The guests are gathered in the hall preparing to leave, and Aunt Kate requests that someone close the door so that Mrs. Malins does not catch a cold and die. Mary Jane explains that the door was open because Mr. Browne is outside, and Aunt Kate jokes, “Browne is everywhere.” They joke that Mr. Browne is all too available and none too useful. As Gabriel waits for Gretta to get her coat, Mary Jane remarks once again how cold the men look, and Gabriel tells a story about his grandfather Patrick Morkan’s horse, Johnny. His grandfather was a glue-boiler, and once he took his horse out and Johnny started to walk in circles around King Billy’s statue, as though he were back in the mill or perhaps in love with the statue of the horse King Billy was riding. Freddy Malins and his wife leave with Mr. Browne in a cab.
The continual mention of the cold once again draws attention to death, which awaits all of the party guests just as the cold awaits them outside. Aunt Kate’s joke about Mr. Browne reiterates Gabriel’s feelings that Dublin is dull, simple, and commonplace—and yet he continues to live there and seems to have no intention of ever leaving (except for an occasional vacation). All of these examples serve to illustrate the fact that Gabriel’s life is generally empty and passionless. Much like his grandfather’s horse, Gabriel feels he is going in circles, stuck in Dublin, getting nowhere—even if he isn’t yet ready to admit this to himself.
Gabriel stands in a dark part of the hall, gazing up the staircase at a woman in the shadows. He realizes the woman is Gretta, leaning on the banister and listening to piano music coming from above. The others come inside from seeing off Freddy, and Mrs. Malins, and Mr. Browne, and they join Gabriel observing the scene. The song seems to be an old Irish air, and Mary Jane recognizes the voice as that of Mr. Bartell D’Arcy. He then abruptly stops singing and comes downstairs with Gretta and Miss O’Callaghan. Aunt Julia and Miss O’Callaghan remark that they both love how the snow looks, but Aunt Kate adds that Mr. D’Arcy doesn’t like the snow. Gabriel watches his wife, who seems distracted from the conversation, and notices how the light illuminates her hair. Gretta asks Mr. D’Arcy the name of the song, and then everyone says goodnight.
This passage begins the closing scene of the story, as the party ends and Gabriel is left alone with Gretta. His inability to recognize his own wife as she stands in the shadows looking wistful sets in motion the idea of a fundamental disconnection between Gabriel and Gretta, even if in this moment the disconnection seems romantic. Gabriel is enthralled by seeing Gretta in this “new light,” but only because it makes her seem no longer familiar to him, but rather foreign and “other.” Yet he doesn’t consider just why she might be so distracted by hearing this song—that she might have her own nostalgic associations with it, entirely independent of Gabriel or their relationship.
It is early in the morning but still dark, with a dull light coming up over the houses and the river. Gabriel watches Gretta walking next to Mr. D’Arcy and feels sudden tenderness towards her. He begins reflecting back on their early memories together, such as when they stood outside in the cold watching a man making bottles in a furnace. Gabriel wishes to forget their dull present together and go back to moments of their life together “like the tender fires of stars.” The group catches a cab together and rides mostly in silence, as Gabriel continues to remember the beginning of his relationship with Gretta.
Gabriel’s romanticized memories of the beginning of his relationship with Gretta distract him from their disconnection in the present. Gabriel’s memory of them watching the man making bottles in the furnace represents their glimpse of passion in the early stages of their relationship. However, the fact that they are still outside in the cold even in the memory represents that they never had true passion like Michael Furey felt for Gretta. Gabriel waxes poetic as he enjoys a rush of tenderness for his wife, seemingly inspired by seeing her briefly as her own woman, someone wholly unfamiliar to him.
Gretta and Gabriel get out of the cab, and as she leans on him for support he is struck with an overwhelming desire for her. They approach the hotel door and Gabriel almost feels like they are escaping from their dull, everyday lives. The porter lights a candle and leads them to their room. The porter apologizes for a malfunctioning electric light but Gabriel insists that they have enough light from the street, and indeed a “ghostly light” from the window fills the room. Gabriel looks out the window and tries to subdue his feelings of lust. He can tell that Gretta is preoccupied with something, and he longs to be “master” of her mood.
Gabriel’s sudden feelings of lust for Gretta are inextricably connected to his desire to fulfill a masculine role and control her. He is thinking of her with great affection, but there is a possessiveness inherent to that affection—he wants her to be thinking of him too, and thus to be “master of her mood.” Gabriel continues to feel a sense of nostalgia and excitement, as if something about this night offers an escape from the dullness of his usual life. In wanting to keep the lighting dim, Gabriel is perhaps trying to prolong the feeling he had watching Gretta on the staircase—observing their relationship in a romantic dimness that obscures harsh realities and banal familiarities. Yet this dimness also obscures the truth of the disconnection between Gabriel and Gretta, as she is “preoccupied” with something wholly separate from Gabriel.
