Although a scene of a funeral home might come to mind when a reader first hears a short story aptly named “The Dead,” the tale actually takes place in the festive setting of a winter dance at the home of the two aunts of the main character, Gabriel Conroy. James Joyce’s short story “The Dead” has a literal title, because its main concept is death – both physical death and spiritual death.
Gabriel Conroy and his wife, Gretta Conroy, attend a party held by Gabriel’s aunts, Kate Morkan and Julia Morkan. The mood of the party is intentionally festive. It’s an annual event – “the Misses Morkan’s annual dance” (1227). But parts of the evening turn out to be quite nostalgic. The nostalgia comes from certain guests attending the party who are reminiscing about the past. Most of the people discussed in the story from the past are now dead at the time of party, so nostalgia gives way to considerations of the dead, thus emphasizing the theme of death prevalent throughout the rest of the story. Gabriel is Kate and Julia’s favorite nephew because he is the son of their dead sister, Ellen (1229). Another deceased family member, the “late lamented Patrick Morkan” is also mentioned (1241). Not only is there mention of people who have already died, but there is also mention of people who are soon to die. Past deaths and future deaths both resound in the story. Gabriel thinks that his Aunt Julia “would soon be a shade with the shade of Patrick Morkan and his horse” meaning that she is very near death, since Patrick Morkan and his horse are deceased (1248).
The language that Joyce chooses to use in the story is also vastly symbolic of mortality. Certain phrases and words are used throughout the story to emphasize death. Gabriel tells his aunts that Gretta “takes three mortal hours to dress herself” (1228). Kate and Julia tell Gretta that she must be “perished alive” when she arrives at the party (1228). After Gabriel’s speech, the door is open and the freezing outside air is being let into the room. Because of the cool air, Kate demands that the door be closed because “Mrs. Malins will get her death of cold.” (1241). Although surely Mrs. Malins is in danger of catching cold, the phrase “death of cold” is an intentional exaggeration to bring the reader’s mind back to the concept of death. “A ghostly light” is also present in the hotel room where the Conroys are staying (1245).
The environment in which the characters interact is also saturated with death symbolism. Gabriel sees two works of art in the house. The first piece of art on the wall is a picture of Romeo and Juliet, who are two international symbols for death. The second piece of art on the wall that Gabriel sees is of Edward IV’s two sons, who were killed. The reader at the time that this story was published would have probably understood the story of Edward IV’s two sons, thus again bringing his or her mind back around to the concept of death. There is also a photograph of Gabriel’s deceased...