The Dead – British & American Literature

The Dead

Summary & Analysis

The Dead by James Joyce At the annual dance and dinner party held by Kate and Julia Morkan and their young niece, Mary Jane Morkan, the housemaid Lily frantically greets guests. Set at or just before the feast of the Epiphany on January 6, which celebrates the manifestation of Christ’s divinity to the Magi, the party draws together a variety of relatives and friends. Kate and Julia particularly await the arrival of their favorite nephew, Gabriel Conroy, and his wife, Gretta. When they arrive, Gabriel attempts to chat with Lily as she takes his coat, but she snaps in reply to his question about her love life. Gabriel ends the uncomfortable exchange by giving Lily a generous tip, but the experience makes him anxious. He relaxes when he joins his aunts and Gretta, though Gretta’s good-natured teasing about his dedication to galoshes irritates him. They discuss their decision to stay at a hotel that evening rather than make the long trip home. The arrival of another guest, the always-drunk Freddy Malins, disrupts the conversation. Gabriel makes sure that Freddy is fit to join the party while the guests chat over drinks in between taking breaks from the dancing. An older gentleman, Mr. Browne, flirts with some young girls, who dodge his advances. Gabriel steers a drunken Freddy toward the drawing room to get help from Mr. Browne, who attempts to sober Freddy up.

The party continues with a piano performance by Mary Jane. More dancing follows, which finds Gabriel paired up with Miss Ivors, a fellow university instructor. A fervent supporter of Irish culture, Miss Ivors embarrasses Gabriel by labeling him a “West Briton” for writing literary reviews for a conservative newspaper. Gabriel dismisses the accusation, but Miss Ivors pushes the point by inviting Gabriel to visit the Aran Isles, where Irish is spoken, during the summer. When Gabriel declines, explaining that he has arranged a cycling trip on the continent, Miss Ivors corners him about his lack of interest in his own country. Gabriel exclaims that he is sick of Ireland. After the dance, he flees to a corner and engages in a few more conversations, but he cannot forget the interlude with Miss Ivors.

Just before dinner, Julia sings a song for the guests. Miss Ivors makes her exit to the surprise of Mary Jane and Gretta, and to the relief of Gabriel. Finally, dinner is ready, and Gabriel assumes his place at the head of the table to carve the goose. After much fussing, everyone eats, and finally Gabriel delivers his speech, in which he praises Kate, Julia, and Mary Jane for their hospitality. Framing this quality as an Irish strength, Gabriel laments the present age in which such hospitality is undervalued. Nevertheless, he insists, people must not linger on the past and the dead, but live and rejoice in the present with the living. The table breaks into loud applause for Gabriel’s speech, and the entire party toasts their three hostesses.

Later, guests begin to leave, and Gabriel recounts a story about his grandfather and his horse, which forever walked in circles even when taken out of the mill where it worked. After finishing the anecdote, Gabriel realizes that Gretta stands transfixed by the song that Mr. Bartell D’Arcy sings in the drawing room. When the music stops and the rest of the party guests assemble before the door to leave, Gretta remains detached and thoughtful. Gabriel is enamored with and preoccupied by his wife’s mysterious mood and recalls their courtship as they walk from the house and catch a cab into Dublin.

At the hotel, Gabriel grows irritated by Gretta’s behavior. She does not seem to share his romantic inclinations, and in fact, she bursts into tears. Gretta confesses that she has been thinking of the song from the party because a former lover had sung it to her in her youth in Galway. Gretta recounts the sad story of this boy, Michael Furey, who died after waiting outside of her window in the cold. Gretta later falls asleep, but Gabriel remains awake, disturbed by Gretta’s new information. He curls up on the bed, contemplating his own mortality. Seeing the snow at the window, he envisions it blanketing the graveyard where Michael Furey rests, as well as all of Ireland.


In “The Dead,” Gabriel Conroy’s restrained behavior and his reputation with his aunts as the nephew who takes care of everything mark him as a man of authority and caution, but two encounters with women at the party challenge his confidence. First, Gabriel clumsily provokes a defensive statement from the overworked Lily when he asks her about her love life. Instead of apologizing or explaining what he meant, Gabriel quickly ends the conversation by giving Lily a holiday tip. He blames his prestigious education for his inability to relate to servants like Lily, but his willingness to let money speak for him suggests that he relies on the comforts of his class to maintain distance. The encounter with Lily shows that Gabriel, like his aunts, cannot tolerate a “back answer,” but he is unable to avoid such challenges as the party continues. During his dance with Miss Ivors, he faces a barrage of questions about his nonexistent nationalist sympathies, which he doesn’t know how to answer appropriately. Unable to compose a full response, Gabriel blurts out that he is sick of his own country, surprising Miss Ivors and himself with his unmeasured response and his loss of control.

