James Joyce: The Dead

As someone who has failed over and over with Ulysses – but who hasn’t? – I couldn’t resist returning at the weekend to Joyce’s most famous story, which is that rarest combination of qualities: the work of a genius that you can get through in one sitting. I can’t resist a handsome volume, and ‘The Dead’ is published in a standalone edition by Melville House Publishing, in their series The Art of the Novella. (I hereby salute my fellow book blogger Lizzy Siddal for introducing me to them.) Is it really a novella, at 64 pages? More cost-effective anyway to pick it up as part of his collection Dubliners, or indeed there is no shortage of places where you can read it online for free. Anyway, this is the edition I read: plain and handsome, and irresistible with a matching design bar of chocolate. Both items now consumed.

It was years since I’d read ‘The Dead’ and I remembered almost nothing about it, apart from those extraordinary closing lines. And I don’t plan to say much more about it now, other than: read it. Despite its formal simplicity and beauty, I had to start it twice, just to get a handle on the flurry – one might say blizzard – of character Joyce refers to and introduces in the opening pages.

The setting, to try to whet the appetite without spoiling it, is a house party held by two elderly Dublin women, referred to as Miss Kate and Miss Julia, and their niece Mary Jane. Visitors are plentiful, including Freddy Malins (“they were dreadfully afraid [he] might turn up screwed”) and the hostesses’ nephew, Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta.

Where Joyce succeeds in ‘The Dead’ is in bring together so many elements almost in a showcase of virtuoso story writing. There is politics (this is Ireland, after all) in Gabriel’s confrontation with Miss Ivors, an Irish nationalist. There is psychological insight as Gabriel, who will be making a speech at the party, turns himself inside out with the fear that the erudite references he has planned will seem like snobbery, and alienate the other guests, drilling a perverse inferiority complex into himself as a result. There is brilliant rhythm in the prose:

Gabriel could not listen while Mary Jane was playing her Academy piece, full of runs and difficult passages, to the hushed drawing-room. He liked music, but the piece she was playing had no melody for him and he doubted whether it had any melody for the other listeners, though they had begged Mary Jane to play something. Four young men, who had come from the refreshment-room to stand in the doorway at the sound of the piano, had gone away quietly in couples after a few minutes. The only persons who seemed to follow the music were Mary Jane herself, her hands racing along the keyboard or lifted from it at the pauses like those of a priestess in momentary imprecation, and Aunt Kate standing at her elbow to turn the page.

And wit too: when the music ends, “the most vigorous clapping came from the four young men in the doorway who had gone away to the refreshment room at the beginning of the piece but had come back when the piano had stopped.”

As well as this, Joyce nods toward his future flirtations with textual playfulness, when he has Gabriel reflect on seeing his wife, and “asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of.” The story, at the risk of demeaning it, could almost be written with study in mind, so plentiful are the interpretations of the snow, the guests, Gabriel’s intentions and motivations, and the subject of the title: the dead. This brings us to those famous closing words, and I hope it will count as an enticement rather than ruining the effect if I take the opportunity to quote them here. There is, after all, a great pleasure to be had in typing out words that you know you would never be able to come near in perfection of phrasing. Is it a novella or just a story? In truth, it contains more than many multi-volume novels. This, and all that above, among other things, is the beauty of ‘The Dead.’

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on 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 was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted upon 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 though the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.


  1. What an excellent idea. They should market books with chocolate bars packaged in coordinating wrappers. Who doesn’t love to sit down with a good book and a bar of chocolate. I am so relieved to find that I am not the only one to give up on Ulysses over and over again. I do know one person who has made it through and can even explain it. He is a genius and I am not. I have not read Dubliners in about twenty years and now you make me want to pull it out again, at least for The Dead. Now where did I put my chocolate.

  2. I am so relieved to find that I am not the only one to give up on Ulysses over and over again.

    When it comes to Ulysses, you are never alone. I tend to have an annual stab at it, with last year being the best so far, making it just past the 100 page mark. Sadly, once again, it wasn’t to be.

