In The Dead, James Joyce lets symbolism flow freely throughout his short story. James Joyce utilizes his main characters and objects in The Dead to impress upon his readers his view of Dublin's crippled condition. Not only does this apply to just The Dead, Joyce's symbolic themes also exude from his fourteen other short stories that make up the rest of Joyce's book, Dubliners, to describe his hometown's other issues of corruption and death that fuel Dublin's paralysis. After painting this grim picture of Dublin, James Joyce uses it to express his frustration and to explain his realistic view that the only solution to the issues with Dublin depends on a move to the West and towards a new life, rather than remaining cooped up like Gabriel Conroy in the hopeless city. On July 3, 1904, James Joyce sent a postcard to his friend Constantine P. Curran exclaiming with excitement that he had just finished a book and that he was now working on "a series of -ten-for a paper...
called the Dubliners to betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a city" (Gilbert 55). Joyce passionately believed that the Irish society had been locked in place for many years due to the power struggle between the Roman Catholic Church and England. As a result of this power feud, Ireland became one of the poorest and least-developed countries in all of Western Europe at the turn of the 20 th century. Consequently, these symbolic representations of paralysis continually persist throughout Joyce's short stories in Dubliners. In The Dead, an unmistakable symbol of Dublin's paralysis occurs with the subject of Gabriel's grandfather and his horse Johnny.
"Johnny used to work in the old gentleman's mill, walking round and round in order to drive the mill... when one fine day... out from the mansion of his forefathers, [Gabriel's grandfather] drove with Johnny. And everything went on beautifully until Johnny came in sight of King Billy's statue... and he began to walk round the statue... round and round he went" (The Dead 47).
Interestingly, although the circle traditionally symbolizes unity and life as with wedding bands, James Joyce decides to use it to show Dublin's lack of progress and development. Joyce craftily uses Johnny to represent the city of Dublin and shows how its development progressed "beautifully" until it reached a certain point in its growth where it could no longer advance and no matter what its citizens, depicted as Gabriel's grandfather, could do, Dublin could not grow or advance any further and continued to circle in the same position for centuries. Coupled with his depiction of Dublin's immobile status through his characters, James Joyce also exemplifies his theme of paralysis through snow. In Daniel R. Schwarz's psychoanalytic criticism of The Dead, he explains that "the snow imagery focuses our attention on a world outside Gabriel... where as ice, it suggests the emotional sterility of a world reduced to social gestures, empty talk, and loveless relationships" (Schwarz 123).
However, I disagree with Schwarz and believe that James Joyce uses snow to symbolically represent the cold and dead Dublin due to its uncertain political period. When Gabriel first enters his aunt's party, "A light fringe of snow lay like a cape on the shoulders of his overcoat and like toecaps on the toes of his galoshes; and as the buttons of his overcoat slipped with a squeaking noise through the snow-stiffened frieze, a cold fragrant air from out-of-doors escaped from crevices and folds" (The Dead 23). This symbolism comes back at the end of The Dead through Gabriel's later thoughts on how the snow "was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills... falling upon every part of the lonely churchyard," and touching both the living and the dead, symbolizing that not only Gabriel, but his entire country, both the living and the lifeless had been united in Dublin's frozen paralysis (The Dead 59). Joyce's theme of paralysis also emanates through the other short stories in Dubliners. The Sisters immediately introduces this theme through the first paragraph as the main character would look into the window of the dying Father Flynn and say "softly to [himself] the word paralysis" (Dubliners 1).
Furthermore, the unnamed main character in The Sisters says, "the word paralysis... had always sounded strangely in my ears... but now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I long to be nearer to it and to look up on its deadly work" (Dubliners 1). James Joyce uses this at the beginning of Dubliners to show that despite Dublin's contempt for its lack of progress, it can not seem to escape from its paralytic condition and even desires "to be nearer to it and look upon its deadly work." James Joyce purposely puts the word paralysis in the first page of the book in order to set up the grim tone for the rest of the short stories in Dubliners to follow. With his second short story, An Encounter, James Joyce again stresses Dublin's paralytic state through symbolic representations.
While the boys try to return home at the end of the day, they encounter a stranger who at some point stands "up slowly, saying that he had to leave [them] for a minute or so... and without changing the direction... [he walked] slowly away from [them] towards the near end of the field" (Dubliners 16), where he ends up masturbating ("'I say! Look at what he's doing... I say... He's a queer old joss er!' "). Joyce depicts this as a kind of paralysis as masturbation does not result in either procreation or even love.
For the remainder of An Encounter, James Joyce continues to emphasize the struggle of Dublin through his main character. The main character had heard through stories "of the glory of the Wild West" and "began to hunger for wild sensations, for the escape which those chronicles of disorder seemed to offer" him (Dubliners 11). So, he and his friends decided to "go along the Wharf Road until [they] came to the ships, then to cross in the ferryboat and walk out to see the Pigeon House." However, in the end, they had only "wandered" around Dublin until "the sun went in behind some clouds and left [them] to [their] jaded thoughts and the crumbs of [their] provisions" (Dubliners 14). In An Encounter, James Joyce artfully uses these boys to symbolize the city of Dublin. Although Dublin desires to break away from "the routine" and start a new life, it only ended up wandering around in its same debilitated condition, weary, and left with its poverty and hunger. Tied closely with the theme of paralysis is James Joyce's second theme of corruption, specifically perversity, contamination, and deterioration, because these prevent Dublin's society from progressing.
