Monday, December 10, 2012

Winter Reading: "The Dead"

Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet. Hardly had she brought one gentleman into the little pantry behind the office on the ground floor and helped him off with his overcoat than the wheezy hall-door bell clanged again and she had to scamper along the bare hallway to let in another guest.
And so begins the annual Feast of the Epiphany dance and dinner party held each year by the Morkan sisters; isn't it also an annual activity (in addition to work parties and family gatherings) for each of us to reflect on the year gone by in anticipation of a new one on the horizon? Last year at this time I posted a few different seasonal movies. This December, I'd like to try something a little different to get into the holiday spirit: suggesting and commenting briefly on a few favorite short stories and readings which fit the season.

First up is the story for which the lines above are the first, from a writer I was first introduced to as an undergraduate at SUNY Brockport back in the late 1980s. It was during my Introduction to World Literature course that I first came across "The Dead" by James Joyce, the final story in a collection published cumulatively as The Dubliners. Nearly each year, I revisit it, and though it spoke to something in me as an undergraduate, its relevance only seems to increase with each passing year.

With a primary setting of a family party and dance during the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6), "The Dead" tells the story of Gabriel Conroy, and his wife, Gretta. As insinuated by the direct setting, this a story about epiphanies, in particular the realization Gabriel comes to after an evening of revelry and reflection.The holiday setting serves to emphasize the profoundness of Gabriel’s difficult awakening regarding how he sees himself in the world, and how his wife views both he and her first true love, Michael Furey, differently. Gabriel, is not unlike many who, despite social graces and appearances to the contrary, lives a fairly passionless life, a sentiment actualized in his relationship with Gretta. Gretta continues to harbor a secret place in her heart for Michael, who died at a young age, but did so in a manner indicative of a passionate man embracing the moment.

The closing lines of the story, and The Dubliners, are among literature's most evocative and memorable:
It [snow] was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. 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, upon all the living and the dead.
Thanks to the magic of the Internet, if you don't happen to have a copy of The Dubliners laying about your home (though you should check one out of the library if you do not) the entire text of "The Dead" by James Joyce is available for online reading both here and here.


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