Gabriel’s unease culminates in his tense night with Gretta, and his final encounter with her ultimately forces him to confront his stony view of the world. When he sees Gretta transfixed by the music at the end of the party, Gabriel yearns intensely to have control of her strange feelings. Though Gabriel remembers their romantic courtship and is overcome with attraction for Gretta, this attraction is rooted not in love but in his desire to control her. At the hotel, when Gretta confesses to Gabriel that she was thinking of her first love, he becomes furious at her and himself, realizing that he has no claim on her and will never be “master.” After Gretta falls asleep, Gabriel softens. Now that he knows that another man preceded him in Gretta’s life, he feels not jealousy, but sadness that Michael Furey once felt an aching love that he himself has never known. Reflecting on his own controlled, passionless life, he realizes that life is short, and those who leave the world like Michael Furey, with great passion, in fact live more fully than people like himself.

The holiday setting of Epiphany emphasizes the profoundness of Gabriel’s difficult awakening that concludes the story and the collection. Gabriel experiences an inward change that makes him examine his own life and human life in general. While many characters in Dubliners suddenly stop pursuing what they desire without explanation, this story offers more specific articulation for Gabriel’s actions. Gabriel sees himself as a shadow of a person, flickering in a world in which the living and the dead meet. Though in his speech at the dinner he insisted on the division between the past of the dead and the present of the living, Gabriel now recognizes, after hearing that Michael Furey’s memory lives on, that such division is false. As he looks out of his hotel window, he sees the falling snow, and he imagines it covering Michael Furey’s grave just as it covers those people still living, as well as the entire country of Ireland. The story leaves open the possibility that Gabriel might change his attitude and embrace life, even though his somber dwelling on the darkness of Ireland closes Dubliners with morose acceptance. He will eventually join the dead and will not be remembered.

The Morkans’ party consists of the kind of deadening routines that make existence so lifeless in Dubliners. The events of the party repeat each year: Gabriel gives a speech, Freddy Malins arrives drunk, everyone dances the same memorized steps, everyone eats. Like the horse that circles around and around the mill in Gabriel’s anecdote, these Dubliners settle into an expected routine at this party. Such tedium fixes the characters in a state of paralysis. They are unable to break from the activities that they know, so they live life without new experiences, numb to the world. Even the food on the table evokes death. The life-giving substance appears at “rival ends” of the table that is lined with parallel rows of various dishes, divided in the middle by “sentries” of fruit and watched from afar by “three squads of bottles.” The military language transforms a table set for a communal feast into a battlefield, reeking with danger and death.

“The Dead” encapsulates the themes developed in the entire collection and serves as a balance to the first story, “The Sisters.” Both stories piercingly explore the intersection of life and death and cast a shadow over the other stories. More than any other story, however, “The Dead” squarely addresses the state of Ireland in this respect. In his speech, Gabriel claims to lament the present age in which hospitality like that of the Morkan family is undervalued, but at the same time he insists that people must not linger on the past, but embrace the present. Gabriel’s words betray him, and he ultimately encourages a tribute to the past, the past of hospitality, that lives on in the present party. His later thoughts reveal this attachment to the past when he envisions snow as “general all over Ireland.” In every corner of the country, snow touches both the dead and the living, uniting them in frozen paralysis. However, Gabriel’s thoughts in the final lines of Dubliners suggest that the living might in fact be able to free themselves and live unfettered by deadening routines and the past. Even in January, snow is unusual in Ireland and cannot last forever.

“The Sisters”

A boy grapples with the death of a priest, Father Flynn. With his aunt, the boy views the corpse and visits with the priest’s mourning sisters. As the boy listens, the sisters explain Father Flynn’s death to the aunt and share thoughts about Father Flynn’s increasingly strange behavior.

“An Encounter”

Fed up with the restraints of school and inspired by adventure stories, two boys skip their classes to explore Dublin. After walking around the city for a while, the unnamed narrator and his friend, Mahony, eventually rest in a field. A strange old man approaches and talks to them, and his sexual innuendos make the narrator uncomfortable. Ultimately, the narrator and Mahony manage to escape.


