“Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”
There are certain texts read at school that seldom do you find yourself picking up again, until years have passed and the eyes with which you view the world are no longer the same. Such is the case for me, Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’, and the story that comes before its close.
In its most simplistic light, ‘The Dead’ centres around a Mr Gabriel Conroy as he navigates a house party thrown by elderly aunts, and finds himself mapping unchartered waters in the aftermath as a song at the party awakens a long ago memory in wife Gretta. There is a clear difference in atmosphere between these two halves of the story, and in the midst of this, Joyce paints his protagonist as transitioning from one state to another also. The reader is introduced to a nervous and socially awkward character at the start, but is left with the impression of a surer, albeit sadder, man in his place. And as the party draws to an end and Conroy finds himself having survived the precarious social engagements the night brought with it, it is his interactions with his wife that are responsible for precipitating this marked change in him that follows.
From the offset, Joyce explicitly tells of the anxious nature of Mr Conroy by detailing his outward mannerisms amidst confrontation, whilst also offering the reader an insight into the thoughts that plague him about these same moments. This can be seen after his first real exchange of the evening, with Lily the caretaker’s daughter, when Joyce writes:
“Gabriel coloured, as if he felt he had made a mistake and, without looking at her, kicked off his goloshes…”
Though theirs was a conversation that did not proceed to the jovial conclusion he had intended, Conroy had no way of knowing this would be the case. And yet his discomfort at hearing the bitter retort Lily aims in his direction is clear, his believed culpability evident in his flushed face and subsequent inability to meet her eye. Where a different character in possession of personality or charm would have met Lily with an immediate response, perhaps even a joking agreement to her retort, in order to diffuse the situation in its immediate aftermath, we see no such response forthcoming from Gabriel. Instead, moments later, Joyce tells of an awkward transfer of coin from Conroy’s hand to Lily’s in an attempt to lighten her mood, and the lasting impact perceived blame has on Gabriel despite this. Joyce writes:
“It had cast a gloom over him which he tried to dispel by arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie.”
Here the reader is encouraged to build on their first impressions of Joyce’s protagonist as not an altogether charismatic man, as ‘gloom’ is employed to highlight just how dispirited Conroy has become as a result of that poor first interaction. This depth of negative emotion paints him as all the more weaker a character than his initial portrayal, and the reason for this is twofold. In the first, Joyce implies that Conroy still holds himself accountable for riling up the caretaker’s daughter, when he had no intention of doing so, nor any possible foresight to prevent it, and most importantly, despite the attempt at reparations he had just made. Further to this foolishly held belief, it is the very fact that Conroy allows the dissatisfactory encounter to linger so long in his mind he has to physically attempt to shake it off that is indicative of such a gaping lack of self-confidence in Joyce’s protagonist, that an unprovoked harsh word from a mere housemaid is enough to do such lasting damage.
From this point Gabriel’s depiction goes from poor to pitiful, as Joyce too provides the reader with an insight into his thoughts after his interaction with Lily. Whilst waiting outside the drawing-room, and ruminating over his inclusion of Browning over Shakespeare in his speech, Joyce writes of Conroy:
“He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand… He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry…”
And follows on with:
“His whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure.”
Where it was already made clear Gabriel was a nervous man with a tendency to overthink past events, with the former quote, Joyce indicates such a character flaw is not just limited to moments encountered, but extends to moments yet to be encountered also. Through Conroy’s use of the word ‘fail’ in reference to the reception for his speech, and the immediate comparison he makes to his conversation with Lily, it is clear his first interaction of the evening has led to him being even more uncertain of himself than previously expressed. By preceding this with a description painting him as a laughable figure, as suggested by Gabriel’s choice of the word ‘ridiculous’, Joyce indicates that part of the problem with Conroy’s self-belief lies in how much weight he gives others’ opinions of him, as that poor first encounter plays out in his head, colouring his impression of those to come, and hugely damaging his self-worth in the process. The final blow comes when Gabriel reaches the despairing conclusion asserted in the latter quote. Here Joyce explicitly points out exactly just how much of an impact both Conroy’s previous and perceived interactions have on his self-perception, as he becomes a man haunted by the believed inadequacies he is thought to have demonstrated, and is thus robbed of any remaining positive response his portrayal could have evoked in the reader.
Having built up this image of his protagonist, Joyce then goes on to detail the rest of his interactions with other characters at the party. Like his encounter with Lily at the beginning of the story, so too does Gabriel struggle with the encounters that follow, conversation during a dance with Miss Ivors leaving him shaken, and very much feeling as though her comments were sharpened barbs, designed primarily to unnerve and attack. But such is the power that people’s views of him holds, we see him overcome his inherently anxious nature in order to prove himself to doubting parties – first with Lily when he hands her the money and, in the aforementioned example, more explicitly when he alters his speech in an attempt to get back at Miss Ivors despite her having left the party moments before.
