Wednesday, February 15, 2017
I have a crow to pluck (bone to pick) with James Joyce.
Joyce has been credited with writing the greatest short story of the Twentieth Century, "The Dead," one of a collection of tales he compiled under the title, "The Dubliners." "The Dead" is also recognized as one of the first and best examples of modernist fiction, when writers began to use characters to look inward into themselves rather than out at the world.
Okay, don't panic, or worse, yawn. I'm not going to lead you through a class of Modern Fiction .101. It's just, there is something about "The Dead" that always rubs me wrong, despite that it's a marvelous story, on its face so simple and yet fraught with wry humor and symbolism. After many years I recently reread it and, sure enough, it still leaves me a tad irritated.
The story revolves around a social gathering that takes place years before the Irish rebellion hosted by three spinster ladies who are the queen bees of the Dublin musical scene. Included in the company are locally known musicians, an up-and-coming operatic tenor, an Irish nationalist and a token Protestant.
The master of ceremonies is the nephew of two of the ladies, and cousin to the other, Gabriel Conroy. Gabriel is portrayed as a nice enough guy by Joyce, but a bit of a stuffed shirt, a music critic who feels his education and world outlook elevate him intellectually several notches above the rest of the company. He frets his speech/toast that he has prepared for the evening will go over their heads.
By the end of the story, Joyce arranges to have the wind taken out of Gabriel's sails, his ego deflated and his sense of place in the world utterly unmoored, and in a way equally poignant and, I think, cruel.
Gabriel is in a static, lackluster marriage with Gretta, a simple girl from the West of Ireland, with whom he shared – he thought – an exuberant, lustful courting and nascent wedlock, until children came along and ambition became his main focus.
Before the party ends, he catches sight of Gretta at the top of a stairway, stock still, in what he sees as a classic pose, such as a goddess rendered in a Greek sculpture. She is rapt, listening to the tenor's rendition of a popular Irish ballad.
The vision ignites in Gabriel a long dormant passion. He wants nothing more than to hurry her to the hotel room he's booked for the evening, a night away from home and the kids. His heart swells with memories of the romance he experienced with Gretta in their youth.
Later, in their room, he's watching her undress, and it's all he can do to keep himself from pouncing on her. He makes his overture, but he is rejected. She just can't ... she's too upset. The song that had so enraptured her was one a young boy from her girlhood used to sing to her. His name was Michael and, she sobs, he died out of love for her.
Gabriel is at once amazed and angry. Gretta has never once told him of her previous relationship. He begins to interrogate her and she explains that Michael was a "delicate" young man, a euphemism for tuberculin. The night before she was to leave her home in Galway to move to Dublin, she found him standing outside her yard in the pouring rain. A week later, in Dublin, she learned he had died.
Gretta then cries herself to sleep, leaving her husband alone to contemplate life and his place in it. An epiphany shatters his illusions about himself and life. He realizes he has never inflamed the passions of Gretta, nor any woman, as the dead Michael had. He finds himself envying the sickly young fellow now long dead.
Despite Gabriel's shortcomings, his arrogance is a mild sort. He's not a bad guy. In the moments before his wife's revelation, he was bursting with love and lust for her, only to have that proverbial bucket of ice water poured over his ardor.
Joyce uses Gabriel's story as a metaphor for Ireland at the time. He was impatient for his homeland to get on with modernizing, but it was held back by quaint tradition and notions. It seems contradictory then, that he uses Gabriel, who looks outside of Ireland, for example taking his holidays on the continent. Still, he's also in a sort of stasis, benighted by notions of class and culture.
But, those are the greater themes. I'm not so much affected by what he is supposed to stand for, than as a sympathetic character who has just had his heart broken to pieces.
And perhaps that has always been the problem I've had with great literature. The BIG IDEAS never mattered as much as the small and very human characters who make their way between them.