The Dead

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Themes and Colors
Jealousy and Male Pride Theme Icon
Nostalgia and the Past vs. the Present Theme Icon
Death Theme Icon
Ireland, Anti-Nationalism, and the Foreign Theme Icon
Women and Society Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Dead, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Death Theme Icon

“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.

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Death ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Death appears in each Section of The Dead. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Death Quotes in The Dead

Below you will find the important quotes in The Dead related to the theme of Death.
Section 2 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Gabriel Conroy, Gretta Conroy, Gabriel’s Mother, Constantine
Page Number: 187
Explanation and Analysis:

Gabriel’s mind suddenly wanders to his mother, and the role of nostalgia begins to manifest itself in the text. He credits many of his and Constantine’s achievements to his mother, and seems to remember many good aspects about her, such as her value of family life. Gabriel also remembers some bitter memories, such as her lack of respect for Gretta, but ultimately he lets these feelings go, and as he says later in his speech, decides to focus on the positive aspects of the past. This can be dangerous, however, as idealized memories of the past tend to distract the characters in “The Dead” from the present.

The theme of the constant presence of death also comes into play here; even though Gabriel’s mother is dead, he still credits her with his own accomplishments, even in the present. This exemplifies the idea that the dead sometimes have a more powerful influence on the living than other living people.

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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.

Related Characters: Gabriel Conroy (speaker)
Page Number: 204
Explanation and Analysis:

During Gabriel’s speech, he addresses the past as well as the dead. As Gabriel talks, he idealizes the “spacious days” of the past. Gabriel takes a great deal of interest in the past, and seems to take on an especially nostalgic tone here. He idealizes the “dead and gone great ones” as well. In his realization at the end of the text, however, he comes to see that the “great ones” are mortal just like everyone else, and that everyone’s life ends in death. Death is universal, and even those who accomplish great things die. However, the dead often have more influence on the lives of those living than other living people. Part of this power in death is because it is human nature to cling only to good memories after someone has died.

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.

Related Characters: Gabriel Conroy (speaker)
Page Number: 205
Explanation and Analysis:

In the last part of Gabriel’s dinnertime speech he chooses to focus on the sad memories of the past and how to deal with them. Essentially he says that dwelling on the sadness of loss and the past can impede our “work among the living.” This rejection of the sadder aspects of the past, and of the loss of someone, is also a dangerous proposal. There is also great irony here, because shortly after, Gretta is distracted from the present merriment by the memory of her deceased first love.

Gabriel seems to relish the idea of an escape or a reprieve, whether it is from daily life and into the party, from the party and out into the snow, or from the present and back into the nostalgic past. He seems to be celebrating the present here, then—the “work among the living”—but really is conflating the cheerful reprieve of the party with the idea of tarrying with the happy past. Later, however, he seems to accept that one must accept both the happy and the sad aspects of the past, both the attributes and flaws of those who have died, instead of this nostalgic idealization of the past that he has proposed.

Section 3 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Gretta Conroy (speaker), Gabriel Conroy
Page Number: 221–222
Explanation and Analysis:

Gretta’s statement that Michael Furey died “for” her is another manifestation of nostalgia. She feels guilty, and from this guilt and her glorified memories of her past love, she paints him as a martyr. Regardless of whether or not his late night visit caused his death, Michael Furey did risk his life to see her again, and since he actually died, these two scenarios become equivalent. This not only highlights the power of nostalgia, but also the power of the dead. Michael Furey has taken a more prominent role in Gretta’s life than many of the living. The fact that he died intensifies all of their previous experiences and her memories of them. Michael Furey gained influence through his death, and this is exactly why Gabriel fears him.

Gabriel feels jealous and threatened, even though these feelings are illogical, because his wife’s love interest is now dead. Gabriel sees this deceased lover as an even greater threat, since Gabriel cannot give Gretta what Michael gave her – he does not feel passionately enough to die for her. Gabriel must let go of these feelings of jealousy and pride in order to see that he has missed out on a love as passionate as Michael’s, and indeed this feeling of “vague terror” soon leads to his ultimate epiphany.

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.

Related Characters: Gabriel Conroy
Page Number: 224
Explanation and Analysis:

In actuality it is Gabriel’s realization that death is universal that forces him to let go of his jealousy and pride and experience a rather dark epiphany. He realizes that he has never experienced a passion as powerful as Michael Furey had for his wife, and that he has lived a passionless life and will most likely die a passionless death.

He also realizes that death is universal, and that he too will die. He begins to see that he is on the track to “fade and whither dismally with age.” He realizes that Michael Furey was lucky to experience a love worth dying for, even though he died young.

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.

Related Characters: Gabriel Conroy
Related Symbols: Light and Dark, Grey
Page Number: 224–225
Explanation and Analysis:

Gabriel suddenly feels like he is very close to the world of the dead, now that he has had his realization about mortality. He imagines Michael Furey standing in the rain, and suddenly begins to realize how close he is to death. He also begins to realize that his empty life does not set him far apart from the inhabitants of the world of the dead. Gabriel feels close to the dead partly because he realizes he is not truly experiencing life, or what he imagines true life to be.

The symbol of darkness acts to indicate that Gabriel is approaching his epiphany, as he is only in “partial darkness,” whereas before he was in often in almost complete darkness. The color grey is also used to describe the world of the dead, or the afterlife, adding to the sense of vagueness and universality that Gabriel associates with mortality.

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.