Each time I read The Dead I try to identify what it is that draws me back to the story again and again. I discovered it while taking a Modern Irish Writers class as a 19-year-old kid and have returned to it through every subsequent stage of my life. Our wedding favors were a bookmark and a copy of Dubliners because my husband and I spent our first date talking about Joyce's short stories (by coincidence we had each recently read them). And today I read The Dead yet again as I held our third child. In the end the only reason I can give for my loyalty to the story is that it is beautiful.
The setting for The Dead is a dinner party held by three musical spinsters (two old aunts and their neice) on a cold, snowy night. Joyce describes the party in such exacting detail I feel like a guest at the party myself. The protaganist is Gabriel--the well-educated and very self-conscious nephew. Gabriel is a decent guy. He's a caring husband, whose lustful thoughts are directed towards his wife and who, upon remembering his dead mother's less than kind words about his wife, comes to the defense of his wife (at least in his mind). He's an attentive nephew, who is happy to step in when his aunts are concerned that a guest will turn up drunk and who heaps praise upon his aunts during his toast. But Gabriel is clearly weak due to his fear of looking foolish. He fears the opinion of a young housemaid, of an Irish nationalist colleague, and of all the party-goers who will hear his toast.
Gabriel's hyper-sensitivity to the opinions of others is contrasted by those with passion. His nationalistic colleague, Miss Ivors, calls him a West Briton and challenges him to get to know his own land and language. Gabriel, who is no romantic nationalist hero, has little if any interest in Ireland's history or language. Gabriel is more strikingly contrasted by the memory of the boy who died for love of his wife when she was young. Gabriel clearly cares for his wife, but could he love her as this boy had loved her. Would he have risked his life to see her and lose all desire to live if he had to live without her. Even Gabriel knows that he is not capable of this type of love. He acknowledges that the boy's actions were true love and that he had never felt such passion. As he reflects on the his wife's memory, Gabriel thinks, "Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age." Gabriel is clearly the "fade and wither dismally with age" type. Even so, I can't help but like him. He's so very human--more concerned that he said something awkward to the housekeeper than he is about national rights or even a passionate love. In fact, it is the human weakness found in nearly all the hostesses and guests of the dinner party that make them all so appealing. Freddy Malins is a drunk. Mr. Browne makes uncomfortable and overly-familiar comments to young women. The aunts are simple--perhaps ignorant--spinsters. Even the passionate Miss Ivors comes off a bit rude. They are all very human and I would fit in very well at this dinner party.