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.
Nostalgia and the Past vs. the Present ThemeTracker
Nostalgia and the Past vs. the Present Quotes in The Dead
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.
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.
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.
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?
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…
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.