The tone of “The Dead” can be described as sweeping: Joyce portrays both granular details (the Christmas party) and broader themes (including everyday life in Dublin and the universal human experience of grief), attending equally to their complexities with precise, even impressionistic images.
For example, the Christmas meal—with ham, side dishes, and extravagant decorations—is described in as much detail as Gabriel’s own emotions and tortured mindset, as he vacillates between nervousness, pride, jealousy, and lust. This equivalence underscores a major modernist concern: to modernist writers like Joyce, inner life was just as significant—and just as worthy of literary portrayal—as material reality.
Additionally, though Joyce's novel Ulysses is known for its moments of dark, offbeat humor and bawdiness, “The Dead” also features flashes of levity, particularly in its somewhat satirical or light-hearted depictions of other characters, like Gabriel's bickering, dotty aunts, Julia and Kate, or the minor characters Mr. Bartell D’Arcy and Freddy Malins. Both men partially conform to stock Irish character tropes, though with notable differences: Malins is an alcoholic, though well-meaning and tender-hearted, and Mr. Bartell D’Arcy is a stuffy middle-aged man, though secretly talented. In this way, Joyce’s tone in “The Dead” can be seen as encompassing—or seriously and faithfully considering—a wide range of types and human experiences. At the same time, Joyce never seems to revert to pat moralism. Instead of judging or condemning his characters, he observes them closely and depicts them fairly, underlining both their flaws and their virtues.