My favourite Christmas story: ‘The Dead’ by James Joyce

This article was first published by Liars’ League

6a00e551c6d2b28834019b02200aa1970c-800wiI first read ‘The Dead’—the last piece in James Joyce’s 1914 short story collection Dubliners— because someone told me it was much shorter than Ulysses. And thank God I did, because ‘The  Dead’  is essentially a jolly fantastic  story  about  a  family  gathering at Christmastime. It has all of the festive gripes that you would expect from the debut of a 22-year-old writer:

  • Having to put up with Irish nationalist grannies (“— And haven’t you your own land to visit, continued Miss Ivors, that you know nothing of, your own people, and your own country?”)
  • Wishing you were out in the snow, or in a food coma, or anywhere else “much more pleasant than at the supper-table!”
  • Putting your foot in it by saying something inappropriate, then trying to ‘gift’ yourself out of it.

But the beauty of the story is in its gradual movement away from the pettiness of the dining-table and towards tender remembering of past years, as in a  speech given by the protagonist, Gabriel:

“— But yet, continued Gabriel, his voice falling into a softer inflection, there are always in gatherings such as this sadder thoughts that will recur to our minds: thoughts of the past, of youth,  of changes, of absent faces that we miss here tonight. Our path through life is strewn with many such sad memories: and were we to brood upon them always we could not find the heart to go on bravely withour work among the living. We have all of us living duties and living affections which claim, and rightly claim, our strenuous endeavours.”

I have a suspicion that when — ninety-nine years later, this Christmas — we speak about “remembering people no longer with us”, our words will be somehow directly descended from Gabriel’s speech. Later, at home, as Gabriel’s wife recalls a boy she once loved who died at seventeen years old, and Gabriel finds that he knows nothing at all about his wife’s past, then Joyce is at his best: completely wrought and epiphanic. For such a well-known piece of literature, with one of the most quoted last sentences (you’ll have to read all 15,000  words to get there: no peeking!), this is a beautifully unassuming story. To me, it captures the weird mix of emotional intensity and sheer inanity that can only come at Christmastime.

You can read The Dead at this link: http://www.online-literature.com/james_joyce/958/

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