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Melf ADM

Faded Identity: 30 September 1993

Gabriel’s Education and Humanity
in James Joyce’s “The Dead”

In James Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” Gabriel Conroy’s world dissolves as he confronts a truth

and a past he had not yet recognized. Until this confrontation, Gabriel proudly considers

himself triumphant and superior to those around him. As a result, his self-assured irony col-

lapses when the passionless futility of his life becomes apparent to him after discussing lost love

with his wife. Gabriel fails to understand either himself or the great romantic passion his wife

had once known until his various delusions develop into near-crippling paradoxes. His

rationalized perspective conflicts violently with his desires, and eventually leads him to despair

and disintegration. This conflict first strikes Gabriel in a single moment that destroys the

identity he had built himself. “The Dead,” then, details Gabriel’s movement away from structure

into a realm of confusion.

Gabriel begins his evening with the same condescending confidence the reader comes to

regard as typical of Gabriel. His intelligence and charisma, the key elements of his personal ity,

drive him through every interaction all through the evening. His first conversation at the party is

with Lily, the caretaker’s daughter and house assistant. Lily is also the first of the three women

with whom Gabriel has a conflict, each one becoming successively more serious. With Lily,

Gabriel adopts a smooth, “friendly tone” (178) and makes small talk with her until she surprises

him with a remark that may serve as a synopsis of Gabriel’s aims throughout the evening. Her

declaration that “men [are] only all palaver and what they can get out of you” anticipates

Gabriel’s later discussion at the hotel, where he chatters to his wife about Freddy Malins while

hoping to “crush her body” and to “overmaster her” (217). The reader quickly surmises

Gabriel’s social stratagem when, hoping to recompense for Lily’s antipathy to men, he

patronizingly thrusts a coin into her unwilling hands.

He continues his condescension while considering the speech he prepared. His reflec-

tions on the speech reveal his conceit and mild arrogance, especially when he thinks of his au-

dience. He is at least mildly deluded that he is “superior” to the other members of the party

and it is this attitude that later blinds him as he attempts to understand and “overmaster” his

wife. Because he believes “their grade of culture differed from his,” (179) Gabriel projects his

own values onto his audience and, later, his wife. When he measures the likely response to his

speech, he realizes he should replace lines from Browning with some from Shakespeare. It is as

though he could displace the weakness of the speech onto the members of the party. He makes

this decision not because he believes himself at fault, but rather because Browning “would be

above the heads” (179) of his audience. Even when he observes the speech might fail, “just as he

had failed with the girl [Lily],” he assigns the blame to his own “superior education” (179).

It is important to note Gabriel’s progression from happiness to despair with regards to

his wife as the evening continues. In tracking this movement, we clearly see the opposing forces

struggling within Gabriel as he simultaneously struggles with guests at the party. His pol ished

manners are in operation, but he slowly develops an interest in the outward beauty of his wife.

After Lily, but before the episode with Miss Ivors, Gabriel is near the peak of his pride as he

smoothly works through the party, with his “admiring and happy eyes...wandering from

[Gretta’s] dress to her face and her hair” (180). At this time, the rational and passionate forces

are balanced and Gabriel is able to function, but the balance is tenuous.

The balance begins to shift when Ms Ivors aggressively pursues Gabriel regarding his

status as a West Briton. Miss Ivors seems to be the only character who understands Gabriel’s

methods of social manipulation. Her first question after naming him as a columnist for the Daily

Express immediately throws Gabriel into self-doubt and diffidence. “Aren’t you ashamed of

yourself?” (188), she asks, and her target, Gabriel, reels. Miss Ivors exploited a weakness Gabriel

believed secret, and the weakness happens to be in a field in which she is proficient. Gabriel

cannot retaliate as he might with other, less educated people, because Miss Ivors and he are

equals and “their careers had been parallel” (188). His party politicking is rendered useless in

her presence, and he is reduced to “murmur[ing] lamely” (188) an explanation as “a blush

invade[s] his forehead” (189).

By labeling Gabriel a “West Briton.” Miss Ivors strikes another anticipatory chord in

Gabriel’s heart. He does not have the strong ties to Ireland his wife has. His history with the

nation seems at best unpleasant, and at worst sickening. “I am sick of my own country,” he

lashes. “Sick of it” (189). He does not share or admit to the affection his wife had for the days

gone by in Galway, or for the “old Irish tonality” (210) of the tenor’s voice. In fact, Gabriel

speaks little of his roots, except to mention his mother’s opposition to his marriage and her later

sickness and death. His lack of apparent roots signifies a missing piece, a fragmentation in his

identity, that shatters when his wife speaks glowingly of Galway before Michael Furey’s death.

Gabriel is insistent on negating history as part of his life. “I will not linger on the past,” (204) he

says in his speech. Despite saying this early in the evening, however, he later finds he cannot

escape his wife’s past.

Gabriel’s uneasiness and uncertainty continue to increase as the time for his speech

nears. His rage at Miss Ivors and anxiety over his speech is assuaged only as he takes control

over the party as the unquestioned center of authority. As carver, he needn’t be political, intel -

lectual, or sympathetic. Carving is a purely social grace. Without having to balance his mores

with his passions, “he felt quite at ease, for he was an expert carver and liked nothing better than

to find himself at the head of a well-laden table.” Discussion of the monks’ sleeping in coffins to

“remind them of their last end” (201) also foreshadowed some of the company’s preoccupation

with death, and worked into Gabriel’s increasing tension. The goose having been carved, even

Gabriel’s confidence in his rhetorical skills (in which he once seemed to have so much faith) soon

seems to wan, and he returns to a more conventional fear of public speaking. The tension within

him returns, his earlier rage, tempered by a good meal, returns. By the time he is ready to speak,

Gabriel tries to subdue his anxiety and “lean[s] his ten trembling fingers on the tablecloth and

smile[s] nervously” (202). His inner struggle continues.

