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.
Women and Society ThemeTracker
Women and Society Quotes in The Dead
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…
…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.
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.
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.