James Joyce's “The Dead” at Christmas Dinner

15 Usher's Island, Dublin city. The real-life location of the fictional Morkan sisters' home in James Joyce's "The Dead".
15 Usher's Island, Dublin city. The real-life location of the fictional Morkan sisters' home in James Joyce's "The Dead". (photo: Damien Slattery, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

It sure doesn’t sound like the title of a Christmas story, but “The Dead” (actually it sounds more like a Halloween tale) by James Joyce is either a long short-story or short novella that captures turn-of-the century Ireland still then under British rule. Indeed, Raymond Arroyo, writing in these pages fifteen years ago, reviewed the theatrical production based on this story.

The plot seems straightforward enough: an annual Christmas dinner held in Dublin by two “old maid” aunts, Kate and Julia, and their young niece, Mary Jane, attended by friends and relatives. However, nothing in Ireland was ever that simple, so what begins as a pleasant evening out morphs into a broken “pledge” (not to drink) on the part of one struggling alcoholic, a civil war of words between a woman who believes in “Home Rule” (a Free Ireland) and her dancing partner professor Gabriel Conroy, Gabriel’s own prosaic and misguided attempt at a encomium on the evening, and finally, in the devastating conclusion, Gabriel’s wife’s remembrance-of-things-past about her own one true love who died so many, many years ago.

While there is no need to review what the story looked like on stage, as Mr. Arroyo did such a fine job of it, it IS worth noting that, if you can’t make it to or through the story of “The Dead” this Advent or Christmas season, the movie of the same name is absolutely flawless. It was John Huston’s last movie and stars his daughter Angelica as Gabriel’s wife, Gretta. (Huston’s son did the screenplay which is almost a perfect palimpsest of Joyce’s story.)

Unlike other American-made movies—even putatively “Christmas Movies”—which rely on hokiness (The Polar Express) or crude scatological humor (Home Alone, The Santa Clause series), The Dead (the film) is that surprising change of pace: quiet, full of pathos, lacking in any swearing, nudity, violence or anything else that might be thrown in to help make it be a box-office success. And yet it succeeded.

“The Dead” was the final short story in Joyce’s collection Dubliners. Unlike all of the other stories in that famous book, it is very long and, as English professors never tire of pointing out, it was Joyce’s thumbnail sketch for his next book A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The other high school English-level takeaway that all Joyce stories are said to contain is an “epiphany” (and indeed, this is when the fictional dinner takes place), or a “sudden realization” on the part of the protagonist that things are not as they seem to be.

But due to its length, it’s safer to say that “The Dead” is a series of smaller epiphanies leading up to one giant one.

And it’s also worth noting, as the critics have, that “The Dead” is perhaps a portrait of Joyce’s life as he imagined it would be had he stayed in Ireland: he may have been a professor at the University College Dublin, and happy in his bourgeois home with his wife from the West of Ireland.

Of course that’s not what happened: Joyce left Ireland for good (or ill) ostensibly to study medicine in France after college. That didn’t work out, so he bounced around, always in penury, with his common-law wife, two children (and for a time his brother Stanislaus). He went from Pola, Yugoslavia to Trieste, Italy, where he taught in the Berlitz School (and “discovered” the Italian novelist Italo Svevo, who quickly was dubbed “The Italian Proust”) then worked in a bank in Rome, before finally “settling” in a flat in Paris where he had critical (but not financial) success with Ulysses (1922). He spent the next seventeen years working on his incomprehensible masterpiece, Finnegans Wake, published less than two years before his death in Zurich in 1941.

It is often debated whether or not Joyce is a “Catholic” writer: he certainly left the faith, never to formally return. And his wife Nora, when asked if she wanted to give him a Catholic burial said, “I couldn’t do that to him.” However, in a rare interview, Joyce’s interlocutor continued to refer to him as a “Catholic writer”. Finally, Joyce responded, “Look here: you keep referring to me as a ‘Catholic’ writer. I wish you’d get it right: I’m a ‘Jesuit.’”

Be that as it may, in “The Dead” we are certainly treated to a proudly Catholic Christmas dinner. Talk turns to making a retreat at a monastery, something the Protestant Mr. Browne simply cannot comprehend. The obligatory exchange follows:

He was astonished to hear that the monks never spoke, got up at two in the morning and slept in their coffins. He asked what they did it for.

—That’s the rule of the order, said Aunt Kate firmly.

—Yes, but why? Asked Mr. Browne.

—The coffin, said Mary Jane, is to remind them of their last end.

I asked a Trappist monk about this and he quickly and definitively answered, “Stuff and nonsense. No monks sleep in their coffins, like vampires—not even in Ireland!”

The other enjoyable thing about “The Dead” is that it is the last piece of writing Joyce did before he jettisoned “traditional” forms of prose for his more innovative (and difficult) “in-stream-of-consciousness” technique and his maddening neologisms and portmanteau words that make up so much of his later writing. Joyce, as T.S. Eliot opined, was “the greatest master of language in English since John Milton.” Perhaps nowhere is that more on display in “The Dead” where, his linguistic skills are at their height in terms of being still-recognizably in English proper. Thus:

It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for 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 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.

I said that “The Dead” is a Christmas story and it is. More properly, maybe I should have it is an “Epiphany” story, if that’s not to put too fine or obvious a point on it. However, it is a book—or movie—that, in this era of non-stop-torrent of skipping Advent and starting Christmas the day after Thanksgiving, takes the reader or viewer back to a time of venerable Christmas traditions: getting dressed up for Christmas, the singing of carols, playing the piano (and not the radio) for one’s guests, and of course, the lively discourse over the Christmas goose. What is particularly well-handled—and enjoyable here—is that all of this is delivered not in some saccharin wasn’t-life-so-much-simpler then way, but as Joyce himself said, like “looking at oneself in a well-polished mirror.”