The Dead – James Joyce

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“The Dead”, the final story in the collection, Dubliners, written by James Joyce, was published in 1914. The story focuses on Gabriel Conroy and his relationship with his friends and family, and, particularly, his wife Gretta. “The Dead” explores a number of themes, including the weight of the past and human mortality. T S Elliot called this story one of the best short stories ever written.


She was walking on before him so lightly and so erect that he longed to run after her noiselessly, catch her by the shoulders and say something foolish and affectionate into her ear. She seemed to him so frail that he longed to defend her against something and then to be alone with her. Moments of their secret life together burst like stars upon his memory. A heliotrope envelope was lying beside his breakfast-cup and he was caressing it with his hand. Birds were twittering in the ivy and the sunny web of the curtain was shimmering along the floor: he could not eat for happiness. They were standing on the crowded platform and he was placing a ticket inside the warm palm of her glove. He was standing with her in the cold, looking in through a grated window at a man making bottles in a roaring furnace. It was very cold. Her face, fragrant in the cold air, was quite close to his; and suddenly he called out to the man at the furnace:

“Is the fire hot, sir?”

But the man could not hear with the noise of the furnace. It was just as well. He might have answered rudely.

A wave of yet more tender joy escaped from his heart and went coursing in warm flood along his arteries. Like the tender fire of stars moments of their life together, that no one knew of or would ever know of, broke upon and illumined his memory. He longed to recall to her those moments, to make her forget the years of their dull existence together and remember only their moments of ecstasy. For the years, he felt, had not quenched his soul or hers. Their children, his writing, her household cares had not quenched all their souls’ tender fire. In one letter that he had written to her then he had said: “Why is it that words like these seem to me so dull and cold? Is it because there is no word tender enough to be your name?”

Like distant music these words that he had written years before were borne towards him from the past. He longed to be alone with her.


Some thinking points …

The writer has chosen to write in the third person, about the thoughts, feelings, memories and perceptions of Gabriel Conroy.  Why do you think he has chosen to write in the third person with this limited perspective, rather than the first person?

What do we learn about Gabriel’s:

  • emotions
  • thought processes and state of mind
  • perceptions of his wife and their relationship
  • needs and desires
  • character?

The writer selects the following verbs to describe Gabriel’s emotions:

  • “he longed”
  • “to catch her”
  • “burst like stars”
  • “he was caressing””
  • “the curtain was shimmering”
  • “escaped from his heart”
  • “went coursing in warm flood”
  • “broke upon and illuminated”
  • “had not quenched”
  • “borne towards him”

Which of these expressions are repeated and why do you think the writer chooses to repeat them?

Do you notice the way the writer focuses on light, movement and the sense of touch in these expressions?  Why do you think this is?  What kind of experience does this suggest?

In depicting Gabriel’s memories the writer uses a montage of three different images of Gabriel’s life with his wife , and moves from one image of one memory to another in succession.  Each acts as a vignette as it captures a single defining moment for Gabriel, and all three work together to communicate the intimacy of his relationship with his wife and their moments together.

Why do you think the writer has chosen these particular moments.


Classic inspiration – some ideas for writing based on this extract

  • Describe the past using a montage of images
  • Describe a memory using the senses of touch, taste, smell and movement
  • Imagine you are Gabriel’s wife and write the first paragraph from her point of view, using the first person