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.
Women and Society Theme Icon

While this story is written from a male perspective, women play a large role in highlighting the injustices of Dublin society as well as Gabriel’s reliance on the gender roles imposed by society. The most obvious way that Joyce critiques the role of women in 19th-century Dublin is in his critique of the Catholic Church. Aunt Kate expresses her anger towards the Church and pope for banning women from participating in church choirs. She calls it “not at all honorable,” which seems to be an understatement for how she actually feels. Aunt Kate is unable to reconcile her outrage at the pope’s decision with her belief that both the pope and the Church are infallible, and in the end she ends up dismissing her previous anger by saying she’s only a “stupid old woman” and of course she would never question the pope. Because she is a woman in Dublin society, Aunt Kate must refrain from making too strong of a statement, especially when she is accused of offending a man, in this case Mr. Browne. Joyce uses this interaction to expose the hypocrisy of Catholics who must accept every decision the Church makes since it is supposedly infallible, even if they really disagree with it. He also draws attention to women’s role in society by showing that Aunt Kate is unable to fully express herself or make a strong statement since women are expected to behave mildly and keep the peace, especially in social settings.

Most of Joyce’s statements about women’s roles in society are made through how the male characters, namely Gabriel, see and interact with the female characters. Gabriel feels proud of Gretta’s “grace and wifely carriage.” He likes that she sticks to her role as a wife and does not try to challenge his authority like the other women he interacts with. He seems to be attracted to her frailty and he longs “to defend her against something.” These observations indicate that women were expected to act frail and helpless and that these were attractive qualities to men. To Gabriel, gender roles seem to be centered completely around power. He desires his wife primarily because he desires to “overmaster” her. “To take her as she was would be brutal. … he longed to be the master of her strange mood.” Gabriel also uses Gretta’s sudden display of affection (when she surprises him by kissing him once they are back at the hotel) to boost his confidence, wondering why he had been so “diffident” in the first place. Joyce includes Gabriel’s internal dialogue to show that he, much like society, only sees women as something to dominate and that he can use to gage his own prowess and boost his confidence.

While at first glance “The Dead” does not seem to be centered around women, the female characters play a large role and Gabriel’s attitudes toward them reflect society’s attitudes. Gabriel’s epiphany at the end of the story comes when he realizes that his marriage has been based on superficial feelings and vague attraction. He has only sought affirmation from women—he has never sought true love like Gretta once had. He also begins to realize that Gretta has had a past of her own, and that he will never truly understand it. She has had her own individual experiences independent of her experiences with him. This realization, that Gretta is an individual, highlights the fact that women are often seen as objects more than subjects—people who might be idealized and beloved, but who are mostly there to be used by men. It’s implied that many men, as Gabriel, never think about the fact that their wives are people separate from themselves, with their own agency and complicated and vast experiences outside of how they relate to men.

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Women and Society ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Dead related to the theme of Women and Society.
Section 1 Quotes

The girl glanced back at him over her shoulder and said with great bitterness: The men that is now is only palaver and what they can get out of you.
Gabriel coloured as if he felt he had made a mistake and, without looking at her, kicked off his galoshes…

Related Characters: Lily (speaker), Gabriel Conroy
Page Number: 178
Explanation and Analysis:

This is the first instance in the text where Gabriel finds his pride wounded by a woman. He has just asked Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, if she has plans to get married soon—and she responds with this bitter condemnation of all men her own age. Gabriel then does not seem to understand that her bitter words may come from her own personal experience with a man and may have nothing to do with him. Instead, Gabriel is wounded by Lily’s remark and even feels the need to compensate her financially, handing her a tip so she is forced to thank him awkwardly. Because Gabriel relies so much on female validation, he is unable to see women as individuals. This is why Gabriel takes Lily’s remark so personally and is unable to imagine how she feels and why. It is not until later in the text, when he begins to understand that his wife has had her own individual experiences outside of their marriage, that he becomes more open to the possibility of seeing women as individuals and relating to them outside of his own pride and need for validation.


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Section 2 Quotes

…Gabriel tried to banish from his mind all memory of the unpleasant incident with Miss Ivors. Of course the girl or woman, or whatever she was, was an enthusiast but there was a time for all things. Perhaps he ought not to have answered her like that. But she had no right to call him a West Briton before people, even in joke. She had tried to make him ridiculous before people, heckling him and staring at him with her rabbit’s eyes.

Related Characters: Gabriel Conroy, Molly Ivors
Page Number: 191
Explanation and Analysis:

Part of the reason Gabriel takes his interaction with Miss Ivors so seriously is because she is a woman, and she has managed to injure his pride and embarrass him. In the conversation preceding this quote, Miss Ivors has called Gabriel out for his anti-nationalism, and even teasingly called him a “West Briton” (an Irishman loyal to England). Once again Gabriel perceives the interaction as a personal assault, when in reality Miss Ivors is probably just using it is an opportunity to voice her strong political opinions. However, since she is a woman, Gabriel feels this is an assault on his pride and a deliberate attempt to humiliate him, and he responds—even if only in his thoughts—by belittling her appearance. Gabriel is particularly offended by her use of the pejorative term “West Briton.” Miss Ivors is an Irish Nationalist, and Gabriel does not hold these views, as he apparently believes everything outside of Ireland is superior.

I know all about the honour of God, Mary Jane, but I think it’s not at all honourable for the pope to turn out the women of the choirs that have slaved there all their lives and put little whipper-snappers of boys over their heads. I suppose it is for the good of the Church if the pope does it. But it’s not just Mary Jane, and it’s not right.

Related Characters: Kate Morkan (Aunt Kate) (speaker), Mary Jane
Page Number: 195
Explanation and Analysis:

This is perhaps the text’s most obvious commentary on the role of women. Aunt Kate is clearly opposed to the Catholic Church’s decision to ban women from church choirs, but as a Catholic, she also feels unable to dispute the pope’s infallibility. She concedes that it must be for the “good of the Church” since it was the pope who made the decision, but clearly feels passionately against this decision. This highlights the role of women in Dublin society. Aunt Kate is forced to accept this decision if she wants to continue following her religion, and thus must diminish her own views and even her willingness to voice them. She is forced to become a hypocrite, by a hypocritical society.

Section 3 Quotes

Was she annoyed, too, about something? If she would only turn to him or come to him of her own accord! To take her as she was would be brutal. No, he must see some ardour in her eyes first. He longed to be master of her strange mood.

Related Characters: Gabriel Conroy, Gretta Conroy
Page Number: 218
Explanation and Analysis:

The fact that Gabriel wants to be the “master” of Gretta’s emotions comes largely from his inability to see her as an individual with feelings and experiences separate from his own. On a social level, this is because of their status as a married couple, wherein the wife is expected to generally adopt the husband’s identity and give up her individuality. This goes along with Gabriel’s sense of male pride, which is nurtured by his adherence to gender roles (and by his wife’s adherence as well). On a more personal level, Gabriel has been feeling affection and desire for Gretta and remembering the early days of their relationship—and he wants Gretta to be echoing these thoughts and feelings, conforming to his expectations of the situation and their relationship in general.