Again, Joyce immediately introduces this theme through his first short story, The Sisters, where the main character relates the words simony and paralysis together and describes how they strike him with fear. "Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being.
It filled me with fear and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look up on its deadly work" (Dubliners 1). Simony is an inappropriate word citizens used when referring to the Roman Catholic Church selling its members blessings, pardons, and other favors. James Joyce relates the words simony and paralysis together to express that the corruption in Dublin only fueled the city's stagnant development and prolonged its paralytic state. In Dubliners, James Joyce uses this role of religion in the Dublin society to show how the corruption of the church has conquered the Irish.
Throughout his short stories James Joyce illustrates the immoral and unfaithful role of the priests in Dublin to reveal the deceitfulness of behind the Roman Catholic Church. In The Sisters, Joyce describes how Father Flynn repels the main character due to Father Flynn's physical features and habits. "When he smiled he used to uncover his big discoloured teeth and let his tongue lie upon his lower lip - a habit which had made me feel uneasy in the beginning of our acquaintance before I knew him well" (Dubliners 4). The priest's discolored teeth illustrate an unhygienic Father Flynn even though priests had to remain clean and pure. James Joyce purposely describes this physical feature to symbolically expose the corruption in Father Flynn because he has not followed the guidelines of priesthood. Father Keon, in Joyce's Ivy Day in the Committee Room, also portrays an astonishing characteristic.
Joyce describes the priest as very flirtatious with other men and women in the Church. When Mr. Hench y invites Father Keon to come and sit in his room, Father Keon says "'No, no, no'... speaking in a discreet, indulgent, velvety voice... .' I'm just looking for Mr. Fanning...
.' " (Dubliners 107). Priests were supposed to avoid the physical pleasures in life. In spite of this, James Joyce's description of Father Keon clearly shows Father Keon's mind filled with corruption. Joyce relentlessly continues to portray the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church through his second to last short story, Grace.
The roles of priests are guiding the spiritually lost and teaching them the rights and wrongs of life and forgiveness. However, Joyce shows that Father Purdon does not seem follow any of these duties. Instead, Father Purdon preaches that "Jesus understood our little failings, understood the weakness of our nature, and understood the temptations of this life" (Dubliners 152). Joyce uses Father Purdon's decision to understand and accept the temptations of this life to show the corruption that exists in the Church because the priests were not meant to accept the sins of other, but rather to forgive them. Joyce channels this deceitful characteristic of the Church to reveal the hypocrisy that lies within Dublin's society and how it constantly nourishes the Dublin's crippled state by preventing the society from developing. In The Dead, Gretta is the one person with whom Gabriel feels completely secure.
However, their marriage seems to have decayed, slowly becoming more paralyzed over the many years, which accounts for Gabriel's sudden surge of excitement towards Gretta near the end of the story (The Dead 48). Through this, not only does Joyce describe the corruption within the church, he uses his characters and their relationship with one another to describe the decaying city as a whole and how it only continues to prevent Dublin development. Joyce's remaining issue with his hometown Dublin deals with death. Death closely links to the prior two themes as paralysis often precedes death, and corruption results from a spiritual or moral death.
Interestingly, Dubliners, opens with The Sisters introducing the theme of death and remembering the dead, and finishes off with a serene scene of snow that covers both the living and the dead in Joyce's The Dead. Throughout Dubliners, Joyce consistently focuses on the intersection between life and death. From the start, this clash between the living and the dead shows up in Joyce's The Sisters as the main character falls asleep and "imagines that [he] saw again the heavy grey face of the paralytic... [he] tried to think of Christmas...
but the grey face still followed [him]... it murmured... and desired to confess something" (Dubliners 2). Joyce uses this to show that even the characters may be dead, they are still very much present in the living and affect their normal lives. Later on in the story, after the main character and his aunt see the corpse of Father Flynn, they can not seem to eat or discuss the topic of his passing.
James Joyce strategically harnesses this link between paralysis, corruption, and the inactive state towards death and religion to tie his three main issues with Dublin throughout the rest of Dubliners. In each of his short stories, the characters encounter physical and spiritual deaths that paralyze them from ever completely fulfilling their desires. The young boy in An Encounter desires a break away from his deathly imprisonment of routine and dreams "of the glory of the Wild West," but in the end, he never reaches his goal of getting to the Pigeon House. This relates back to Dublin in that this city encounters problems such as the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church and the chains of routine that paralyzes this society from ever completely fulfilling its desire to develop and progress. James Joyce believes that the only way Dublin could ever start progressing and developing again is if the citizens escape to the West and towards living a new life away from the corruption and death that only stokes the fire of paralysis. However, since the citizens continued to remain in Dublin, Joyce conveys his frustration through his Dubliners.