  3. CHOCOLATE? Blimey, doesn’t it sell itself?
    Lovely blog, John, I like your author index. Interesting that Melville has put The Dead out on its lonesome. It is more like a novella than a short story, I suppose.
    You are an Irish book blogger, aren’t you? I was testing out Google blogs the other day and it didn’t stand up well – I found you on the BritLitBlogs feed, where I guess you’ve been all the time.
    I have a luverly old copy of Dubliners which I picked up secondhand 25 years ago. Precioussss.

  4. My last attack on Ulysses got me about two-thirds of the way through, although I think any sort of penetrative understanding had ended around page 15, so it wasn’t really worth proceeding. Of course once we do climb that mountain, we have Finnegans Wake to ‘look forward to’.

    They should market books with chocolate bars packaged in coordinating wrappers. Who doesn’t love to sit down with a good book and a bar of chocolate.

    Funny you should say that Candy: in the UK, books which feature in the Richard & Judy Book Club (our equivalent of Oprah’s) all have adverts on the last page for Galaxy chocolate as a recommended accompaniment.

    Thanks for visiting, genevieve. Yes, with my Northern Ireland base, I have the odd crossover status of being featured both on BritLitBlogs and the Irish Blog Awards (…at time of writing). I’m just glad for the opportunity for more people to find me!

    I have other titles in the Melville House novella series, including Tolstoy’s The Devil, Chekhov’s My Life and a few by Maupassant, Flaubert (A Simple Heart) and von Kleist which I’ve just ordered.

  5. I read Ulysses with the help of The Bloomsbury Notes. I would read two pages, then turn to the Notes which gave an explanation for what was happening. A bit laborious, perhaps, but I got through the book in a month and was thrilled by it.

  6. Sorry, yes, it’s the Blamires book I used. It’s been, ooh, nine years since I read it so the title had altered in my head. Some people are a bit snooty about referring to notes when reading, but it’s the only way I could have completed the thing, and it felt great when I finally reached Molly’s ecstatic monologue, which, by the way, can be read without any notes at all.

  7. I think with Ulysses, Gavin, notes are not only excusable but essential. Given that Joyce’s advice to a correspondent wanting to read Ulysses was, “Read The Odyssey first,” who would have the necessary background knowledge to get everything out of it?

  8. John, I’ve only discovered your blog via the awards shortlist and just want to say how much I enjoy it. It’s great to find so many (current) well-written reviews. You’ve also partly inspired my own post on ‘The Dead’.

    Hope to cross paths at the Blog Awards.


  9. I’ve been putting off trying Ulysses for years – its become a kind of person crusade – one day, when I think I’m ready, I’ll try it. Having read so many literate people here struggle I think I’ll put it back a few more years 🙂

    I love reading with chocolate. But I’ve never thought of matching cover to wrapper. I will try that very soon, sooner than Ulysses!!!

  10. Hi Sinéad, thanks for dropping by – you’re practically blog royalty (for the uninitiated, Sinéad won the Best Arts & Culture Blog at the Irish Blog Awards the last two years running – if you click on her name above you’ll see why)!

    Sadly I’m not going to be able to make the Awards on 1 March as Mrs Self and I have a prior engagement which we can’t get out of. In fact I’ve been trying to work out how to alert the organisers to this as a matter of courtesy. I’ve spoken with a couple of other northern shortlistees who are in the same boat.

    jem, maybe book bloggers can have a concerted effort at Ulysses, with the help of the Bloomsday Book, sometime soon – or maybe one chapter each!

  11. I’m currently reading Ulysses. I’m about half way through. I have to say I’m finding it a bit of a slog. It’s a bit like gold mining – you wade through tons of silt to find little nuggets of genious. And frankly, it’s barely worth it. You can marvel all you want at the intricacy of the book’s architecture and the brialliance of its conception, but in the end I’d prefer a good novel any day. More to the point, as a lover of the short story, give me Dubliners any day.

    Having said that we have to acknowledge that Ulysses prised open the whole concept of the novel. And in particular, Joyce’s version of stream of conciousness is briallantly executed and devastatingly effective. And Ulysses with its cheek and irony is a massive commentry on Irish life.

    Again like the prospecting for gold, you read through it and you see the pieces of gold. But your hands are worn with silt.

    Perhaps I’m missing it – that its a work that is so involved that it takes reading and re-reading, and then magically you begin to see that all that silt was really gold after all, but you just couldn’t see it.

