The Dead

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Nostalgia and the Past vs. the Present Theme Analysis

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
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Nostalgia and the Past vs. the Present Theme Icon

As with many of the other characters in Dubliners, both Gabriel and Gretta often find themselves paralyzed and unable to take control over their lives. In this case, much of their resulting inaction is due to distraction from the present by their overpowering nostalgic feelings about the past.

Gretta allows her past feelings for Michael Furey to distract her from her current relationship with Gabriel on the night of the party. Meanwhile, as Gabriel is looking back nostalgically on his relationship with Gretta, Gretta is thinking of someone else from an even more distant past. Instead of living in the moment and trying to nurture her current relationship, she is still caught up in her idealistic memories of her former lover.

Gabriel’s views of the past become clear in his speech when he talks about the value of “cherishing the memory of” these good old days during gatherings like the dinner. He focuses on the past – basically highlighting the importance of remembering the good and forgetting the bad. At the end, Gabriel vows not to dwell on the past, but he is really only talking about the “gloomy” part of the past. This means that he wants to focus on only the good things from the past, which is what propels these feelings of nostalgia and Gabriel and Gretta’s idealization of the past, and in effect of the dead.

Gabriel, Gretta, and many of the other characters in “Dubliners” allow their preoccupations with the past to distract them from the present. Joyce thus exemplifies the dangers of idealizing the past, but the same time makes a more subtle point, highlighting the fact that nostalgia is a very individual feeling, and the past often includes events that other people will never fully understand. In this case, Gabriel is feeling nostalgic for the beginning of his relationship with Gretta—but meanwhile she is pining for a past love that was even more powerful. Nostalgia is a very personal feeling, and each individual has their own relationship to the past that others may never fully understand.

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Nostalgia and the Past vs. the Present ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Dead related to the theme of Nostalgia and the Past vs. the Present.
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

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.

While he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another…He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealizing his own clownish lusts…

Related Characters: Gabriel Conroy, Gretta Conroy
Page Number: 221
Explanation and Analysis:

Gabriel’s pride is wounded when he learns that Gretta was thinking of someone else, and because he relies so much on female validation, he immediately begins to doubt himself in all ways. Suddenly the favors he did for his aunts make him a “pennyboy” doing their bidding, and all of his feelings seem trivialized, the tenderness he felt for Gretta earlier becoming nothing but “clownish lust.”

This is the closest Gabriel comes to recognizing his own idealization of the past and reliance on nostalgia. He becomes somewhat aware that he is a “sentimentalist,” and yet he is still not able to apply it to his own present situation.

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.