13 September 2006

The Moment: Joyce's The Dead

Cross posted at A Curious Singularity

There is a peculiar feeling that I experience from time to time that I like to think of as 'The Moment'. It isn't one moment that stands apart from all others; it isn't necessarily something profound, maybe not even memorable over time. Yet, it is a discernible present, a second or two that seems to last a little longer than a fleeting tick of the clock. Time seems to hang suspended for just long enough to perceive a difference. And, then, nothing is the same again.

It may happen when I'm reading a book. Or maybe when walking down a street in an unfamilar city. It may be a point during a conversation with an acquaintance. It is a melding of time and space in which I realize something that I did not know before. A moment of complete transformation where there isn't any going back: the point where a new town suddenly is made familiar; a new concept is learned; or a deeper understanding is gained of what makes your friend laugh or worry or cry so much that you now know them better than just a few minutes before.

Call it an epiphany, eureka, a paradigm shift, or a sudden flash of insight; it is what I call 'the moment'. It is palpable, perhaps measurable in some strange mathematical system. One's senses reel as one's brain steps quickly to rearrange all of the pieces into a new understandable pattern. It is this kind of a moment that is the culmination of James Joyce's The Dead.

There is so much that you could say about this story. Volumes of criticism have been written about Joyce. A simple Google query for "Joyce The Dead Criticism" returns a mere 1.1 million hits. Just looking at a few of them makes my head spin. I don't really care about knowing all of the obscure references to people and places in Joyce's life that are reflected in this story. For me, to think that one can segregate one's experiences from one's writing is almost incomprehensible. So, while it may be interesting to know that Aunt Julia and Aunt Kate are based on real people that Joyce knew, or that Mr. Browne, the Protestant guest at that party, was named after a Protestant Irish minister, I don't think that it is a very useful means to look at a piece of fiction. I think Joyce wanted the reader to get something more out of this story than allusions to things in his life.

While the story does give one insight into Irish hospitality, or a glimpse into the politics of Irish nationalism, or a view of how men and women interacted in Dublin at the early part of the 20th century, I think Joyce's chief purpose in The Dead is to depict how one man's view of the world, of everything he knows to be true and real, can change in a heartbeat, a change so profound that he looks anew on his family, friends and life as if he had never seen them before.

The Dead is told from Gabriel's viewpoint, except for a brief beginning. Gabriel is a man consumed by self-doubt, by his social and familial obligations, and by an unrelenting sense of superiority. He regrets his conversation with Lily; he frets over the correct words for his speech, and he frequently muses over the lack of culture of his aunts and their social circle. These feelings seem disproportionate to the responses of the other party quests. Lily may think the available men in her social class are cads, but she doesn't seem offended by Gabriel's inquiry as much as he thinks she might be. Miss Ivors seems initially to be jovial in her talk with Gabriel, but he elevates it to a conflict that is noticed by others. He worries about his toast to his aunts and how others will perceive it, but the guests do not seem critical of his remarks. The Aunts and their friends seem to be versed in arts and in the politics of the day -- at least to the point that it interests them -- but Gabriel views them as naive, backward, uneducated. He believes that his views are considered, informed, and correct. Despite his self-recrimination regarding what he says and how he may be viewed, he is confident in his assessment of others.

Until the end of the story and the moment of his realization that maybe he doesn't understand things in his world at all. With Gretta's revelation that she once loved a young man who was willing to die for her, Gabriel realizes that he has never had --and never will have -- such a profound emotional connection with his wife. He realizes that the talk about dead people at the party was more than just chatter about someone from the past. It was a reminiscence of those people who had a profound impact on people's lives. The Dead are shadows, Gabriel realizes. The memory of the dead continues to influence the lives of the living. Realizing this his understanding of his wife, his aunts and others at the party is transformed.

It is his epiphanic moment that changes his life forever. The known city is now foreign; the once invisible dead are now seen in his world; his lack of love for Gretta exposed. In a moment, Gabriel Conroy realizes for the first time something that was present previously. In a brief fleeting moment he realizes the truth about his life. And nothing will be the same again.


BikeProf said...

I have nothing profound to say, other than "Wow." (Is that profound? Probably not.) What a great reading.

booklogged said...

I left a message on 'A Curious Singularity' and wanted to leave one here as well. You mention that you are an aspiring writer. I look forward to the day you have something published, in the meantime I will be checking out your blogs. You have a gift with words.