In the denouement of “The Dead” Gabriel’s mood oscillates between different emotions until, at the end, an epiphany comes upon him. This climatic epiphany at the end has been alluded to throughout the story. The effect of this realisation is enhanced by the emotions which preceded it.
When Gabriel and Gretta leave the cab and go into the hotel Gabriel is almost in a state of euphoria.
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“The first touch of her body, musical and strange and perfumed, sent through him a keen pang of lust”
During their journey back from the party he reflected nostalgically upon their honeymoon and his lust for her seems to have been rekindled. In his enamoured state, he feels an acute sense of passion towards his wife. As they climb the stairs of the hotel,
“Only the stress of his nails against the palms of his hands held the wild impulse of his body in check”
The reference to “nails” and “palms” alludes to the crucifixion of Jesus, similar allusions are used later on in the story. His excited state of ardour when juxtaposed against his mood later on serves to emphasise it in its contrast. Gabriel also feels a sense of escapism which is part of what contributed to his euphoric state,
“He felt that they had escaped from their lives and duties, escaped from home and friends and run away together”
This sense of escapism is a continuation of what he discussed in his speech at the party and is a theme which Joyce likes to explore. However, does this escapism imply that they are trapped in their everyday “lives and duties”?
When they enter the hotel room the porter offers them a candle because the electricity is not working, however, Gabriel replies
“We don’t want any light. We have light enough from the street.”
Could Gabriel be trying to create a more romantic atmosphere for what he thinks is going to happen? The lack of light also serves to heighten the atmosphere and creates an apt setting for the conclusion of the story. The light entering the room is referred to as “ghastly”, this seems to link in well with the “menacing setting of earlier, again Gabriel’s emotions seem incongruous with the setting. The light coming in from the window is referenced frequently in the story and becomes of greater importance as the denouement progresses.
Gabriel makes conversation with Gretta but she says she is “tired”, she then walks over to the window and looks out of it with a “serious” face, as mentioned before we will later see the significance of this. Gabriel waits for her but feels that “diffidence [is] about to conquer him” and strikes up another line of conversation about Malins, but this is in a “false voice”. Even though in conversation, Gabriel appears to have his emotions under control it says he is “trembling with annoyance”, most probably triggered by her seeming indifference to him and he wonders at her “[abstraction]”. Joyce is foreshadowing what is to come, however, Gabriel is oblivious to his wife actual state of mind. He is still in a state of passion but acknowledges that,
“To take her as she was would be brutal.”
As Gabriel’s lust grows his feelings take on an almost bestial nature, the word “brutal” is used again in reference to the language he wishes to shout out and he has to restrain himself. He longs to,
“Cry to her from his soul, to crush her body against his, to overmaster her.”
He is in such a “fever of rage and desire” that he does not hear her return from the window. The portrayal of lust as something that brings out a person’s animalistic nature is not an uncommon one.
When she returns from the window she kisses him and tells him that he is a “very generous person”. The kiss and compliment trigger a mood change and his “fever of rage” is quelled and he “trembles with delight”. He strokes her hair and his “heart brims with happiness”, this mood sharply contrasts with his prior feverous state and demonstrate the tempestuous nature of his emotions.
Gabriel wonders if,
“Her thoughts had been running with his”
In light of later occurrences this seems a foolish remark when one considers what she must have been thinking about. Gabriel’s own thoughts have diverged far away from what Gretta is thinking about and she does not feel his “impetuous desire”. However, Gabriel asks the fatal question,
“What are you thinking about?”
Gabriel then realises that she was certainly not thinking about a night of passion as “she [brakes] loose from him”.
Gabriel feels “astonishment” when she breaks away and follows her. As he passes the mirror he catches sight of himself within it,
“His broad, well-filled shirt-front, the face who expression always puzzled him when he saw it in a mirror and his glimmering gilt-rimmed eye glasses.”
This favourable image of himself will offer the reader a point of contrast when he sees himself later on and will show the effect “the dead” have had upon his own perception of himself.
When Gabriel realises that the person she is upset about is someone she used to know his smile “[passes] away”, this phrase also alludes to the dead. A “dull anger” begins to gather and the “dull fires of his lust began to glow angrily in his veins”, his anger of earlier is now being rekindled and his emotions have swung again. When Gretta tells him his name he tries to seem disinterested in “this delicate boy”, he turns the phrase Gretta has used to describe Michael against him. His “smiling” question of earlier has turned into a “cold” question, heat was used earlier in the story as a symbol for their passion, this symbol has now been subverted in place of his attempt at indifference. Gretta’s eyes make Gabriel feel “awkward”, he possibly has an idea of what is to come.
