A Critique Of Paralytic Lives Of Dubliners In The Dead By James Joyce

“The Dead,” by James Joyce, follows the progression of a Christmas party, from the arrival of guests to their journeys home. One of the few constants is the presence of snow. Snow accompanies the guests’ garments as they enter the home and is part of the final image of snow capped graves. Snowflakes are formed when water attaches to a dust particle and freezes, fusing a solid and a liquid, two opposites, into a single element. Similarly, Joyce uses snow to link two other opposites, the living and the dead, to equal paralysis. He crafts the story with snow falling over all of Dublin to critique the fact that Dubliners often live paralytic lives, essentially being dead while being alive. To escape this existential limbo, they must find a passion or an idea that they are willing to die for.

The protagonist, Gabriel, is a paralyzed man. He is described as well-educated and well-off for a Dubliner, but his relatively comfortable life does not protect him from chilliness felt by the poor masses of Ireland. Unlike the lower class, however, the coldness he feels is not physical, but emotional. He is completely oblivious of his wife’s feelings. First, he ignores her strange behavior when she is reminded of Michael Furey, a deceased lover. Then, he selfishly thinks only of himself when she reveals her past with Furey. Finally, as he watches the snow fall, he realizes how dispassionate he is: “His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead”. This epiphany, accompanied by falling snow, shows how unfulfilled and paralyzed his life has been.

Gabriel unknowingly demonstrates his paralysis earlier when he tells the story of his grandfather’s horse, Johnny. Johnny was unable to stop pacing around a statue of King William III, a symbol of British power, as the king greatly subdued hopes for Irish independence. The horse’s movement parallels a paralyzed Ireland circling Britain, powerless and unable to think for itself. For Gabriel to reenact the story – “Gabriel paced in a circle round the hall in his galoshes” – he is actually acting as himself. Like Johnny, who paces the mill day after day, Gabriel lacks freedom because he knows no true emotion.

Miss Ivors, a stark contrast to both Gabriel, with his frozen emotions, and the coldness of snow, is vivacious. Her “warm grasp,” “warm hand,” and the way she speaks “warmly” is reflective of her personality. She is a nationalist and unafraid to show her burning passion for the country she loves. Her “tongue rambled on,” and the “neighbours had turned to listen,” embarrassing Gabriel. Gabriel’s apprehensive attitude and uptight personality stop him from truly living. On the other hand, Miss Ivors seems undoubtedly alive, as she is open with others and voicing her opinions. Joyce may be hinting that Dubliners, like Gabriel, are not “Irish” enough, and that they should work harder for independence. Until they do so, they will be held in a state of paralysis. But in the end, snow melts and changes form, and so just as readers may be hopeful for a change of heart from Gabriel, Joyce may be hopeful for Irish sovereignty.

10 December 2020
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