A young boy falls in love with his neighbor Mangan’s sister. He spends his time watching her from his house or thinking about her. He and the girl finally talk, and she suggests that he visit a bazaar called Araby, which she cannot attend. The boy plans to go and purchase something for the girl, but he arrives late and buys nothing.


A young woman, Eveline, sits in her house and reviews her decision to elope with her lover, Frank, to Argentina. Eveline wonders if she has made the correct choice to leave her home and family. As the moment of departure approaches, she reaffirms her decision, but changes her mind at the docks and abandons Frank.

“After the Race”

Jimmy Doyle spends an evening and night with his well-connected foreign friends after watching a car race outside of Dublin. Upon returning to the city, they meet for a fancy meal and then spend hours drinking, dancing, and playing card games. Intoxicated and infatuated with the wealth and prestige of his companions, Jimmy ends the celebrations broke.

“Two Gallants”

Lenehan and Corley walk through Dublin and discuss their plot to swindle a housemaid who works at a wealthy residence. Corley meets with the girl while Lenehan drifts through the city and eats a cheap meal. Later in the night Lenehan goes to the residence as planned and sees the girl retrieve something from the house for Corley. Finally, Corley reveals to Lenehan that she procured a gold coin for him.

“The Boarding House”

In the boarding house that she runs, Mrs. Mooney observes the courtship between her daughter, Polly, and a tenant, Mr. Doran. Mrs. Mooney intercedes only when she knows Mr. Doran must propose to Polly, and she schedules a meeting with Mr. Doran to discuss his intentions. Mr. Doran anxiously anticipates the conversation and the potential lifestyle change that awaits him. He resolves that he must marry Polly.

“A Little Cloud”

One evening after work Little Chandler reunites with his old friend, Gallaher. Little Chandler aspires to be a poet, and hearing about Gallaher’s career in London makes Little Chandler envious and determined to change his life. Little Chandler imagines freedom from his wife and child, but he feels ashamed about his thoughts and accepts his situation.


After an infuriating day at work, Farrington embarks on an evening of drinking with his friends. Even though Farrington pawns his watch to replenish his empty wallet, he finds himself spending all of his money on drinks for himself and his companions. Growing more and more frustrated, Farrington almost explodes when he loses an arm-wrestling match. At home later that night, Farrington vents his anger by beating his son.


On Halloween night, Maria oversees festivities at the charity where she works. Afterward, she travels to the home of Joe Donnelly, whom she nursed when he was a boy. Along the way, Maria purchases sweets and cakes for Joe’s family. When she arrives at the house, she realizes she has somehow lost the special plum cake she’d bought. After talking, eating, and playing Halloween games, Maria sings a song for the Donnellys.

“A Painful Case”

Mr. Duffy develops a relationship with Mrs. Sinico at a concert in Dublin. The two meet often for long chats and become close, but Mr. Duffy cuts off the relationship when Mrs. Sinico makes the intimate but chaste gesture of taking Mr. Duffy’s hand and putting it against her cheek. Four years later, Mr. Duffy reads in a newspaper that Mrs. Sinico has died in a train accident. He feels angry, sad, and uneasy as he remembers her, and he finally realizes he lost perhaps his only chance for love.

“Ivy Day in the Committee Room”

A group of men working as street promoters for a mayoral candidate meets to discuss their jobs and escape from the rainy weather on Ivy Day, which commemorates the death of Charles Stuart Parnell, the influential Irish politician. The men complain about their late paychecks and debate politics. The conversation eventually turns to Parnell and his political endeavors, and one of the men, Hynes, recites a poem he wrote in memory of him.

“A Mother”

An Irish cultural society organizes a concert series with the help of Mrs. Kearney, the mother of one of the performers. Mrs. Kearney secures a contract with the society’s secretary, Mr. Holohan, so that her daughter is ensured payment for her piano accompaniment. A series of logistical changes and failed expectations infuriate Mrs. Kearney, and she hounds the officers of the society for the money, making a spectacle of herself and her daughter.


After an embarrassing public accident, Tom Kernan is convinced by his friends to attend a Catholic retreat. The men hope that this event will help Mr. Kernan reform his problematic, alcoholic lifestyle. At the service, the presiding priest preaches about the need for the admission of sins and the ability of all people to attain forgiveness through God’s grace.