While Gabriel is recounting an unremarkable story, Gretta suddenly kisses him tenderly on the lips. Gabriel feels a rush of confidence, hoping that perhaps she has been feeling the same desire he has. Gabriel asks her what she is thinking about, and is caught off guard when Gretta bursts into tears and confesses she was thinking of the song she heard earlier. Gretta confesses that the song reminds her of her childhood love, Michael Furey, and Gabriel is immediately filled with rage.
Gabriel’s confidence is directly affected by how much affection Gretta displays. In this climactic turn, Gretta finally expresses her own inner life, and her thoughts are entirely different from what Gabriel expected them to be. It’s telling, then, that his response to this is anger and jealousy—his affection and desire for Gretta depended on her affirmation and reciprocation, and when he discovers that she is thinking of someone else altogether, these tender feelings evaporate. Gretta, meanwhile, has similarly allowed herself to be distracted from the present by her nostalgic feelings for her past lover.
Gabriel asks if Gretta wanted to go to Galway with Miss Ivors in order to visit this boy, and Gretta, confused, responds that he is dead. She tells Gabriel he was employed in the gasworks, as Gabriel continues to sarcastically ask questions about him. Gabriel worries that his wife has been comparing him to this former lover, while he has been thinking only of her.
Gabriel is continuing to react purely based on his wounded pride and jealousy. Even though Michael Furey is dead, Gabriel still sees him as a threat and an obstacle to his desire to be the “master” of his wife’s “mood.” These feelings prevent him from empathizing with Gretta, as Gabriel continues to see his wife only in the context of her relationship to him.
Gabriel is seized with terror when Gretta tells him that the boy, Michael Furey, died for his love for her. Michael was already ill, but Gretta believes his condition worsened after he went outside in the rain to visit her before she left for a convent. Overcome with emotion, Gretta falls asleep, but Gabriel stays awake watching her. He realizes that she has already experienced a love much greater than theirs, and that he has, in fact, played a very small role in her life in comparison to that of Michael Furey.
Gretta views her relationship with Michael Furey through a nostalgic lens and turns him into a romantic martyr, regardless of whether or not his late-night visit actually caused his death. Gabriel’s epiphany—the story’s climax—begins with this transformation of his feelings, as his angry jealousy turns to terror and then a kind of self-effacing sadness. As his jealousy disappears, Gabriel is finally moved to see Gretta as her own person, with her own inner life and past passions that have nothing to do with him. This unique kind of sadness—Gabriel’s realization that he could be thinking nostalgically of their past relationship while Gretta was thinking nostalgically of her past relationship with another—speaks to a fundamental disconnection between all people, no matter how close or familiar they seem, and is a crucial aspect of the complex epiphany that closes the story.
Gabriel continues to watch Gretta, and sees her as though for the first time. He thinks about how soon he may be sitting in the same house where he was tonight, mourning Aunt Julia’s death. This rumination on death leads him to realize that he will die without ever experiencing true passion as Michael Furey had. Gabriel realizes he has never experienced love that he would die for, and he is filled with sadness.
It’s important to note that once Gabriel’s thoughts grow more expansive and selfless—as he sheds his jealousy and pride and considers Gretta as her own mysterious, independent, unknowable person—his thoughts almost immediately turn to death. Joyce shows this very subtly, as Gabriel is also thinking about the party and his aunts in connection to the night’s revelations about Gretta, but this next becomes a realization that Aunt Julia will probably die soon, which then brings Gabriel to terms with his own mortality. Gabriel believes now that Michael Furey (and perhaps Gretta as well) experienced a love worth dying for, which is something Gabriel has never had. In this moment Gabriel feels that his long, comfortable life has been devoid of true passion or human connection, and thus is meaningless compared to a short life with an experience of such passion and connection.
Gabriel suddenly feels very close to the world of the dead, and feels his own identity fading into this “grey impalpable world.” He hears snow falling against the windowpane and turns to see “silver and dark” snowflakes contrasting with the lamplight. He realizes that snow is falling all over Ireland, even over the “crooked crosses and headstones” in the cemetery. The snow is falling indiscriminately, covering both the living and the dead.
The narration expands with Gabriel’s thoughts, leaving his narrow perception (which the third-person narrator generally follows, as part of Joyce’s method of free indirect discourse) and widening to the snowy expanses outside, and even to all of Ireland, as Gabriel’s epiphany brings him a moment of selflessness and truth. Gabriel realizes that the living and the dead are always intimately bound to each other, and that his own passionless life can barely be defined as “living”—yet in this moment he observes this fact only with a kind of dispassionate sadness. In his epiphany he feels that he suddenly understands the dead and their ceaseless presence among the living, and this brings on his visions of their “grey impalpable world.” In the story’s famous and lovely ending, then, the indiscriminately falling snow symbolically unifies the living and the dead in one final image.