James Joyce's Attitude to Death
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James Joyce is one of the most outstanding representatives of the modernist literature of the 20-th century. Joyce is a writer who is skillfully experienced with language, interior monologue, symbolism, and stream of consciousness. Most of his works are considered autobiographical, that is, they are based on his life experiences, his homeland, Ireland, his native city, Dublin, and his family.
In 1914, Joyce’s collection of fifteen short stories, Dubliners, was published; though, it was finished in 1904. Joyce devoted Dubliners to the city of Dublin, where he was born and spent his youth, and its citizens. While reading James Joyce’s short stories, it seems that you become a part of his created universe of Dublin and Dubliners. You can imagine or, maybe, not imagine but clearly see and comprehend this entire universe that has its beginning, continuation, and end. Joyce managed to depict this unique atmosphere that was floating within the city and nestling in the minds and hearts of its citizens. It is worth mentioning that the British government considered that all stories of this collection contained things that were very provocative and could offend the British Empire and the king. These were the main reasons why Joyce could not publish this collection for such a long period of time since many publishers refused to do this.
The last story of this collection is The Dead. The year of 1904 was very tragic and difficult for James Joyce because his mother died. He visited his native Dublin and a loving family in order to see his mother for the last time. Her death influenced him greatly and caused a long lasting depression. All his pain, despair, grief, and disappointment of what he had experienced were reflected in his Dubliners and his last story, The Dead. The main goal of this paper is to explain Joyce’s attitude towards death, which is the leading theme in his story titled The Dead.
Joyce’s Attitude to Death in The Dead
The title of this story is rather misleading and symbolic. It is difficult to predict what will be represented in the story. Of course, there must be something or somebody that was or is dead, but the author allows a reader to embrace the meaning of the title and the whole story in general only after reading it to the very end.
The story is full of many contradictions between life and death, the past, the present, and the future, the youth and the old age, the new and old generations. In my opinion, Joyce managed to depict two different types of deaths, physical and spiritual, which are very closely interrelated and interdependent.
Joyce started his story with an arrival of the main hero, Gabriel Conroy, to the Christmas party which was organized in his aunts’ house. At first, it appears that such beginning cannot be connected with death because it is Christmas, which means all people should be happy and joyful, but Joyce managed to express this attitude towards it using numerous hints. They serve as reminders that the shadow of death is somewhere very close and hides itself behind the flourishing life. For instance, the first mentioning of something that is related to death can be found at the very beginning of the story when Joyce mentioned Gabriel's dead uncle Pat.
The next mentioning had no connection with the world of dead; on the contrary, it is used in the reference to the real world. Gabriel explained to his aunts the reason of their coming a little bit late: “my wife takes three mortal hours to dress herself” (Joyce). Using the word ‘mortal,’ the author tries to emphasize that people usually spend their lives on different dull and rather unimportant things. They do not even think of the fact that in such a way they are constantly getting closer and closer to their final moment. They cannot embrace that such wasting of time may lead to the loss of some special and crucial moments of their lives or their close people and friends.
Gabriel, his wife, and other guests visited this house and old ladies very often: “…it is not the first time we have gathered under this hospitable roof, around this hospitable board. It is not the first time that we have been the recipients - or perhaps, I have better say, the victims of the hospitality of certain good ladies”(Joyce). These ladies were always glad to see Gabriel, their dead sister’s son.
Being in the house, Gabriel began to recollect different events and episodes that were connected with this house and his aunts. His relatives and he himself became older with every next holiday, and it might happen so that someone would not be present at the next year’s celebration. Joyce stressed that some heroes of his story understood that some of them were already physically dead – uncle Pat or Gabriel’s mother. All these people were treated as real representatives of the real world. The aunts got used to keeping photos of all their dead relatives where they were young and healthy. Gabriel’s aunts and the rest of guests did not think about their own deaths, about what would be in the future. It is rather bizarre that they all recollected only the past events and dead people, instead of building new plans and speaking about those who lived.
The only two things which could be referred to the future plans were the intentions to visit another place in Ireland or Europe. I agree that some past events and people who are not with us must be remembered and mentioned, but we should not make all these to be our everyday reminders. What has happened in the past must stay there with peace, and we should live and build new plans.
