The Dead

Synopsis of The Dead

Elderly musical sisters, Kate and Julia Morkan, with their niece, Mary-Jane, throw their annual Christmas party in their home at Usher’s Island, West Dublin. The party is attended by their nephew, Gabriel Conroy, a writer, and his wife Gretta. Gabriel is particularly good in social situations, although he is discomfited by his encounter with the maid, Lily, as he enters the house. The guests eat dinner, dance and Gabriel makes a speech.

As the party is coming to an end, renowned tenor Bartell D'Arcy sings those remaining a song. Gretta is particularly moved by the song, which Gabriel assumes is due to recalling happy memories of earlier on in their relationship. Such recollections increase his own desire for his wife. However, once back in their hotel room, Gabriel discovers that he is wrong; the song actually made Gretta think of her deceased first love, Michael Furey. For the first time, Gabriel realises that he may not be the centre of Gretta’s life and starts to contemplate the temporal nature of human existence.

Commentary on The Dead

The Annunciation by Paolo de MatteisLily The maid’s name has a religious significance, since the lily is associated with the Annunciation, when, according to the New Testament, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary to tell her that she would give birth to the son of God (see Luke 1: 26-33).  The flower is therefore often used to symbolise purity and chastity. It is also associated with death and funerals.

corn factor – merchant/middlemen dealing in farmers’ arable produce

she had the organ in Hadington Road Mary Jane is employed as organist at St Mary’s church in a fashionable area of Dublin.  Dubliners reading the story would have known that its congregation, although Catholic, was Unionist rather than Nationalist in its outlook, so this details contributes to the political dimension of the story.

Adam and Eve’s The popular name for the Franciscan church of the Immaculate Conception. According to biblical narrative, Adam and Eve were the first human beings created by God.

Back answers An Irish way of saying ‘answering back’ or being insolent.

Screwed Slang term for being drunk.

Gabriel (See earlier note on ‘Lily’) Conroy’s given or Christian name is another association with the Annunciation.  In the New Testament, the Archangel Gabriel, in addition to announcing the birth of Christ, also informs Zachariah of the forthcoming birth of John the Baptist (see Luke 1:11-19).

smiled … surname  Lily speaks with a Dublin accent, often described as flat, in which Gabriel’s surname would be pronounced ‘Con-er-roy’.  Gabriel’s smile suggests that his attitude towards the maid is rather patronising.

Robert Browning Gabriel’s fondness for the English poet Browning (1812-89) is an early hint of his distance from Irish culture.

the Melodies Irish Melodies (1808-34) by Thomas Moore (1779-1852) were immensely popular and much more familiar and understandable to Gabriel’s audience than the sometimes tortuous and difficult poetry of Browning.

dumb-bells Weights used for physical training.

stirabout A kind of porridge made of oatmeal with water or milk, which is stirred while it is cooking. 

Galoshes .. Guttapercha Over-shoes made from a substance similar to rubber.

Christy's MelodiesChristy Minstrels The original Christy Minstrels, formed in about 1842, were white performers ‘blacked up’ as African-Americans in a show consisting of song, dance and comedy, the latter based on crude racial stereotypes.  By the time The Dead was written, the name had come to be used for any kind of black minstrel show.

the famous Mrs Cassidy … for I feel I want it This appears to refer to a stock Irish joke with a well-known punch-line. 

Quadrilles A kind of square dance very popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

the pledge A promise to avoid alcohol.  Freddy seems to have found it impossible to keep his promise. 

her Academy piece A testing musical work set for candidates at the Royal Irish Academy of music to demonstrate their abilities.

the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet In Act 2, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s play (written c. 1595), Romeo woos Juliet from below as she stands on the balcony of her bedroom.  The scene is echoed in Gretta Conroy’s story of Michael Furey, recounted towards the end of The Dead

princes in the tower  Edward V (1470-83) and Richard (1473-83), the sons of King Edward IV (reigned 1461-83), ‘disappeared’ whilst in the Tower of London.  It was assumed that they were murdered on the orders of their uncle Richard of York, who reigned as Richard III (1483-85), because of the threat they posed to his claim on the throne.  More recent historical opinion, however, has suggested other possible culprits, including Richard’s supplanter, the Tudor King Henry VII, whose claim to the throne was also threatened by the princes.  Paintings of the princes were very popular in the Victorian period.

tabinet A watered silk cloth, like damask, often used for curtains.

pierglass A tall mirror, usually hung between windows.

Constantine The Roman Emperor Constantine (c.285-337 CE) was responsible for Christianizing the empire.  Both the Conroy brothers have given names with strong Christian associations.

the Royal University  Established by the British Government in 1880 as the degree awarding body for University College, Dublin, where Gabriel Conroy was almost certainly a student.