It could be argued the real turning point in Conroy’s demeanour though is when the party draws to a close, and his eye is caught on the figure of his wife on the stairs listening to music play in the faraway distance. Joyce writes:
“He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife.”
Here, though Gabriel is not described as doing very much, Joyce manages to craft an image of self-assurance around his protagonist as, perhaps through lexical choice, his actions are accompanied by a confident air. This can be seen in the first part of the quote where Conroy ‘stood still’, the absence of movement very different to a previous example where ‘gloom’ was also used, then accompanied by restless actions Gabriel made in an effort to dispel his anxieties at the time. It is in this absence of movement that Joyce begins to imply Conroy is no longer that incredibly nervous man he was at the start, and this impression begins to hold more water on examining what else Gabriel is described as doing in this moment. When Joyce follows on with ‘gazing’, here too it is the word used that gives away a change in Conroy’s character, the very action being one typified by such a lack of nervous hesitation, one almost loses all sense of self-awareness, so intent are they on what they are beholding.
From this point on, Gabriel seems to go from strength to strength as Joyce describes “A sudden tide of joy… leaping out of his heart.” before he leaves his aunts’ house, and follows on with:
“The blood went bounding along his veins; and the thoughts went rioting through his brain, proud, joyful, tender, valorous.”
Here, where perhaps before Joyce implied a growth in Conroy’s personality and demeanour, he explicitly tells of the transition his protagonist has undergone through his choice of adjectives, whilst also indicating the reason for this change. If the last to be listed is the first to be considered, ‘valorous’ depicts a characteristic at such stark odds with the man first presented to the reader, you would be forgiven for thinking such an attribute would never apply to him. And yet, Joyce describes Gabriel’s thinking as fearless, and by extension, the protagonist in possession of this as confident and self-assured as a result. Such an image is compounded upon by the conjunction of the other overwhelmingly positive emotions that precede it, ‘proud’ also typified by a certain self-possession as to be able to feel so strongly for another individual, one must first be able to overlook themselves and wholly overcome any negative sentiments they may be holding on to. The remaining adjectives, when coupled with the previous quote aforementioned, next can be used to piece together what exactly it is that has initiated such a marked change in Mr Gabriel Conroy.
Taking the previous quote to start with, it is the context surrounding this that gives the reader a real indication of what’s at play as much as the quote itself. Joyce tells of an unexpected burst of positive sentiment presenting itself in Gabriel when Conroy, standing and watching his wife, sees Gretta turn and face him, herself flushed and watery-eyed after the music’s stopped playing. As it is at this moment “A sudden tide of joy went leaping out of his heart.”, it is fair to assume his emotional response is a direct consequence of noting his wife first overcome by some nature of emotion herself. But it is not concern that mars his features, nor does Joyce describe Gabriel as in possession of the anxious worry that his personality was built upon at the start. Rather Conroy is presented as swept up in a state of happy exuberance as evident with the use of the word ‘joy’, and it is on consideration of the remaining adjectives in the next quote that can help indicate why this is.
Though ‘joy’ is mentioned once again and elaborated on somewhat with ‘joyful’, it is arguably the inclusion of the word ‘tender’ that gives the most clue as to what exactly is happening to Joyce’s protagonist. As he is caught up in this overwhelming positive state initiated by noting wife Gretta, the soft affection described here as playing out in Gabriel’s heart almost serves to build up Conroy’s character anew. Though each of the other sentiments are also important, it is this sudden rush of attachment that explains the presence of the surrounding emotions as opposed to vice versa, as Joyce describes this one feeling as building up Conroy’s demeanour when he begins to think on interactions to come.
Before more imagined future interactions though, the reader is provided with further insight into Gabriel’s thoughts as Joyce presents his audience with a beautiful passage littered with Conroy’s description of his memories together with Gretta. We gain more of an appreciation for the strength of his affection for her through this, and where before perceived interaction was a source of anxiety for him, when Joyce continues by describing a potential encounter to come, this time it merely serves to boost the confident happiness Gabriel finds himself in possession of. Joyce writes:
“He longed to be alone with her.”