The heroes of Joyce’s story, on the contrary, rejected the present, and such notion as the future was far beyond their understanding. It becomes clear that in such way Joyce stressed that these people were dead spiritually and that the only thing they waited for was death. They did not comprehend it distinctly and clearly, this was somewhere deep in their subconsciousness.
They try to avoid and not to have any mentioning and indication of a direct death in their lives. For instance, one of Gabriel’s aunts had made a picture with two murdered princes when she was young. This picture hung above the piano for many years, but when they became older, they simply got rid of it. It usually occurs that people who are young can think and speak freely about death, but when they become older, something unexplainable happens to them; they stop mentioning and paying attention to it. Everything that has any connection with death becomes a taboo.
There was one more picture of Romeo and Juliet hanging in the room. I think that Joyce used this picture as a symbol that has two meanings. It symbolizes a real and true love between two devoted people who were not afraid to die saving their only treasure – their true love. This picture was very closely connected with Gretta Conroy, Gabriel’s wife, and her first love. As it turned out, she fell in love with Michael Furey when she was a young girl. He, too, loved her with all his heart and did not want to let her go. When he learnt that she was going to move to another city, he had been standing for the whole night under the rain. Michael died in a few days because of his broken heart and a cold. Joyce represented rather vividly that the first love was hidden somewhere deep in the heart of Gretta who lived a steady and happy life with Gabriel. It was just the illusion that had been created by her mind. The first words and the melody of the old Irish song which Michael used to sing many years ago evoke her true love that had been resting for a long time in her heart. There are no doubts that the first love is always unique and unforgettable and cannot die.
In his story, Joyce emphasizes that ‘the dead’ are not those who died many years ago – for instance, Michael Furey and other people – but those who are alive. I consider that Joyce’s understanding of ‘the dead’ comprises not only all characters of the story but every person in Ireland. People of those times were very devoted to their old culture and well-established traditions and they did not want to accept something new, something that tried to intrude into their lives. They turned into ‘the dead’ because they did not live in the present and completely rejected thinking about the future. Their memories became alive due to the constant recollections of different past events. ‘The dead’ took all power over the living, and there were no ways for new beginnings. The only things left for these people were the endings. The life was treated by them as something that was supposed to be approaching to death.
Gabriel Conroy did not differ from the other heroes of the story at the very beginning. He was not an exception and got used to referring rather to the past than to the future; though, Joyce pointed out that Gabriel was disclosed of several crimes that were inadmissible in the society of the 'living dead.' He was found guilty of his west-oriented preferences and of making contributions to one of the well-known British newspaper.
According to the established tradition, he delivered a speech during the Christmas festive dinner. Gabriel started as he had done this many times before, but he added some new and unexpected ideas to his speech. He became the first of the old generation who understood that the new one was appearing. Gabriel seemed to be in two judgments. On the one hand, he wanted and tried to convince the rest that the new generation would introduce new concepts and perspectives, but on the other hand, he was afraid that this generation would completely reject and forget the past.
Joyce depicts Gabriel's split personality that rushed between two worlds and hesitated about what had to be done and what world had to be chosen. After having talked with his wife, Gabriel embraced that he was at his wits' end. Gabriel realized that his entire family life was only an illusion. It was a real torture for him to understand that he had wasted his life and done nothing that his wife could have remembered. Joyce emphasized that Gabriel was broken physically and spiritually. His soul left his body and the world of 'the living dead' in order to find its way to the kingdom of death where he could find peace.
I should point out that that Joyce skillfully used the nature in this story in order to represent death. On the eve of Christmas, when all guests were coming to the dinner, it started snowing. Of course, it is difficult to imagine a real holiday without the snow. In this story, the snow and cold can be treated as symbols of death and decline. When people get cold, they become peaceful and fall asleep very quickly not understanding that they begin dying very slowly. The same happened to Gabriel who observed the snow falling in the street and who felt asleep starting his journey to the west where the kingdom of death and the dead was situated.
James Joyce was, is, and will be one the most remarkable writers of the world literature. The Dead is considered to be one of his best short stories. It is the last story in the collection of Dubliners which focuses on the spiritual and physical death of the entire generation of the beginning of the 20-th century. Without any doubt, The Dead, like any other piece of literature, can be interpreted differently by different people. However, I am quite sure that every single reader, after getting acquainted with this short story by James Joyce, will be able to find something peculiar and close to his/her own heart.