The Barren Lives of The Dead
"One day he caught a fish, a beautiful big big fish, and the man in the hotel boiled it for their dinner" (p.191). Little did Mrs. Malins know that those words issued from her feeble old lips so poignantly described the insensibility of the characters in James Joyce's The Dead toward their barren lives. The people portrayed in this novelette represented a wealthy Irish class in the early twentieth century, gathered at the house of the Morkan sisters for an annual tradition of feast and dance. Although all of the personages had, at one point, a potential for a beautiful life, sad memories of the past and the despair that invaded Ireland had eventually boiled all true senses and desires into a dull stew, destined to rot. Of particular interest is Gabriel Conroy, whom Joyce singularly bestowed a gift of introspection, though that did not save him from becoming yet another of the living dead.
Gabriel, a respectable middle-aged professor and writer, wished for an escape, but did not search for one. It was this passivity and resistance to change, like the "beeswax under the heavy chandelier"(p.186), that eventually solidified into the wall which he had not the courage to oppose. He felt himself a "pennyboy for his aunts"(p.220), the hostesses of the congregation, a victim of his own inability to "feel and show the excitement of swift and secure flight"(p.193). In contrast, Miss Molly Ivors, a professor of politics and Gabriel's academic equal, possessed this capability of escaping obligations, as she departed from the gathering before dinner was served, "quite well able to take care of [her]self"(p.195). In this respect, Miss Ivors differed from the rest of the characters because she depended on no one, and no one depended on her. Somehow she had managed to elude the pervasive memories of the dead, "whose fame the world will not willingly let die"(p.203), thus allowing her a free life all her own, not encumbered by obligations or sadness. Gabriel had stayed too long, and he felt "more strongly with every recurring year"(p.202) that his responsibility toward others, such as his aunts, would eventually strangle him.
Another factor that led up to Gabriel's tragic circumstances was his constant fear of the reactions of others. Instead of revealing his true feelings for Ireland, he prevaricated by saying "the tradition of genuine warm-hearted...