“The Dead” deals with both literal and metaphorical death. Additionally, these perceptions of those who have died are often tainted by nostalgia, making it hard for the characters to forget about their glorified memories of the past and begin living in the present.
Much of “The Dead” quite fittingly revolves around dead people and the legacies they leave behind. For both Gabriel and Gretta, the dead have a power greater than those living. The most obvious example is Gretta’s ex-lover, Michael Furey, whom she believes died as a martyr for her love. Regardless of how briefly they knew each other, and how long ago it was, she seems to believe that this was the purest form of love she has ever received. Gabriel, in turn, is terrified of Michael – since he is already dead, his reputation cannot be changed. Gabriel seems to see Michael Furey as having some sort of otherworldly power over his wife that he could not possibly compete with. When Gabriel’s wife confesses that she thinks Michael died for her, Gabriel is struck with terror and the feeling that “some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him, gathering forces against him in its vague world.” Of course Michael Furey does not physically pose a threat, but instead he holds a power over Gretta’s emotions and that is what Gabriel fears. Gabriel also thinks of his dead mother, who seems to have contributed greatly to her sons’ successes, including Gabriel’s degree from Royal University. However, Gabriel is also able to think of some sour memories of her, namely her disapproval of his marriage to Gretta. In the end Gabriel lets this go, however, choosing to focus on his more positive memories, and again succumbing to nostalgia and idealization of the dead.
A crucial part of Gabriel’s final “epiphany” concerns death as well—the acceptance that death is universal and constantly approaching. Just as the snow falls everywhere in Ireland, death will too. It does not see class or religion or race. Gabriel starts to experience these feelings after Gretta is asleep, and he begins to think of his Aunt Julia, and how she will “soon be a shade with the shade of Patrick Morkan and his horse.” Gabriel realizes that they are all equal in a way, and that death will come for Julia, just as it came for their father. Gabriel then imagines her funeral.
Gabriel’s realization that death is universal, or as he puts it: “One by one they were all becoming shades,” coincides with his realization that his life has been passionless and empty of meaning. Gabriel realizes that he envies Michael Furey not because of his power over Gretta’s emotions, but instead because he experienced passion and love that he was willing to die for. Gabriel sums it up by saying “Better to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion than fade and wither dismally with age.” His grand realization is that he is currently on the latter path, living a meaningless life until he will die a meaningless death.
Death Quotes in The Dead
It was she who had chosen the names for her sons for she was very sensible of the dignity of family life. Thanks to her, Constantine was now senior curate in Balbriggan and, thanks to her, Gabriel himself had taken his degree in the Royal University. A shadow passed over his face as he remembered her sullen opposition to his marriage.
Those days might, without exaggeration, be called spacious days: and if they are gone beyond recall let us hope, at least, that in gatherings such as this we shall still speak of them with pride and affection, still cherish in our hearts the memory of those dead and gone great ones whose fame the world will not willingly let die.
But yet, continued Gabriel, his voice falling into a softer inflection, there are always in gatherings such as this sadder thoughts that will recur to our minds: thoughts of the past, of youth, of changes, of absent faces that we miss here tonight. Our path through life is strewn with many such sad memories: and were we to brood upon them always we could not find the heart to go on bravely with our work among the living. … Therefore, I will not linger on the past. I will not let any gloomy moralizing intrude upon us here tonight. Here we are gathered together for a brief moment from the bustle and rush of our everyday routine.
I think he died for me, she answered. A vague terror seized Gabriel at this answer as if, at that hour when he had hoped to triumph, some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him, gathering forces against him in its vague world.
One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the glory of some passion than fade and wither dismally with age…He had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love.
The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead…His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.
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.