There’s a funny thing about short stories; we all seem to read them and many of us write them, but they don’t seem to merit the same level of renown compared to novels, plays or poems. I have therefore decided to start reading more of the most famous short stories, reviewing them alongside my usual book reviews, because I honestly believe that the short story can be just as powerful, and just as effective, as a novel.
The name James Joyce is a famous one, yet this is mainly due to his most well-known novel, Ulysses, which is a modern parallel of Homer’s The Odyssey, a review of which you can read here. What less people seem to be aware of, however, is the collection of short stories, The Dubliners, that granted Joyce his fame. Published in 1914, these fifteen tales depict the lives of everyday people who live in and around Dublin, Joyce’s place of birth.
This was a time when Irish Nationalism was at its peak, its residents seeking to reaffirm their nationality to stop their culture from dissipating through globalisation. This issue is, in particular, considered in the collections final, and longest story, “The Dead”. Before I go any further, however, I would like to draw your attention to this website, where you can read “The Dead” online for free. If you simply don’t have the time, though, here’s a brief overview:
The majority of the story is set during a dinner party, where the main character, Gabriel Conroy, moves about the guests, chatting, dancing and providing insights to the messages that Joyce intertwines with his narrative. After the party, Gabriel and his wife head over to a hotel where they plan to stay the night. At this point, Gabriel is beginning to feel a “keen pang of lust” for his wife, yet Gretta refuses his advances, announcing that a song she heard at the party reminded her of a past lover of hers, Michael Furey. As Gabriel struggles with his shock and disappointment, Gretta goes on to reveal that Furey died when he was very young, and that she feels responsible for his death. “The Dead” ends with Gabriel reflecting on the divides between life and death, considering his position in the world.
Although the main theme of this story is undoubtedly death, there are many other ideas explored in “The Dead”, such as, in particular, the topos of Irish Nationalism:
“And why do you go to France and Belgium,” said Miss Ivors, “instead of visiting your own land?”
“Well,” said Gabriel, “it’s partly to keep in touch with the languages and partly for a change.”
“And haven’t you got your own to keep in touch with – Irish?” asked Miss Ivors.
“O, to tell you the truth,” retorted Daniel suddenly, “I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!”
Gabriel is called a “West Briton”, which is taken as a serious insult, for merely writing for a particular newspaper, which reveals the fragile attitudes of nationalism at the time. However, the accusations put to Gabriel go even further than this; when he is first introduced, he is wiping snow from his galoshes, and Gretta later reiterates their importance by suggesting that Gabriel “makes” her wear them. Aside from this comment about patriarchal power, these galoshes, as Brenden O’Hehir remarks in this essay extract, are symbolic of everything that is different about Gabriel; he is the exotic, educated gentleman who, through the course of the narrative, begins to realise that he no longer belongs with the “ignorant old” nationalists around him.
He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they would recognise from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better.
The story considers other issues, too, such as religion; it is common knowledge that Joyce, although he was Christened a Catholic, not only drifted from the religion, but came to hate it. He suggested that the Catholic order was part of the problem in the loss of Irish identity, and this is revealed in “The Dead” through two, separate comments. The first regards the place of women in the choir, Aunt Kate complaining about how her passion for singing was being threatened as the Church sought to “turn out the women out of the choirs that have slaved there all their lives and put in little whipper-snappers of boys over their heads”. This is not only a comment about women, but also a loss of tradition as the old is replaced by the new. The second comment more directly mocks the customs of the Catholic church, as the monks are described sleeping in their “coffins” each night. This appears to be a comment about religion not only preventing nationalism, but keeping it from moving forwards, as these monks are presented as the living dead, preventing Irish culture from adapting in a new, modern way.
I will leave you with a quote that represents one of the main messages of the story: whilst it is important to remember the dead, we cannot let these losses drag us down in life, preventing us from moving on. Everything needs to adapt, even Irish culture, and there is nothing to be gained from hanging onto something that can’t be changed.
Our path through life is strewn with many such sad memories: and were we to brood upon them always we could not find the heart to go on bravely with our work among the living. We have all of us living duties and living affections which claim, and rightly claim, our strenuous endeavours.