January 9, 2015
The Art of the Novella challenge 9: The Dead
by Jonathan Gibbs
Title: The Dead
Author: James Joyce
First published: 1914
Page count: 64
First line: Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.
Why read the single Joyce in the Novella Challenge now? Well, the last book was Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, which in my blog post I compared to Ulysses, Woolf having read the latter fresh off the presses even as she was writing the former. Though perhaps that link isn’t particularly useful: the Joyce of The Dead is an earlier Joyce, one less flagrantly experimental than the Joyce of Ulysses, and happier to work within recognisable and traditional forms, though certainly able to make them sing in ways in which they weren’t accustomed.
No, more pertinent in my choice was the temporal setting of Joyce’s story, early in January, just about now as I write this, though there’s no snow falling in London, not on the living and not on the dead. The party that the story relates is generally supposed to be one celebrating the Feast of Epiphany, which might or might not be a wink by the author towards his famous theory of epiphanies, only explicated later in Portrait of the Artist, but exemplified thoroughly in the stories of Dubliners, and nowhere more strikingly than here.
Clearly it’s hard to say anything fresh about such a familiar and iconic story – probably the book in this series that is the most widely read – beyond the fact that it is indeed a wonderful example of the form, and should by God be read by anyone who hasn’t yet read it.
How? Why? Well, it is elegantly efficient in covering in its 64 pages or 15,672 words the few hours of a party in a well-to-do Dublin household, and its immediate aftermath. It lets fifteen or so named characters bubble up to the surface of the text, gives most of them a moment in the spotlight – a single moment in which to present and, in some way, damn themselves. And it manages all of this through a main character who not-so-unobtrusively manoeuvres himself to the centre of the story, as if he wishes to embody the reality and solidity of everything about him, everything that we are presented with, and then strangely, almost uncannily, starts to disintegrate in front of us, to dissect, to borrow Ben Lerner’s usage in his novel 10:04, and then, most strangely of all, start to become real to himself even as he feels himself and reality definitively part.
Or, there’s this.
The Dead is blessed with a pair of the greatest opening and closing lines in English literature.
“Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet” is a textbook example (James Wood quotes it in How Fiction Works) of internal focalisation, or the free indirect style, in which the author incorporates into a third person, external description of events elements of individual characters’ perspectives and sensibilities. Here, of course, the common-or-garden, so-wrong-it’s-right usage of “literally” by Lily, the maid-for-the-night at the Morkan sisters’ party, is artfully deployed by Joyce to quick-sketch her character, while also slipping us as smoothly as possible into the opening scene. She’s run off her feet. We hit the ground running.
The last line of the story, well, the last line requires the whole of the final paragraph for its full effect:
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
(By the way, I can never read that line – repeated in the story – “the snow being general all over Ireland” without thinking of Casablanca, and Rick’s “I bet they’re asleep in New York. I bet they’re asleep all over America.”)
The man looking out of the window is Gabriel Conroy, the rather self-important early middle-aged man that is our guide through the story. He is nephew to the Morkan sisters; it is his job to give a toast at the dinner; and he thinks rather highly of himself for it.
At first you would say there is little in this final passage that is as distinctly ‘focalised’ as Lily’s “literally”, beyond perhaps the “dark mutinous Shannon waves” – which chimes with a theme of Irish politics that drifts like a soft current under the surface of the story: during the party Gabriel is taunted for being a “West Briton”, and makes a gently reactionary speech that upbraids the younger, “hyper-educated” generation for their new, misdirected ideas, that are so lacking in the humanity, hospitality and humour of the old ways.
But – and the additional joy of Joyce for the purposes of this blog post is that there is no drama, no need for spoiler alerts; the artistry exists in place beyond narrative, beyond revelation. If the only twist of the story is the ‘epiphany’ that allows Gabriel to see himself anew, then I can take nothing away from a reader’s experience of it by relating it here.
But the twist to the evening for Gabriel is that, at the end of the party, having sort-of-despite-himself sort-of-flirted with Lily the maid, and then sort-of-despite-himself sort-of-flirted with Miss Ivors, the young woman of modern, nationalistic ideas, he catches his wife, Gretta, in a moment of private absorption, leaning alone on the upstairs bannisters of the hallway and listening to a song being sung in one of the other rooms.
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. There was a grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something.
Now, I’ve got to tell you, Gretta has been largely absent for the story, which at this point is 47 pages into its 64 run. She has a burst of a few passages of dialogue when she and Gabriel arrive, teasing him in a good-natured way for making her wear galoshes, but after that… zilch. (“-O, good night, Gretta, I didn’t see you,” someone says when they leave.) She’s there, at the party, but Gabriel, the master of all he surveys, pays her no mind.
Until now, until she reveals herself to him as… a symbol of something.
He takes her home, fired up with desire (nothing like a symbol to get a man aroused) – to the point that he finds himself angry at her continued distraction:
If only she would turn to him or come to him of her own accord! To take her as she was would be brutal. No, he must see some ardour in her eyes first. He longed to be master of her strange mood.
Which, well, is not a pleasant reflection to find in the page of a book, for any man.
He relents, thank God, and eventually actually asks her why she is upset, and she says that the song reminds her of a boy she was in love with, before she knew him, and who died. (That’ll be the Michael Furey of the final lines.) What passes after that, and it is only a few pages until the final passage already quoted, is writing of great simplicity and beauty, that exists in such a strange relation to the rest of the story that it does make you want to be back in the party scenes, so you can work out how you, how Gabriel, got from there, from that heavy, ultra-socialised, tables-laden-with-food-laden-prose to here, where he is contemplating death (“The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward” carries so very many layers of mythological sediment), contemplating ageing, contemplating what he has let fall from his life, and how, if he could find his way back to that, how much further he would have to go. The journey westward is only ever to reach a point where a second journey, further westward, might be started.
The snow is falling, in the final line, and again in the line, the snow is falling, and seven times in that paragraph, but at the same time the language is rising, and your heart, reading it, is rising, and your eyes, too. You don’t have to have seen John Huston’s film adaptation to know what the camera is doing in the final shot, the final shot of snow falling, and I for one have never seen it, but I checked it on YouTube, and it is. It is rising.
Jonathan Gibbs is the author of Randall, or The Painted Grape, published by Galley Beggar Press, and lectures in Creative and Professional Writing at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He tweets as @Tiny_Camels and blogs at Tiny Camels.