    But if it takes all that much effort, then my conclusion is that life is far too short. Anyway, I hope to pan through it all and come out the other end. But being half way I feel I still have a mountain to climb.

  12. Thanks for your thoughts, Tomaltach. It’s true there are some books which I’ve taken a few reads to really come to love, but (a) you need to get at least something out of the first read to want to repeat the experience, and (b) they weren’t 900 pages long like Ulysses!

    Do let us know if it all comes together in the end for you though…

  13. The best way to read Ulysses is to listen to it. Years ago, RTE did a special live three-day broadcast of an enacted ‘reading’ of Ulysses. The only other country to broadcast the full show was Canada. Didn’t get much sleep, but I did get Ulysses. After hearing it – the way Joyce wrote it – I was finally able to read it from cover to cover. It not only made sense, it was truly moving; at times hilarious, sexy, and deeply sad (the scene about his dead son). I do believe the tapes are available and perhaps they are on DVD by now? Go n’eirí an t’ádh leat for the awards. I’m up agin ye, and glad to have found all these interesting blogs through them.

  14. Oops, I meant CD not DVD. Mind you, that old RTE production of Ulysses in black and white was pretty bloody incredible too. Amazing it got past the censor of the time!

  15. Of course, OR, that makes perfect sense now you say it. What novel would benefit more from being heard aloud than the multiple styles and voices of Ulysses? I’ve never partaken of audiobooks but this sounds like a cut above. Will have to look it out and see if it is available.

    Go n’eirí an t’ádh leat for the awards.

    And the same to you sir! (I hope that means something nice 😉 )

  16. I’m with Tomaltach, you feel constantly frustrated by putting so much effort in with Ulysses and only getting little nuggets back.

    I’ve had three attempts and gotten to the SAME point each time when I give up (it’s somewhere around the Circe section). I used to feel I had to finish the book, but I find I’m getting more and more time poor when it comes to reading and there are just too many other books I’d prefer to dedicate that time to.

    I might take OR Melling’s advice and listen to it. More than most writers, I definitely believe that Joyce is meant to read aloud: all that lyrical weaving and bobbing. It makes sense!

  17. Definitely look for that RTE production. It’s not just an audiobook; but a full-scale radio performance with actors and many voices, background sounds, the lot. You can hear the tea cups rattling in Bewley’s, the sea gulls crying on the Dollymount Strand, the bed springs creaking when Molly gets going. You are literally there in Dublin, along with Bloom. The greatest shame about Joyce, indeed it’s a literary crime, is the fact that he has been kidnapped by the academics and held bound and gagged in an ivory tower. As actor Donal O’Kelly insists in his wonderful performances of “Jimmy Joyced,” James Joyce wrote for the punters. As soon as you hear this radio performance you will know the truth of that. Now Finnegan’s Wake, that’s a different matter. I think he was on drugs. PS But John, I’m surprised you would assume I was a man. Women have initials too, you know. (And that was “good luck” in Irish.) And Sinéad, I read your Best Blog post. Maith thú, woman, you are an inspiration.

  18. The one on OpenCulture isn’t the RTE production but a Bloomsday recording by a group of readers. Bit strange listening to it as one of the guys starts laughing through his reading and says, “I’m gonna skip this bit,” and, with more laughter in the background, continues, “Oh, I can’t control it.”

    Listening to it, I wonder if that’s why I’ve never really liked the idea of Audiobooks: I read faster than they speak.

  19. Hmmm…this is bad news for me, I was going to listen to this recording and follow the text in the book (English (with strong Irish accent) is not my first language). I thought I had found a treasure…

  20. With regards to Ulysses, there is a marvellous unabridged reading available from Naxos Audio Books. It’s read by Jim Norton – who played Bishop Brennan in Father Ted – and Marcell Riordan. This is the only way to “read” Ulysses. It’s a marvellous recording. It’s quite expensive, but I got it from my local library and it now resides on my mp3 player.


    Here’s The Guardian’s review:


  21. Ooh, thanks Adr. (and good to see you over here too!). I will look it out from my library too I think. Yes I said Yes I will Yes could be a good motivating mantra for tiresome gym sessions!