Lancers Another form of quadrille, whose title contributes to a pattern of allusions to military matters.

She did not … an Irish device Miss Ivors is strongly committed to the cause of Irish Nationalism and a supporter of the Celtic revival in design and other arts.  Her unglamorous and modest dress suggests that her commitment to these political causes is more important to her than outward adornment.

The Daily Express A Dublin newspaper supporting the Unionist cause.

West Briton By the time this story is set, this was not a polite expression. Originally, the term was applied neutrally to the Anglo-Irish, who supported the continued Union of Britain and Ireland.  Later, however, Irish nationalists who sought separation from the United Kingdom used it pejoratively.  Miss Ivors objects to Gabriel’s commitment to English culture and his interest in continental Europe.

at the University Miss Ivors will not have been able to attend University College, which did not at this time admit women, so she probably studied for her Royal University exams at either St Mary’s University College, run by Dominican nuns, or Loreto College, run by Loreto nuns.  St Mary’s was the more progressive institution, teaching in Gaelic and supporting the professional aspirations of its women students.

the university question The admittance of women to higher education was an important and hotly debated matter in Ireland at the turn of the century:

  • Trinity College, established by Queen Elizabeth I, was regarded as a Protestant institution, associated with the English minority ruling class.  In fact Catholics had had some access to the College since the mid-eighteenth century, with male Catholics and dissenters admitted from 1873 and women from 1904.  Nonetheless, the College was Anglican in its culture and outlook. 
  • Other, secular, establishments set up by the British government in Galway, Belfast and Cork were regarded by sceptical Catholics as the ‘Godless Colleges’. 
  • In 1854 the Catholic University of Ireland was established under the leadership of John Henry Newman (1801-90), which became University College Dublin in 1880, and in 1908 joined with the University Colleges of Cork and Galway to form the National University of Ireland.

Aran Islands These islands lie off the west coast of Ireland and at the time of The Dead their inhabitants largely spoke Irish.  In the period of the Celtic Revival they were of special interest for Irish Nationalists, and the playwright John Millington Synge (1871-1909) frequently visited the Islands, publishing The Aran Islands in 1907.

Katherine Kearney This character also appears in A Mother, where she is characterised as a passionate Nationalist.

Connacht This Irish province (also known as Connaught) lies on the western side of the country, by the Atlantic Ocean. For Miss Ivors, its distance from the English mainland makes it especially Irish.

your own language … Irish Miss Ivors supports the Irish Ireland movement, which argued that all Irish people should learn their own language.  The Movement preferred to call the language Irish rather than Gaelic or Celtic, in order to place it on the same footing and grant it the same status as English.

go visiting This is one of the movements in the Lancers dance, during which the conversation with Miss Ivors takes place, and means that for a short time they will partners.

Glasgow The principal industrial city in Scotland is home to many Irish immigrants, both Catholic and Protestant, who live in (not always friendly) rivalry.  Their relationship is also summed up in the hostility between supporters of the city’s football clubs, the Catholic Celtic and the Protestant Rangers.

Galway The principal city of the province of Connacht.

Wellington monument in Phoenix Park, DublinWellington Monument The monument to Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), who defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, stands in Phoenix Park, quite near to the Morkan house.  Wellington was a native of Dublin, but he refused to think of himself as Irish, and his rejection of definition by national identity is obviously relevant to the argument between Gabriel and Miss Ivor. 

the Three Graces In Greek mythology, Aglaia (splendour), Euphrosyne (mirth) and Thalia (good cheer), daughters of Zeus, preside over happy social occasions.

Paris Another story from Greek mythology concerning three women.  Paris had to choose the most beautiful of three goddesses to receive the golden apple.  Out of Hera, Athene and Aphrodite he chose the latter, the goddess of love.  He was rewarded with the hand of Helen, a celebrated beauty, conceived with Leda by Zeus in the form of a swan, whom Paris abducted from her husband Menelaus, an action which led to the lengthy Siege of Troy.  

Arrayed for the Bridal An English version of an aria from I Puritani (1835), an opera by Vincenzo Bellini (1801-35).

women out of the choirs This is a reference to an encyclical issued by Pope Pius X (1903-14) in 1903 seeking to bring order to church liturgy, including the exclusion of women from church choirs.

of the other persuasion A polite way of saying that Mr Browne is a Protestant. 

to take a pick itself To eat a small amount.

Beannacht libh (Irish) The literal meaning is ‘a blessing with you’; used as a way of saying goodbye.

a pass for Mignon A free ticket to see Mignon (1866), a very popular opera by Ambroise Thomas (1811-96).

poor Georgina Burns This name has not been traced, but Mary Jane may be thinking of a friend or pupil who, like the heroine of Mignon, suffers from some kind of mental illness.

