 289). The truth destroys Gabriel, makes him feel ashamed, as if intruding on her grief. This truth causes him to feel that, “some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him, gathering forces against him in its vague world” (Joyce 187).

And the goose that is served as the main course is also dead.

But of course, Joyce is dealing with a death on a deeper level. The dead must be a “symbol of something,” in Gabriel’s words. The most famous Joyce critic, James Joyce himself, provides the predominate opinion of what death means in “The Dead”:

My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the center of paralysis [my italics]. I have tried to present it to the indifferent public under four of its aspects: childhood, adolescence, maturity and public life. The stories are arranged in this order. (Joyce 1975, 83)

So The Dead is, according to the author, a story about paralysis in public life.

Given that interpretation, what has caused this paralysis, this death in public life? Women! Chicks. Babes. All of the obstacles the author puts in the way of Gabriel are women. At every turn Gabriel confronts by women who disrupt his sense of identity. Joyce gives us plenty of indication of who Gabriel thinks he is via his internal monologue, and almost every woman in the story provides him evidence that his perception is not reality. The world that Gabriel is living in cannot provide him the comforts he seeks. At the end of the story, his spirit is dead. And the culprit is a society of empowered women and powerful men of the past who are taking away his ability to live an engaged, happy life.

The dead have cuckolded him.

According to Eve Sedgwick, the goal of Homosocial society is to cuckold other men. Sedgwick defines the terms of such a society as dealing in transactions, “of honor between men over the dead, discredited or dishonored body of a woman.” In her book Between Men, she dissects literature from Shakespeare’s sonnets to the 19th century novel to undress the social transactions of men dealing with men. She identifies the main goal of male society is to dominate each other while women live in a subclass of permanent inequality, “children are supposed to grow up into parents, but wives are not supposed to grow into husbands” (Sedgwick 178). It is this stagnant perception of women that works to sate men who live with constant slights by other men:

…in the presence of a woman who is seen as pitiable and contemptible, men are able to exchange power to confirm each other’s value even in context of the remaining inequalities of power. The sexually pitiable or contemptible female figure is a solvent that not only facilitates the relative democratization that grows up with capitalism and cash exchange but goes a long way—for the men whom she leaves bonded together—toward palliating it gaps and failures. (Sedgwick 160)

A defining characteristic of such societies is that slights by women are magnified and distorted in perspective.

… for a man to undergo even a humiliating change in the course of relationship with a man still feels like preserving or participating in the sum of male power, while for a man to undergo any change in the course of a relationship with a woman feels like a radical degeneration of substance. (Sedgwick 45)

Is Joyce’s paralytic Dublin a Homosocial space? Gabriel notes himself that the world around him is changing:

But we are living in a skeptical and, if I may use the phrase, a thought-tormented age: and sometimes I fear that this new generation, educated or hypereducated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity, of hospitality, of kindly humor which belonged to an older day. (Joyce)

This new world that Gabriel cautions against is populated with women like Molly Ivors, who has earned the same education and social success of Gabriel, and is now engaged in the nationalist movement that is truly trying to reform entirely what Ireland is. This new world also contains women like the servant Lily who instead of looking forward to the sacrament of marriage, scornfully refers to all men as palavers. This is a world that Gabriel is not suited for, a world of women who are growing up to be husbands.


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