  22. Well, I’m back – post Ulysses. I finished it (eventually!). My resolve was tested by two consecutive episodes: Oxen of the Sun and Circe. The first of which is long and is written as a kind of evolution of the English language. It starts of in Chaucer like English and moves up through the various periods until it finishes with contemporary English of the beginning of the 20th century. The second, Circe is written like a play with stage instructions and notes. All very well, but the difficulty was the hallucinatory aspect with such obscure impenetrable meanings. After that, I got back into it again. And to be honest I found much of the last 1/3 of the book very rewarding. And overall, it is an incredibly bold experiment in language and the limits of language, you begin to appreciate how extraordinary it is.

    I have to say, on first reading at least I found some of the most difficult parts very intimidating and frankly I couldn’t really nod in agreement and say I can see how their obscurity is justified. But that said, overall, and despite the difficulty, the thing works! There are so many layers which are peeled back. I think it’s a fascinating exploration on how to transcribe not a life, but the life of a mind, or the mind. It is even a wonderful way to show that the truth may not be singular. My view of a person of event may be so different from yours, yet for both of us it is the truth!

    I think I can pore over the architecture too and so on. But basically, I think that it is an incredible achievement. In the end, it is worth the hard work.

  23. Wow, well done Tomaltach, and thanks for coming back to tell us how it went! In my last (and only serious) attempt to read Ulysses I don’t think I got as far as Oxen of the Sun – I do remember Nighttown, though, which I presume comes earlier; and the scene on the beach, which I actually found tremendously rewarding and then was told by someone that it was written in the style of penny-dreadful romance novels and was supposed to be ‘bad’. Heigh ho! I actually like the sound of Oxen of the Sun as an evolution of the language. And I would like to have another go at it just so I can get through to Molly’s soliloquy which is terrific and must have absolutely extraordinary impact when read as the conclusion after 900 pages.

    I am slowly coming round to the realisation that a book doesn’t have to be word-perfect to be great (and perhaps shouldn’t be), so I do hope to try Ulysses again sometime. Soon. Ish.

    So what’s next for you, Tomaltach? Finnegans Wake I presume!

  24. Just read Anne Pigone’s, I don’t know what you would call it – spoof, sequel, cover – of The Dead. It’s called “The Ugly” and Pigone apparently put a hell of a lot of work into transforming every line of Joyce’s text into a modern context. Of all places it takes place in Boulder, Colorado?

    At times it is very funny, but I wonder if some of the racial comments are not a bit misplaced. I believe that Edna O’brian has done something similar – but I have not found it on the net. Anyway I found “The Ugly” here …


    and the text of “The Dead” is there as well for comparison – though, of course, you can find it on several places on the net.

  25. Sounds like an interesting experiment, Michael. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. I was interested to see what Pigone would do with the famous last lines of ‘The Dead’. The answer is this:

    She laid herself flat-out on the bed so close to her husband that she could feel his warmth but not touching, and closed her eyes. Slumberous flakes of snow, silver and dark, fell over her body, Garett’s body, and all the sleeping and sleepless bodies of the Hotel Boulderado. It truly was snowing everywhere. Snowflakes from stars and moons everywhere falling like comets or dust or nothing. Falling on us all. Falling upon the beautiful and the ugly, the real and the counterfeit, the living and the dead.

    Not sure what to make of this. I think I shall ponder it.

  26. I took a class in college on James Joyce because I wanted to be forced to read “Ulysses”. I was, and I did, and now I don’t have to read it again.

  27. Wonderful. Sublime. Cumulative writing that builds to that final needle point, that describes the inner epiphany of Gabriel, but can also move us to epiphany in the reading of it. Just wonderful, wonderful writing; an example of what the art of fiction at its highest reach can do.

    I bought the John Huston film version of this on DVD. It was the last movie he made. His daughter Anjelica Houston plays Gretta, and Gabriel is acted by the late Donal McCann. It is as good an adaptation of the story as you could have hoped to have made. Which expresses more about how cinema can only approximate the genius and wonder of some inner narratives. Given that condition, it is nevertheless a very good film, bringing the poignancy and ache of Gabriel to the screen so artfully. Such a wonderful, wonderful piece of writing.

  28. I have read Ulysses, although English is not my native language. However, I had a lot of help of Nabokov’s book: Lectures on Literature. Nabokov gives great advice, even tells you to read some chapters with a skimming eye. Try it.

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