In An Encounter, a clear symbolic representation of Joyce's desire to move away from Dublin manifests itself through the short story's main character. Hearing stories of "the glory of the Wild West" made the boy "[begin] to hunger again for wild sensations, for the escape which those chronicles of disorder alone seemed to offer... but real adventures... do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad" (Dubliners 11). Joyce symbolically uses the boy to represent the city of Dublin and he reminds its citizens that they have a chance on a new life abroad by escaping into the West, away from the routine of remaining confined in Dublin. At the same time, he expresses his frustration of Dublin remaining in its prolonged paralytic condition by having the boy desire for adventure relegated to his imagination and confined to the barriers around Dublin.
This also comes up in Joyce's A Little Cloud when Little Chandler enviously fantasizes over the job that his friend, Gallaher, has at the London Press and how he also desires "to try to live bravely like Gallaher." However, Little Chandler feels ashamed and he felt "useless. He couldn't read. He couldn't do anything... it was useless, useless! He was a prisoner for life... ." (Dubliners 69). Joyce uses Little Chandler and Chandler's feelings of shame and hopelessness to clearly depict the crippled status of Dublin, where feelings of fear and doubt prevent the Dublin's inhabitants from ever fulfilling their dreams of living a new life in the West like James Joyce.
In his fourth short story, Eveline, Joyce continues to apply symbolism through his characters in order to communicate to Dublin his desire for its citizens to break away from its frozen state. "Home! She looked round the room, reviewing all its familiar objects which she had dusted once a week for so many years, wondering where on earth all the dust came from... but her new home, in a distant unknown country, it would not be like that. Then she would be married...
people would treat her with respect. She would not be treated as her mother had been. Even now... she sometimes felt herself in danger of her father's violence... she was about to explore another life" (Dubliners 25-27). James Joyce again uses Eveline to embody Dublin and through this quote he tries to convey that the city's inhabitants have lived in its same immobile condition for centuries, where everything was familiar, always routine, and nothing ever new.
He then tries to explain that there lays a whole new life of growth and development and where the citizens of Dublin would not be oppressed as their ancestors had been, but rather treated with respect. Yet later on in the story, he again shows his disappointment with the Irish by creating a character, Frank, to represent him. "Frank would take [Eveline] in his arms, fold her in his arms. He would save her...
he held her hand and she knew that he was speaking to her, saying something about the passage over and over again... she answered nothing... she felt him seize her hand: 'Come!' ... .' Come!' ...
it was impossible. Her hands clutched the iron in frenzy... Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition" (Dubliners 31). James Joyce portrays himself as Frank and as Eveline's lover, as Dublin's lover. James Joyce asks Dublin to leave the monotony of their lives and he promises its citizens a new place of protection and safety away from all the corruption. He calls for Dublin to come follow him into the West away from its paralyzed state and begin a brand new life together.
Yet even then, James Joyce describes how his beloved Dublin does not hear him and refuses to go with him, giving him no sign of love or recognition in return. James Joyce gives his final message through his last short story, The Dead. He communicates his life during his time in Dublin through the life of Gabriel Conroy. As Daniel R.
Schwarz explained so clearly in his psychoanalytic analysis of The Dead, there are many similarities as there as opposites between Joyce and Gabriel Conroy. "Wearing glasses, hair parted in the middle, Gabriel resembles Joyce. And his appearance, like his character, is a version of what Joyce feared becoming: bourgeois, conventional, a writer of reviews who supported himself teaching... He represented a life that Joyce in 1907 could see himself leading had he not left Ireland or had he failed as a writer and had to return to Ireland" (Schwarz 104). Joyce uses The Dead as his last resort to not only communicate to Dublin about how he imagined himself had he stayed in Dublin, but also to warn the citizens of Dublin of the life that he could see them leading if they did not leave Ireland soon and move to the West towards the hope of progress, development, and growth of the Irish society; a life that mirrors the life of Gabriel Conroy.
Throughout one of the lowest point in Ireland's history, James Joyce genuinely felt that the political and social struggles of Dublin only continued to fuel the paralyzed state of the Irish. Consequently, Joyce's The Dead became just one of many books that would make up his Dubliners, in which he tries desperately to call out to his country to leave their oppression, the monotony of their lives, and to come to the West for a fresh beginning and promise of growth and prosperity. This desperate cry to his country can be best described in Eveline, as Frank reaches out for his beloved Eveline and calls out, "'Come! ... Come!" Joyce, James.
Ed. Daniel R. Schwarz. The Dead. St. Martin's Press: New York, 1994.
Joyce, James. "Gabriel Conroy's Psyche: Character as Concept in Joyce's 'The Dead'." Ed. Daniel R. Schwarz. St. Martin's Press: New York, 1994.
Joyce, James. Dubliners. Alan Sutton Publishing Limited: United Kingdom, 1992. Joyce, James. Ed. Stuart Gilbert.
Letters of James Joyce. The Viking Press: New York, 1966.