The Dead

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Snow Symbol Icon

Throughout the text all manifestations of winter—cold, the color white, snow, and the season itself—usually represent mortality. The fact that snow falls indiscriminately “on both the living and the dead” all over Dublin highlights the fact that many Dubliners are living meaningless lives and are essentially dead while alive. As Gabriel enters the house there is “a light fringe of snow” on his coat and galoshes. This use of snow and cold in relation to Gabriel’s body accentuates his relationship with death. As we later learn, Gabriel feels (or learns himself) that it would be better to die young for passion, as Michael Furey, than to live a long empty life, as he is doing.

This indiscriminate quality of snow, which is said to be falling all over Ireland, highlights the fact that mortality is universal, and also serves to unite the living and the dead. Some of the living, like Gabriel, have not really lived, and some of the dead, like Michael Furey, hold significance equal to that of the living, as in Gretta’s mind. So the living and the dead are not really that different, and the snow is a reminder that everyone will end with the same fate.

Snow Quotes in The Dead

The The Dead quotes below all refer to the symbol of Snow. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Jealousy and Male Pride Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of The Dead published in 1993.
Section 3 Quotes

Their children, his writing, her household cares had not quenched their souls’ tender fire. In one letter that he had written to her then he had said: Why is it that words like these seem to me so dull and cold? Is it because there is no word tender enough to be your name?

Related Characters: Gabriel Conroy, Gretta Conroy
Related Symbols: Snow
Page Number: 214
Explanation and Analysis:

Gabriel has this thought when he is experiencing a wave of nostalgia for the beginning of his relationship with Gretta. He rejects their current life together, which consists of “their children, his writing, her household cares” in favor of their early days together, which he remembers as being filled with passion. This passion is symbolized by “their souls’ tender fire,” which remains unsatisfied by their adult life.

The symbol of snow appears when Gabriel refers to his words as “cold.” He sees even words as dead, compared to the passion he felt for Gretta at the time when he wrote the letter. Gabriel’s sudden strong desire to return to this time in his life relates to his idealized view of the past, since it is later revealed that, though he has tender feelings for Gretta, it is not the true passion or love that one would be willing to die for.

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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 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.

Related Characters: Gabriel Conroy
Related Symbols: Snow, Light and Dark
Page Number: 225
Explanation and Analysis:

At the last, Gabriel’s epiphany ends up being less about love and more about death. He realizes the snow, which symbolizes mortality, is indiscriminate, just as death is universal. Everyone must die, regardless of who they are or what they accomplish in life. Furthermore, many of the dead characters in the text prove to be more important to the living characters than the other living people, and conversely, many of the living seem to be leading passionless lives like Gabriel’s, as though living in a death-like state. The snow unites the living and the dead, then, as the narration expands away from Gabriel’s point of view (which it has usually followed closely, as part of Joyce’s technique of free indirect discourse) while Gabriel feels that his own soul is “swooning” and expanding into the wider world.

This passage is the final paragraph of the story, and an ending that is famous for its loveliness. Part of this comes from the sudden widening of the point of view, as the narration leaves Gabriel’s hotel room and touches upon various parts of Ireland, ending with the grave of Michael Furey. The final sentence also achieves its effect through consonance (the recurrence of similar sounds, especially consonants—in this case the f’s and s’s of “falling,” “faintly,” “soul swooned slowly,” and “snow”), repetition, and “chiasmus” (repetition combined with inversion, as when “falling faintly” reoccurs as “faintly falling”). The subtle use of these literary devices allows Joyce to emphasize the closing mood of his story, and invite the reader to slip into Gabriel’s sense of epiphany.

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Snow Symbol Timeline in The Dead

The timeline below shows where the symbol Snow appears in The Dead. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Section 1
Jealousy and Male Pride Theme Icon
Death Theme Icon
Women and Society Theme Icon
...finally arrives, along with his wife Gretta, Lily takes his coat, which is covered with snow from outside. Lily asks if it is snowing, and Gabriel confirms, suddenly noticing that Lily... (full context)
Jealousy and Male Pride Theme Icon
Death Theme Icon
Ireland, Anti-Nationalism, and the Foreign Theme Icon
...a hotel rather than taking a cab home, and Gabriel explains that Gretta got a cold from the cab ride last time, and then adds jokingly that she would willingly walk... (full context)
Section 2
Jealousy and Male Pride Theme Icon
Death Theme Icon
Ireland, Anti-Nationalism, and the Foreign Theme Icon
Women and Society Theme Icon
...go socialize and Gabriel’s attention turns toward the window, where he can see that the snow has covered everything outside. He imagines how pleasant a solitary walk along the river and... (full context)
Section 3
Nostalgia and the Past vs. the Present Theme Icon
Death Theme Icon
Ireland, Anti-Nationalism, and the Foreign Theme Icon
...Kate requests that someone close the door so that Mrs. Malins does not catch a cold and die. Mary Jane explains that the door was open because Mr. Browne is outside,... (full context)
Jealousy and Male Pride Theme Icon
Nostalgia and the Past vs. the Present Theme Icon
Women and Society Theme Icon
...and Miss O’Callaghan. Aunt Julia and Miss O’Callaghan remark that they both love how the snow looks, but Aunt Kate adds that Mr. D’Arcy doesn’t like the snow. Gabriel watches his... (full context)
Jealousy and Male Pride Theme Icon
Nostalgia and the Past vs. the Present Theme Icon
Death Theme Icon
...reflecting back on their early memories together, such as when they stood outside in the cold watching a man making bottles in a furnace. Gabriel wishes to forget their dull present... (full context)
Death Theme Icon
...the dead, and feels his own identity fading into this “grey impalpable world.” He hears snow falling against the windowpane and turns to see “silver and dark” snowflakes contrasting with the... (full context)