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Tuesday
Jan082008

The Dead

He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning for he feared they would be above the head of his hearers .... they would think he was airing his superior education.

How likely are those gathered for Christmas dinner in this famous tale to comprehend Gabriel Conroy's postprandial speech?  In his opinion, not at all.  How can he talk about something which doesn't interest him to people who are so obviously not on his cloudy plateau of learning?  What could he possibly do or say that would put both him and his audience at ease?  Since they have nothing in common, he will either betray his own truth or the truth of those around him.  But Gabriel's day is governed by untruth and the harsh odor of an undying passion, and no aspect of his existence is left sacred or undisturbed.  Until his wife's confession he remains, however, the only true orator in the story; that will change with mention of the curious immortal Michael Furey.

Gabriel believed, or at least was willing to say, that "literature was above politics" (a quote repeatedly attributed to Joyce himself), and for that splendid reason, kept his name and newspaper column unassociated and this important principle unuttered.  With Miss Ivors, for example, he "could not risk a grandiose phrase" because it would presumably come off as insincere.  His love for literature naturally propels him towards the richer European traditions and their languages, and, subsequently, he resents what he sees as Irish parochialism and the insufficiency of being monoglot.  Like Joyce, he is  tired of simply being Irish, and deposits truth in distant, foreign lands.  The term "West Briton" stems from his work at The Daily Express, but the fact that Miss Ivors reiterates it following his praise of Europe and disparagement of Ireland shows her keen psychology: she will not accord him his desired status, that of a "European."  He fears he might never escape this despicable parochialism.  When Gretta asks him "what words" he had had with Miss Ivors, he responds: "no words ... no words ... only she wanted me to go for a trip to the west of Ireland."  Gabriel's tribute to his aunts is perhaps fake, or perhaps he takes pains to mention nothing save their so-called 'admirable' qualities.  Otherwise, they were "only two ignorant old women."  After the spinster Julia's rendition of "Arrayed for the Bridal," Gabriel seizes her hand in congratulatory ecstasy, "shaking it where words failed him," and offers compliments on her performance:

I never heard your voice as it is to-night.  Now!  Would you believe that now?  That's the truth.  Upon my word and honour that's the truth.

The truth is that he couldn't care less about his batty aunts' modest capabilities, and it is no coincidence that his speech is directly preceded by the story of the monks of Mount Melleray.  These monks never speak because they seek to atone "for the sins committed by all the sinners in the outside world."  Hardly an original concept, this "outside world" of "sins" and lies, and an inner world of truth, silentium est aureum, and so forth.  And Gabriel, unlike his creator, is hardly an original.

The speech itself is laden with pious observations.  "We are living in a sceptical and ... thought-tormented age," Gabriel says, then adds that the past days, "might, without exaggeration, be called spacious days."  He has just held forth on "genuine warm-hearted courteous  Irish hospitality," and fearlessly so; his truth has nothing to do with custom, it is in fact the shunning thereof, the break with the expected that evokes his anti-patriotism.  The "thought-tormented age," the present climate of doubt and revolt, does not dovetail with the romantic quirks he reveals near the narrative's end, where his speech becomes an almost purely rhetorical construct tinged with vindictiveness towards those who might dare question his interpretation of values.  When he mentions "those dead and gone, great ones whose fame the world will not let willingly die," he is taken to mean the idols of his aunts and their generation.  But he is really thinking of his own masters, such as Browning.  As he does to the living, Gabriel accords to the dead a certain hierarchy, what can be loosely termed an aesthetic index, by which he measures those around him.  And so he would never imagine a scene like the story's ultimate, because Michael Furey is supposed to be lost in oblivion.  Someone like Michael Furey, or any trivial, rustic aspect of life cannot possibly be true.  "Unless he tells a lie," this simple or parochial emphasis on true things (a predilection for honesty in contrast to the current "sceptical" times), could very well summarize the falseness in Gabriel's discourse.

The Lass of Aughrim dominates the last third of the story, but initially Gabriel reminisces about his love for Gretta.  His passionate letters contain quotes such as, "why is it that words like these seem to me dull and cold?  Is it because there is no word tender enough to be your name?"  The truest part of Gabriel in The Dead comprises his tender inner thoughts that invariably flow towards his wife, and, if one allows Gabriel's voice or at least a great part of his consciousness to seep through Joyce's lines, the discourse in these pages is lyrical and strong.  His inability or unwillingness to verbalize his relationship with his wife provides two effects: he retains his luster within him, and he fails to understand Gretta's own passion.  While he fretted about his speech, "the indelicate clacking of the men's heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his," and yet Michael Furey is unquestionably "delicate."  Gretta turns out to be "country cute" as Gabriel's mother had warned him, and this "overeducated"  Irishman now sees himself as

a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts ... a pitiable fatuous fellow.

His own repository of truth, his wife, proves itself to some extent a lie, and its cause is a part of culture he has hitherto denounced openly.  The immortal power of the silent dead, and their famous equation with the living in the story's final line, indicates the vacuity of bold and learned words when compared to the few, small and perhaps simple passions, much like those of a child, that linger forever in memory.

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