The Dead

The Dead Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on James Joyce's The Dead. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of James Joyce

James Joyce grew up in Rathgar, a suburb of Dublin, and studied at University College, where he began to publish literary reviews, poems, and plays. After college, he moved to Paris where he briefly studied medicine. In 1903, just one year later, Joyce’s mother got sick and he moved back to Dublin to take care of her. After meeting his wife, the couple left Dublin and lived in a variety of countries including Yugoslavia and Italy, and later fled to Zurich during World War I. Joyce only returned to Dublin four times, but many of his works remain heavily focused on the city, and on Ireland more generally. Joyce received guidance from the poet Ezra Pound, who helped him publish his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in 1916. Two years earlier, Joyce had published Dubliners, his first book, which was a collection of 15 short stories, including “The Dead.” These books brought Joyce some fame as a Modernist writer, a fame that only increased after the publication of Ulysses (1922), which upon release was both hailed as a masterpiece and banned in numerous countries for indecency. Joyce continued writing after Ulysses, producing the even more avant-garde Finnegan’s Wake in 1939. Joyce was always a heavy drinker, and he died in 1941 from complications after having surgery on a perforated ulcer.
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Historical Context of The Dead

“The Dead,” and all of the stories in Dubliners, take place during the rise of Irish Nationalism. At the time, Ireland was under the control of Great Britain, and the Nationalist movement, also known as Irish Republicanism in its more radical form, rejected British control in favor of Irish independence. The majority of Irish nationalists were Catholic, but the movement was not supported by the Catholic Church, as many nationalists believed in violent methods and the use of force. Gabriel seems to lean away from these nationalist sentiments, as he writes a column for the Daily Express, which was a unionist (England-supporting) newspaper that had the highest circulation of any newspaper in Ireland during its peak. James Joyce is said to have written columns for this publication as well. When Miss Ivors calls Gabriel a “West Briton,” she’s using a derogatory term for an Irish person who greatly admires England or Britain.

Other Books Related to The Dead

There are 15 stories total in Dubliners, Joyce’s first published collection of short stories that portrays the middle-class in early 20th-century Dublin, and “The Dead” is the longest and final story in the collection. The characters in Joyce’s Dubliners stories usually experience some kind of epiphany, or a grand (or anti-devastating) realization about life or themselves. Many of the characters are also featured in Joyce’s later work, Ulysses. Joyce makes several literary references in “The Dead,” the most prominent being Gabriel’s decision to quote Robert Browning, an English Victorian poet known to be obscure and difficult, in his speech. The text also references Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Gabriel notices a picture of the famous “balcony scene” early on in the text, which foreshadows Gretta’s memory of her final meeting with Michael Furey, where she stands on the balcony as he calls to her from the garden below.
Key Facts about The Dead
  • Full Title: The Dead
  • When Written: Summer of 1904
  • Where Written: Unknown, but not Dublin. Somewhere in Croatia or Italy – Joyce moved around a lot during this period.
  • When Published: Originally published in the Irish Homestead on September 10th, 1904, later revised and published in Dubliners in 1914.
  • Literary Period: Modernism
  • Genre: Short Fiction
  • Setting: 20th Century Dublin
  • Climax: Gabriel learns of his wife’s lingering feelings for her first love, whom she believes to have died for her, and comes to several devastating realizations about mortality, passion, and love

Extra Credit for The Dead

Biblical Inspiration. Joyce seems to have sprinkled in numerous Biblical references in this story, which is set just before the Christian holiday of the Epiphany. Biblical characters are said to have inspired many of the names Joyce chose in “The Dead.” The main character, Gabriel, could be a reference to the archangel Gabriel, who announces the birth of John the Baptist to Zacharias and warns Mary of the coming of the Messiah. Gabriel’s brother Constantine is a reference to Constantine the Great, a Roman Emperor who brought Christianity to the forefront of religious life. Both of these names suggest that Mrs. Conroy had great ambitions for her sons. Additionally Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, whom Gabriel offends in the opening scene, could be a reference to the flower often associated with the Virgin Mary.

Silver Screen Dreams. The important role of music and the overall ambiance of the story have inspired several theatrical reproductions. The most well known reproduction is the 1987 film, “The Dead,” which was adapted by John Huston. The film features an all-Irish cast and was nominated for two Oscars. Due to the large role that music plays in the story, “The Dead” also lent itself to numerous reproductions for musical theater.