Before Gretta tells him that Michael is dead she looks “away from him” and “along the shaft of light towards the window”, the window is appearing again and could be linked with the memory of Michael Furey. Gabriel’s response to Gretta saying that Michael is dead is a sense of “[humiliation]” as he realises that whilst he has been preoccupied with memories full of “joy and desire” she had been “comparing him in her mind with another”.
In light of this “shameful consciousness” of himself his image of himself changes, in the mirror he sees himself as “ludicrous” and “pitiable” and accuses himself of “idealising his own clownish lusts”. As mentioned before this shows the effect Michael Furey has had on him and one of the main themes of this story is how the dead affect the living beyond the grave. We see in quite an obvious light how Michael’s death has affected Gretta but this shows us how he has indirectly affected Gabriel already.
When Gretta tells Gabriel that she thinks Michael died for her a “vague terror” seizes him,
“Some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him, gathering forces against him in its vague world”
Could this “impalpable and vindictive being” be Michael Furey? At this point he sees Michael Furey as something “coming against him”, his feelings towards him have not yet evolved into the jealousy, and then admiration, of later on – his image of him is still “vague”.
Gretta then goes on to tell Gabriel the full story of how Michael died and of the last night she saw him,
“I heard gravel thrown up against the window.”
The link between Michael and the window is now established, Gretta could have been looking out the window earlier remembering Michael. You could go further to say that the light coming through the window from “outside” was in some way part of Michael – this would explain Gretta’s preoccupation with the window and why, earlier on, Gabriel “instinctively” turns away from it to hide his shame. When Gretta moves to the bed Gabriel goes and looks out of the window and this is when his epiphany creeps upon him.
Gabriel looks upon her “unresentfully”, he does not blame Gretta but he does feel a jealousy that she has had that “romance in her life”. Gabriel is now “pained” by the realisation that he had played a “poor part” in her life. He wonders if she has told him “all the story” as he sees her clothes against the chair.
Gabriel now wonders at his,
“Riots of emotions an hour before”
Those emotions are now long gone and he reflects upon what had given rise to them. As he wonders at the events of the party and of the wall home his thoughts inadvertently turn to death and he thinks about how his Aunt Julia will soon become a “shade” and that “they were all becoming shades”, from this he realises that it is better to,
“Pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age”
He admires the way Michael Furey passes away “boldly” and “generous tears” fill his eyes as he realises that he has never felt that way about anybody and henceforth he has never felt love. This realisation that he has never loved anyone before is an especially depressing thought for him given that he is married and at that stage of life to realise that you could die never having felt love could be a terrifying thought. Part of why Furey passed away “boldly” could have been because of the love he had felt during life and how he had left behind some of that love with Gretta. Many people believe that the only afterlife we experience is what memories we leave behind on Earth, if Gabriel died, what would he leave behind?
Gabriel now sees Michael Furey before him, “standing under a dripping tree”, this image would have been the image Michael left behind with Gretta because it was the last she saw of him. This also links Furey to Christ because Christ stood under a tree in the Garden of Gethsemane a few nights before he was crucified. Furey seems a Messianic figure, he also died young which would fix him forever as the innocent youth Gretta loved who would never “fade” away.
Gabriel’s soul begins to approach the “vast region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead” , he can feel but can’t “apprehend” their “flickering existence”. As Gabriel’s identity begins to “fade out” he is experiencing an almost out of body experience. The dead are referred to as “flickering”, which is reminiscent of a candle, these could be the previously referred to shades. This “flickering” existence could be contrasted with the “bold” passage of Michael into the other world, and the light, which seems representative of him, that shines through the window upon them.
Gabriel is drawn by taps upon the window and realises that “it had begun to snow again” and from this comes the realisation that it is snowing “all over Ireland” and thus on the graveyard where Michael “lay” – from this he is able to draw a link between Michael and himself. Again the fact that he is drawn by the “window” shows how this realisation is brought on by the memory of Michael. Gabriel’s soul “[swoons]” as he hears it falling “like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead”, he now feels the effect that the dead have upon the living. These final thoughts could suggest that the living might, in fact, be able to escape and live unfettered by the past, because surely snow can’t last forever?
Gabriel’s emotions at the beginning were fervent and filled with anger and passion, they fluctuate as the evening progresses and these fluctuations are triggered by Gretta’s mood and response to him and thus, in effect, by Michael Furey. By the end of the story Gabriel is no longer angry but feels a keen sense of self-awareness triggered by Gretta’s revelation that Michael Furey died for her. The setting of the story against the backdrop of winter which, in literary tradition is a symbol for death, is entirely appropriate given the nature of Gabriel’s epiphany. Joyce exhibits how, beyond the grave, the dead can still have an effect on the living. In his speech at the party, Gabriel says, of the dead,
“Were we to brood upon them always we could not find the heart to go on,”
Will he ever manage to escape the death of Michael Furey?
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