“He would call her softly: ‘Gretta!’ Perhaps she would not hear at once: she would be undressing. Then something in his voice would strike her. She would turn and look at him… “
Through the first quote, Joyce explicitly lays out exactly what manner of sentiment has overcome Conroy, the clear and direct admission belying no trace of the anxious man introduced to the reader at the start, but instead is in keeping with the ‘valorous’ character he is morphing into. This same impression is one that is built upon as Gabriel plays out the scenario of their future interaction in his head, his mannerisms and overall description depicting him as nothing other than master of his environment, at odds with the nervous figure he once was. And in the same way earlier thoughts of future interactions were enough to heighten his anxiety, making his depiction all the more nerve-ridden and pitiful, so much is also true of the reverse. Joyce describes this newfound confidence that stems from the depth of his affection and desire for his wife as enveloping Conroy and overshadowing the personality we are first introduced to, as aspects of it seep out into his interaction with others also. This can be seen in the overtly carefree tones with which he makes conversation on their journey home, but is perhaps most evident during Gabriel’s encounter with the porter when they arrive at their hotel. Joyce describes the interaction:
“The porter pointed to the tap of the electric-light and began a muttered apology but Gabriel cut him short. “We don’t want any light…” “
Here it seems that such is the extent of the newfound confidence love has brought Conroy, he no longer has any qualms about asserting himself during conversation. In addition to and perhaps more remarkable than this, this moment also portrays Joyce’s bolder protagonist as one who is almost rude with his confidence, ‘cut’ telling of an interjection Gabriel makes in the porter’s speech preventing him from finishing, and the quoted speech that follows showing he values his assertion so much, it is to the detriment of good manners. This of course is not so much indicative of his conviction neither he nor his wife need light in their room, but rather tells of the heightened emotional state he finds himself in where anything that lengthens the duration of time prior to him being alone with Gretta is an inconvenience at best, a matter to be swiftly, and rudely if need be, dealt with at worst.
Joyce inflates Conroy’s confidence so much, especially given the point from which he started out in the story, a release valve being opened somewhere along the trajectory of the tale’s remainder seems inevitable. And thus when next we see Gabriel begin to waver in first interactions with his wife as the scenario does not start off as he dreamt up, it is easy to imagine the nervous persona he once was making a comeback. But this is not so. In the same way his perceived future interaction with wife Gretta is what stimulates his intensity of emotion, when this does not come to pass as he imagined, it is the very same confident and powerful sentiments she inspired that are described as spilling over. This is evidenced by Joyce writing:
“He longed to cry to her from his soul, to crush her body against his, to overmaster her… He was in such a fever of rage and desire that he did not hear her come from the window.”
Here, the first part of the quote can be considered for its illustrative purposes, as the reader is explicitly told of the pent up frustration Conroy is both in possession of and is keeping in check. It is thus by following on telling of Gretta’s actions against this backdrop that the reader is given a seed of hope, as the happy coupling of Conroy and his wife would be the perfect culmination to Gabriel’s character development. In a story entitled ‘The Dead’, and on considering just how much of a transition Joyce’s protagonist has already made though, perhaps even quietly wishing for such a fairytale ending is naive. This appears to be more and more the case on reading the turn of events that follow, as though Gretta had always appeared to be in a different place to Conroy’s one track mind, Joyce next goes on to explain to both her husband and the reader why this is.
With his subsequent interactions with her, soon Gabriel learns of his wife’s first love, Michael Furey, and as a sense of loss is evident in her, so too does Joyce establish a sense of loss in Conroy’s character also. This is done by first allowing elements of the nervous man we were introduced to to resurface as Gabriel repeatedly poses the question the reader too has yet to discern the answer for:
“Someone you were in love with? … O then, you were in love with him?”
As if a pin had been taken to a balloon, we can almost hear the hiss of confidence leaving Conroy, as the first ironic question merits repeating when no reply is forthcoming. And the fact that repeating the question is exactly what Gabriel does is clearly indicative of his need to know the answer. In this way, Joyce presents his now real interactions with Gretta as slowly starting to wear him down in the same way his imagined ones built him up, as the moment brings with it a truth he doesn’t have an answer for and the almost involuntary repetition of the question depicts him as no longer in control of either himself or his surroundings. This loss of confidence is then compounded upon as Conroy struggles to establish the exact nature of his wife’s relationship with Michael Furey, and it is as Gretta begins to detail their history for him that Joyce describes the fatal blow:
“While he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another.”
It is at this point that the release valve mentioned earlier seems to have been unlocked, as ironically it is the same sentiments that were described as bolstering the overarching state of Gabriel’s confidence that are listed here, in contrast to his wife’s thought process, to undermine it. Such a stark comparison between what was occupying the minds of each of the Conroy characters at the same time, when presented side by side as above, evokes a sense of loss in the reader as much as it does Gabriel. This is as our hopes for Conroy to reach a degree of success with his newfound confidence are so cruelly dashed by Joyce, a sentiment only reinforced with the insight into Gabriel’s thoughts that follows:
“He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror.”