Tietjens … All the names mentioned are those of well-known opera singers.  Throughout the middle decades of the nineteenth century opera, especially Italian grand opera, was regularly performed and enjoyed in Dublin’s theatres.  

Let me Like a Soldier Fall A number from the opera Maritana (1845) by the Irish composer William Vincent Wallis (1812-65).

unyoke the horses … to her hotel Therese Tietjens (1831-77) the German soprano received this honour in Dublin in 1874.

Dinorah An opera, first performed in 1859, by Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864).  Also known by its French title, Le Pardon de Ploermel

Lucrezia Borgia An opera by Giovanni Donizetti (1797-1848), first performed in 1833.

Caruso Enrico Caruso (1874-1921) was an exceptionally gifted tenor, known all over the world.

Parkinson The name is untraced.

I’m all brown The exact origin of this phrase is unknown, but it may be a catchphrase well-known at the time; Mr Browne is perhaps using it as a pun on his name. 

slept in their coffins Trappist monks do not, as is popularly believed, sleep in their coffins.  They do, however, sleep in their habits, and when they die are buried in open coffins.

the world will not willingly let die A quotation from The Reason of Church Government (1642) by the English poet John Milton (1608-74).  

For they are … tells a lie A well-known traditional song, more often known as  ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’.  The tune was composed just after the Battle of Malplaquet in 1709, at which British and Prussian troops, commanded by the Duke of Marlborough, in spite of sustaining twice as many casualties as their opponents, drove the French from the field.  The battle was one of the most significant in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14). 

laid on here like the gas  Mr Browne’s constant presence is humorously likened to the gas supply. 

Do you know Trinity College?  It is highly unlikely that any cabman would not know the location of this central Dublin landmark.

the old Irish tonality Irish folk music, like that of Scotland and Wales, uses a pentatonic, or five-note scale, in contrast to the more familiar diatonic or eight-note scale.  Singers more used to the latter, might have problems with the range, sometimes as much as two octaves, of the former.

the rain falls … lies cold As the text makes clear, these lines are part of the lyric of the ballad The Lass of Aughrim, known in both Scots and Irish versions. In 1691 the Irish were heavily defeated by the British in a battle near the village of Aughrim in County Galway. The Irish name for the village is Each-druim (horse’s back) and since the battle it is referred to as Eachroim an áir (Aughrim of the slaughter).  Like ‘For they are jolly gay fellows’, alluded to earlier, this is another submerged military reference in the story.

sovereign A gold coin worth £1 or twenty shillings. This valuable coin also makes an appearance at the end of Two Gallants.

little Christmas-card shop Such temporary shops appeared in Dublin each Christmas, with their profits going to charity.  It is implied that Freddy Malins has kept the profits of his shop for himself. 

Michael Gretta’s former lover, like Gabriel, is named after an archangel.

great with him Very close to him or very fond of him.

my grandmother’s One of the very few hints about Gretta’s family background.  It is likely that Gabriel is regarded by his family as having married beneath him in terms of social class.  It is possible that Gretta lives with her grandmother because she has been orphaned (or has at least lost her mother); or she might, as sometimes happened, have been farmed out to a relative because she was part of a large family, and it would be too expensive for her parents to care for all the children at home.

up here to the convent If this means a convent school, then it would suggest that her family has some social aspiration for her.  It would also have been a means of separating her from Michael Furey, who is a country lad, with a low status job in the gasworks. In every respect he’s a person very unlike Gabriel. 

shades Another terms for ghosts or disembodied souls.

snow … all over Ireland  Ireland enjoys a temperate climate, so such weather conditions are very rare and point to a symbolic rather than a realistic use of weather at this point in the story. 

falling softly … softly falling  Michael Furey is based on Michael Bodkin, a former love of Joyce’s wife Nora, who died young and is buried in the graveyard of Rahoon, a village outside Galway (like Oughterard, where Michael Furey is laid to rest).  Joyce visited Bodkin’s grave in 1912 and in the following year wrote a poem called She weeps over Rahoon, with the opening lines ‘Rain on Rahoon falls softly, softly falling / Where my dark lover lies’.  The poem was published in the volume Pomes Penyeach (1927).

crosses .. spears .. thorns In a grave yard, associated with death, these details remind readers of the crucifixion and death of Christ.

the living and the dead This is a phrase familiar from the Apostles’ Creed, a statement of faith regularly asserted by Christians, that, coming again after rising from death, Jesus will judge everyone, whether alive or already deceased.

Investigating The Dead...

  • Compare The Dead and The Sisters.
    • How are they similar and how are they different?
    • In what ways do they form an appropriate beginning and ending of Dubliners?
  • What happens to Gabriel at the end of Dubliners?
  • What means does Joyce use to alter the perspective at the end of The Dead?
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