The Dead is the last story in the collection. It is the longest and the last to have been written, finished after Joyce had already made one unsuccessful attempt to get the collection published. In style it is very different from the other stories, far more complete on the page, leaving less for the reader to fill in with his imagination, and ending with a much more solid conclusion with respect to its protagonist. It is therefore, more accessible and was, unsurprisingly, acclaimed by critics as being the outstanding piece of the collection. The rest were initially dismissed as being somewhat banal. It would be, in Gabriel's words, as though a critic were feeling that most of the stories "had no melody for him, and he doubted whether it had any melody for the other listeners".
As the dinner party guests listen to Mary Jane play the piano, we are shared Gabriel's response to the music. As the piece comes to an end, we understand that "he knew that Mary Jane must be near the end of her piece for she was playing again the opening melody with runs of scales after every bar and while he waited for the end the resentment died down in his heart". "The Dead" within Dubliners is that melody.
Gabriel is also an example of the antihero. His sense of his own absurdity and fear of taking up "a wrong tone", being made "ridiculous before people", are characteristics which influenced T S Eliot in his portrayal of J. Alfred Prufrock ("That is not what I meant at all./ That is not it at all"). And yet Gabriel must also deal with his own heroic pretence, his longing "to be master", comparable to the way Prufrock alludes to the soul of Hamlet in his self. For Gabriel, the love which he shares with Gretta, consummated in the "moments of their secret life", is his consolation, his happiness, making him "proud, joyful, tender, valorous", just like a hero.
The bomb shell of her past, "that romance in her life", a sacred memory of her own from which Gabriel is forever excluded, is enough to isolate him; to return him to "a shameful consciousness of his own person". He sees himself as "a ludicrous figure", "a nervous well meaning sentimentalist". Joyce uses Shakespearean imagery to compare Gabriel with the tragedy of Othello, a cuckold, hiding from "the shame that burned upon his forehead". Yet the mediocrity of his passions are made clear to himself as he realises that "he had never felt like that towards any woman". He is reduced to the same state of misery as the young boy at Araby, "driven and derided by vanity", eyes burning "with anguish and anger".
Just that evening, Gabriel had spoken in public, of how "our path through life is strewn with many sad memories". And he offers, by way of advice: "were we to brood upon them always we could not find the heart to go on bravely with our work among the living". Joyce's cruel irony shows this to be true. Gabriel's own mind becomes filled with "the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree". "His soul had approached that region where dwelt the vast hosts of the dead". He has been overwhelmed by the burden of the past, overwhelmed by the realisation of his misery, overwhelmed by the loss of a love that was once his only consolation, as he fades "into a grey impalpable world" and the snow falls faintly on "all the living and the dead".
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