Though at first glance such a line of thinking seems to be entirely reminiscent of the anxious, nerve-ridden thoughts that plagued Conroy at the start, here we see a dawning realisation overcome him as Gabriel begins to see himself as we once saw him. Whereas before his thoughts about interactions to come would so plague him he would, perhaps unwittingly, exaggerate his own inadequacies, here the fact that the reader is so easily able to identify Conroy’s description of himself suggests this is not the case. And in the same way it was his earlier interactions with Gretta that rid him of such a tendency, it could be argued that so too is she responsible for Gabriel’s clarity of self-perception that now presents, ‘the pitiable fatuous fellow’ he is reduced to directly linked to the absence of Gretta’s reciprocation which ultimately triggered such a realisation in the first place.
Despite being a rather sad image to confront, and one that causes Conroy to turn “his back more to the light lest she might see the shame that burned upon his forehead.” Joyce starts bringing Gabriel’s character transition to its final stages, as this realisation somehow paradoxically enables him to be more sure of himself and his environment than at any other point during the evening. This is perhaps first seen when Joyce writes:
“A vague terror seized Gabriel at this answer, as if, at that hour where he had hoped to triumph, some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him, gathering forces against him in its vague world.”
And follows on with:
“But he shook himself free of it with an effort of reason and continued to caress her hand.”
In the first quote, perhaps a nodding reference to the spectre of Michael Furey, it is through the use of good lexical choice here that the reader is presented with powerful imagery to offset Gretta’s broken narrative, and in much the same vein, lexical choice here which too tells of Conroy’s stirred emotion in response. In the case of the latter, having already established a sense of loss surrounding Gabriel, ‘terror’ sees him painted as an even weaker character as he is described as being rendered helpless by fear. When the cause of such a state is considered, the imagined presence of the ‘impalpable and vindictive being’ to which Conroy refers, though it does not seem possible by this point, Joyce evokes even more pity in the heart of the reader for his protagonist, as Gabriel finds himself not only robbed of confidence, dignity, and the love of his wife, but arguably of his senses in this moment also. By continuing on with the second quote then, this entire depiction is turned on its head as Conroy wrestles with the thoughts that, in his earlier anxious portrayal, would likely have consumed him. And it is his ability to thus manage to keep a hold of himself despite the obvious emotional turmoil Gretta’s interactions with him have no doubt wrought that uncovers a gleam of personal strength never before made apparent until now.
This becomes more evident in the grace with which he accepts his wife’s admission, and the way Gabriel is able to let go of the fact that she was thinking of another the whole time his sole attention was fixed on her, details conveyed both by his actions and the emotion Joyce describes surrounding them. An example can be seen when, after Gretta falls asleep, the reader is told:
“Gabriel… looked for a few moments unresentfully on her tangled hair and half-open mouth…”
In the first instance where actions are primarily considered, the fact that Conroy is still able to regard his wife, despite the gravity of disappointment and realisation she is responsible for evoking, is indicative of the absence of the powerful emotions that spilt over once before. There is no rage at Gretta for her admission, nor does Gabriel begrudge the fact that his conjugal pleasures were denied as a result. ‘Unresentfully’ goes a step further and explicitly tells of this for the benefit of Joyce’s reader, the emotion indicating a calm, at-peace sentiment in the heart of his protagonist, harbouring no ill will for either Furey or his wife Gretta, and testament to the quiet self-possession interactions with the latter seem to have ultimately triggered.
As the poignant picture Joyce has painted draws to a close, some final thoughts of Conroy’s are shared with the reader before the end, adding a sombre overture to an already heart-breaking ensemble. Caught in an almost epiphanic moment, Joyce writes of Gabriel:
“One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”
And so as ‘The Dead’ finishes with his wife mourning, so too does Conroy seem to mourn. Her sharing the loss of her first love gives Gabriel cause to consider his own mortality, and as he reaches the conclusion above, like Gretta dreaming of losing Furey a second time, Conroy questions whether any sentiment shared in their marriage was his to lose in the first place.
Where a lifetime ago I found such quiet acceptance a welcome change from the pitiful character Joyce first introduced, no longer does this still hold true. Gabriel is described as left hurting in the aftermath of Gretta’s revelation, but it is in his ultimate acquiescence to his situation that today makes my heart hurt for him. Not only has he lost some part of his wife to a first and young love Conroy had never before been aware of, but with her youth too marred by his death and after remembering him that evening, Joyce implies some of Gretta’s affections will always be tied to his memory. How can the fallible, nervous, and awkward man that is Gabriel Conroy ever hope to measure up to the pure and untainted character of Michael Furey, who was destined to only ever hurt Gretta by his loss? Perhaps it is knowing he never will that triggers Gabriel’s sad acceptance, Joyce’s writing a lesson in the art of beautiful poignancy.