Gabriel’s speech on the new and old generations is an touches on his own fundamental

dichotomy between “hypereducation” and “humanity” (203), a dichotomy which we might con-

sider a slightly more complicated Joycean version of the age-old reason / passion division. He

has so rationalized his life, that he is unable to communicate with those who have less educa tion

but more humanity. When he finally confronts his wife’s great moment of humanity, his

hypereducation is unable to comprehend what has happened or how she feels. Such an event

cannot be rationalized or pigeon-holed, but Gabriel is unwilling or unable to open his sympa-

thetic side to his wife. This central paradox between his humanity and his hypereducation is

what finally breaks down Gabriel’s identity construct. After his speech, he will begin to see,

although not yet understand, “the humanity...which belonged to an older day” (203).

It is appropriate that after his depiction of the split between the old and new genera -

tions, Gabriel begins to estrange himself from his wife. Joyce’s method of interpolating Gabriel’s

thoughts into the narrative allows us to witness the alienation as it occurs. “Gazing up the

staircase,” Gabriel sees that

a woman was standing near the top of the first flight, in the
shadow also. He could not see her face but he could see the ter-
racotta and salmonpink panels of her skirt which the shadow
made appear black and white. It was his wife. (209)

Gretta, at the top of the staircase, is perhaps nearest to what for Joyce may be a symbol

of one deeply human experience: that of reflecting on lost love. Staring up at her, Gabriel is a

world removed from her feelings, her history, her humanity. He cannot even recognize her as his

wife until he has deduced as much from her clothes. Typical of Gabriel’s binary method of

rationalization, he reclassifies her “terracotta and salmonpink” skirt as “black and white.” She is

beyond his realm of knowing, “a mystery” (210) to him, and in order to fathom her, he must

reduce her to a trope as if she were the subject of a literary column. “What is [this] woman...a

symbol of?” (210) he asks. 1

“The Dead” as a whole and this passage in particular seem to recall several fundamental notions of structuralism, but at the time the story
was written, structuralism had been used mostly for linguistic studies. Joyce’s use of binary systems, of the Gabriel myth, even of Gabriel’s
understanding of his wife as a symbol (or “signifier”) as part of a text, hint so strongly at structuralism, one might wonder whether he

Although the answer to his question leads him to despair by evening’s end, he is not

sufficiently self-conscious to realize how alienated from his wife he has become. His thoughts

become progressively more lustful and run in the opposite direction from Gretta’s feelings. His

thoughts after seeing her on the staircase grow steadily more sexual, and increasingly chaotic.

In Gabriel’s mind, the strife of the night left with Miss Ivors. He is “proud” as he looks at his

wife, and “a sudden tide of joy went leaping out of his heart” (212). This joy soon transforms

into a desire, and Gabriel continues to dehumanize his wife and she becomes little more than a

helpless object. “Happy that she is his,” (215) he finds great strength and “valor” in pondering

their most intimate experiences, because he believes no one else has shared such moments with

her. Invigorated by these thoughts, Gabriel, envision his wife “so frail that he longed to defend

her against something and then to be alone with her” (213) and “moments of their secret life

together” consume his thoughts. The party, good manners, rationalization, seem almost

immaterial as Gabriel entertains visions of intimate times “no one knew of or would ever know


By the time they reach their room, Gabriel has virtually removed himself from the

dullness of his life that simultaneously torments his wife. He equates lust with passion, and his

rational side is nearly overruled while he feels “that they have escaped from their lives” and have

“run away together into a new adventure” (215). Gretta, meantime, is haunted by her own life

and cannot run away. She touches her husband for support, for compassion, and he is struck by

“a keen pang of lust” (215). The anxiety he felt towards his speech multiplies tenfold as he

attempts to control his “arms trembling with desire to seize” (216) his wife. His desire to take

his wife is so tortuous, his compassion and well-known solicitude vanish, and he is almost

indifferent to her “serious and weary” look. She wants his compassion; he wants to ravish her.

Gabriel’s rational and passionate sides wrestle inside him, confuse him, each briefly

seizing control of him. He desperately wants her to “come to him of her own accord” but yearns

extrapolated from Saussurean linguistics only to anticipate Lévi-Strauss’ anthropological applications by several decades. A structuralist (if
there are any left) might argue that Joyce’s use of these devices was unintentional, and that he only served as a case-in-point of the
unconscious construction of binary structures in myth.

to “overmaster” (217) her. The dichotomy of Gabriel’s identity is frenzied and chaotic. He is so

caught up in his inner turmoil, he does not notice her approach until, at last, she kisses him.

Certain this is a sign that “the yielding mood had come upon her” (217), and his rational side

feels safe to ask carelessly why she affected the serious and weary look. He casually approaches

the source of her trauma as though it were foreplay, and is therefore astonished when she breaks

from him. His expression in the mirror “puzzles” him until moments later he learns his wife’s

secret of the dead, and the momentary reflection catches up with him in a moment of “shameful

consciousness” (219). In this negative epiphany, Gabriel sees himself as “a ludicrous

figure...idealising his own clownish lusts...[a] pitiable fatuous fellow” (219-220). This reality rips

through Gabriel’s identity; his irony, his intelligence, his charisma, his sense of posses sion,

dissipate instantaneously and are replaced with nothing. In that moment, “his identity was

fading” and the “solid world itself...was dissolving” (223). In that moment, Gabriel learns the

fallacy of his hypereducation, and the truth of his wife’s humanity.

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