Readers of James Joyce will be well used to flipping back and forth between the main text and endnotes, or perhaps keeping Google at hand, to find explanation for some obscure reference to Irish politics or a piece of 100-year-old Dublin slang. It is this specificity of setting and precision of detail that Joyce contended was a crucial cornerstone of his work, arguing that “In the particular is contained the universal.”
This point may be made most accessible in “The Dead,” the final short story in his collection Dubliners. Although, like all of his fiction, it is rooted firmly in specifics of Irish culture, it is structured around the universally familiar time of Christmas, and its very meaning hinges upon this seasonal setting.
Even if one is not an active participant in annual yuletide celebrations, popular culture has ensured that we all recognise the greeting card image of the traditional Christmas gathering: friends and family joined in a single warm home, with the snow falling outside, to enjoy food, drink, music, speeches, and general merrymaking. Joyce’s story presents this exact Christmas-time setting. However, his narrative does not move in the same stream of hokey sentimentality that so many Christmas stories do: he keeps the unfortunate exchanges, conversational faux pas, and awkward silences, which are such an inevitability, firmly intact.
Although Joyce may not believe in any notion of idealization of the holiday season, he nonetheless suggests that this Christmas romanticism, that we all on some level buy into, can in fact be the catalyst for moments of profound realization. Indeed, the story ends with the protagonist, Gabriel Conroy, experiencing one of the most famous epiphanies in all of literature, which is directly inspired by the preceding Christmas celebrations: “He wondered at his riot of emotions of an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt’s supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merrymaking when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow.” The absence of a question mark in this last sentence suggests that these Christmas celebrations, even if Gabriel does recognize them as “foolish,” are a necessary component in bringing him to his epiphany, by forcing him into a more emotional state of mind.
This emotional resonance of the Christmas season may come in part due to its unique ability to force us to simultaneously confront both the past and future. Situated on the cusp of the New Year, Christmas is a natural time for reflection, whilst also providing a hope of some new beginning. Furthermore, the image of snow — the blank white surface — is suggestive of a sense of optimistic forward thinking, and the nostalgia that comes from bringing family together is bound to force the mind backwards.
This duality implicit in the Christmas tradition is also embodied in the two most enduringly popular Christmas narratives of our time: Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Both of these stories take their protagonists on journeys into alternate realities based on decisions they have made in the past, and decisions they might make in the future, culminating in an epiphany of redemption.
While “The Dead” also forces its protagonist to examine the past and an imagined future, its ending is much more ambiguous and has none of the redemptive qualities of Dickens or Capra. This is reflected through the fact that unlike these narratives “The Dead” does not take place on Christmas Eve, which allows an opportunity for change before the day itself, but rather on the final day of the “Christmas-time” period — the day known fittingly as Epiphany.
By setting his story in the wake of Christmas, Joyce implies that it is too late for change, with that possibility lying dead in the past. Furthermore, the fact that he informs us of the story’s Epiphany setting by referring to a New Year’s resolution already broken (the “reformed” drunk Freddy Malins gets “screwed” at the party), reinforces the notion that a failure to self-improve is a theme at the story’s center.
The image Gabriel conjures of his grandfather on horseback, endlessly circling a statue in town on his confused horse, also suggests an inability to move forward, and is part of a larger tapestry within Dubliners that presents all of Ireland in a state of “paralysis.” Likewise, Gabriel’s assured vision of the future, in which he imagines his aunt’s funeral and thinks “that would happen very soon,” suggests a sense of impending death, with no chance of aversion. His prophetic name further implies the certainty of this future, and seems to end the story on a note of undiluted bleakness.
However, although “The Dead” does not offer hope in the straightforward way that A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life do, there is surely some hope in the fact that Gabriel experiences an epiphany at all. If everything in the world were truly in “paralysis,” this moment of transcendence and absolute truth-seeing would not be possible, and although it brings no joy, it is a key moment of recognition and self-understanding; a moment of growth.
What Joyce presents us with in “The Dead” is a true, unidealized epiphany. In the real world epiphanies are hard — we do not have literal ghosts and angels to gently guide us towards them. And that is why Joyce’s story is the perfect coda for the holiday season.
As we leave Christmas, which is a time of fantasy — taking us away from the routine of our normal lives, and saturating us in narratives of schmaltz — “The Dead” represents a return to reality; a reality in which brief moments of self-realization are hard-won, and even when they do come they do not necessarily offer any possibility of tangible change. For Joyce, the true epiphanies do not come during Christmas, amidst wine and tinsel and distant relatives, but after the celebrations have died down, when we find ourselves alone, awake in the witching hour with only our own imagined ghosts of the past and the “shades” of the future to keep us company.
Image Credit: Flickr/formatc1