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James Joyce’s The Dead – Gabriel’s Search for Self

Gabriel’s Search for Self in The Dead

The study of Gabriel’s character is probably one of the most important aims in James Joyce’s The Dead1. What shall we think of him? Is the reader supposed to think little of Gabriel or should he/she even feel sorry for him? This insecurity already implies that the reader gets more and more aware that he/she develops ambivalent feeling towards Gabriel and that his character is presented from various perspectives. Gabriel’s conduct appears to be split and seems to represent different red threads in The Dead; it leads the reader through the whole story. Those different aspects in his conduct, and also the way this multicoloured character is presented to the reader, strongly points at the assumption that he is wearing a kind of mask throughout the course of events. But at the very end, after the confession of his beloved wife, Gabriel’s life is radically changed and, most importantly, his masks fall.

The scene with Lily (p.2009) in the very beginning of the story shows us already quite a lot about Gabriel: He appears good-humoured, talkative and behaves very kind to her. In this situation we find one of his many character traits: Gabriel is presented to us as a quite talkative, decent and cheerful ‘small talk partner’. This aspect of his character, that accompanies us on many pages, is quite strong. Some scenes, three of them are mentioned here, can be uncovered as good examples of his kind way to spread a cheerful atmosphere: “He felt quite at ease now for he was an expert carver and liked nothing better than to find himself at the head of a well-laden table.” (p.2020) This description of his attitude at the dinner table shows us very good that Gabriel is able to entertain p…

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…a mask.

To sum up everything we can say that Gabriel’s story in The Dead surely is not a story about love, nor about a man with different faces but much more a story about a man finding his way out of the life he never really lived. The prime concern is that in this story we are dealing with a progress or a development of Gabriel’s character. It is a progress of finding his true self, which he himself probably not even knew. Self-awareness, self-consciousness and a sudden real subjectivity are the ‘signposts’ in Gabriel’s path he has to undergo.

1 Joyce, James : The Dead , Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol.2, sixth edition

2 Rimmon-Kenan, Slomith: Story-Characters Narrative Fiction and contemporary poetics, Routledge 1983

3 Woolf, Virginia: A sketch of the past , Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol.2 , sixth edition

Comparing James Joyce’s The Dead and Dubliners

An Analysis of The Dead

To start in absolutely the least likely place, we have here another version of family life in Ireland (moving East, and from here through The Snapper make a unit contrasting with the previous one), with another way of picturing what the Irish take to be their insularity and closedness, their ludicrous longing for union with the supposedly superior but alien culture of “the continent”, and especially that confusion and torment about sexuality which derives so directly from the Irish church’s inability to reconcile desire as sin and desire as life-affirming. A fact (at least according to a major recent survey): married Catholics have better sex than other married Americans. Why? It’s been suggested that you can’t preach so fully the analogy between the union of man and woman with the union of Christ and his church and indeed of man with God without giving a celebratory turn to married love. But this would be inconceivable to the Irish, whose church (despite its being the dominant influence on American Catholicism) focuses on the ascetic and the equation of sex with sin.

In a sense, because he is so firmly embedded in this tradition, struggling against it, Joyce seems both hopelessly dated and eternal: hopelessly dated because we don’t have enough residue of the sense of sinfullness in our culture to have it be much of a force we have to struggle against, and eternal because it remains true for everyone that passing into adulthood (especially through adolescence) means somehow coming to terms with what is a strand of conflict between sexuality insofar as it is self-aggrandizing and aggressive and the affectional life as it is non-self-aggrandizing and other-centered and in some sense more “pure”-seeming. It is of course possible to come to good terms with this contradiction, but it is also possible to understand and be undermined by its existence, and Gabriel is a very clear instance of the person who can’t really reconcile simple physical desire for his beloved wife, a ‘getting close to and taking’ motive, with equally simple adoration and affection for her in the grace and authenticity of her autonomy, a ‘standing back and in some sense giving’ motive (I read two passages from Portrait, 171, as against 99-101).

So Gabriel is troubled by what strikes us awfully oddly as his moments of pure and “clownish” “lust”, and

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