“The Dead”

With his wife, Gretta, Gabriel Conroy attends the annual dancing party hosted by his two aging aunts, Julia and Kate Morkan, and their niece, Mary Jane. At the party, Gabriel experiences some uncomfortable confrontations. He makes a personal comment to Lily, the housemaid, that provokes a sharp reply, and during a dance he endures the taunts of his partner, Miss Ivors. Finally, Gabriel sees Gretta enraptured by a song sung toward the end of the party. Later, he learns that she was thinking of a former lover who had died for her. He sadly contemplates his life.

Dubliners comprises fifteen short stories, most of which have only minimal plots. This is in keeping with the short story as a distinct literary form. Unlike novels, short stories tend to privilege precise and economical narration. As such, they typically dispense with intricate plots and involve only a few characters and scenes. The short stories that make up Dubliners are no different. Following from the collection’s title, most of the stories present portraits of individual Dubliners (e.g., “Eveline,” “A Little Cloud”), or else they describe particular scenes or situations (e.g., “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” “Grace”). None of the stories, with the possible exception of “The Dead,” feature extended or complex plotting devices.

Although the stories in Dubliners are relatively plotless in themselves, Joyce did arrange these stories very carefully, allowing the collection to develop complex patterns and an intriguing sense of progression. One of the patterns that Joyce himself pointed to is the progression from childhood to adolescence to maturity. The first three stories—“The Sisters,” “An Encounter,” and “Araby”—all feature boy protagonists. The fourth story, “Eveline,” initiates a shift from childhood to adolescence. The story begins with Eveline as a child, but quickly moves forward to the present moment, when she is an adolescent with adult-like responsibilities: “That was a long time ago; she and her brothers and sisters were all grown up; her mother was dead. . . . Everything changes” (29). The next three stories—“After the Race,” “Two Gallants,” and “The Boarding House”—also follow adolescent protagonists and the various challenges with class, money, and sexuality that complicate their coming-of-age. 

With “A Little Cloud,” Dubliners moves firmly into the realm of adulthood. Both this story and the following one, “Counterparts,” feature men who find themselves profoundly unsatisfied with family and work life. All of the remaining stories in the collection, from “Clay” to “The Dead,” follow various adult characters and explore distinctly adult problems, from parenthood to substance abuse to politics.

A related yet distinct pattern unfolds in the movement from private to public life. All of the early stories, from “The Sisters” through “A Painful Case,” revolve around the private lives of individual protagonists. Though many of the scenes in these stories take place in public spaces—streets, alleys, pubs, offices, and so on—the stories’ significance resides in what they reveal about their characters’ private thoughts and domestic lives. Thus, although “A Little Cloud” follows Little Chandler from his office to a pub, where he spends the evening with an expatriate journalist, it is the portrayal of Little Chandler’s melancholy thoughts and his miserable family life that indicate just how paralyzed he feels. It is not until “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” where a group of men sit around expressing their indeterminate political opinions, that Dubliners moves fully into society. The stories “A Mother” and “Grace” further this progress: in the first story, Mrs. Kearney concerns herself with her daughter’s entrance into polite society, and in the second, a circle of friends comes together to help Mr. Kernan conquer his alcoholism. “The Dead” reverses the progression by retreating from the public domain (a party) to the private (a hotel room).

Indepth Facts:

Narrator – The first three stories are narrated by the main character of each story, which in all three cases is a young, unnamed boy. The rest of the stories are narrated by an anonymous third person who pays close attention to circumstantial detail though in a detached manner.

Point Of View – The first three stories, told from the first person, focus on the thoughts and observations of the narrators. In the stories told from the third person, the narrators detail objective information and present characters as they would appear to an outsider, but also present thoughts and actions from the protagonists’ points of view, giving the reader a sense of what the characters are feeling.

Tone – Though told mainly by an anonymous narrator, the stories of Dubliners form a self-conscious examination of Joyce’s native city in Ireland. Because the narrator maintains a neutral and distant presence, detecting Joyce’s attitude toward his characters is not always easy. The abundance of details about the grim realities of the city and the focus on hardships, however, create a tragic tone and offer a subtle critique.

Tense – Past tense

Setting (Time) – Early 1900s

Setting (Place) – Dublin

Major Conflict – Various figures struggle with the challenges of complicated relationships and life in Dublin.

Themes – The prison of routine; the desire for escape; the intersection of life and death

Motifs – Paralysis; epiphany; betrayal; religion

Symbols – Windows; dusk and nighttime; food

Foreshadowing – The death of Father Flynn in “The Sisters” announces the focus on death in later stories like “The Dead”; story titles hint at events in the stories