A Book You Might Like — The Dead by James Joyce

A snowy day in Dublin.

Noah is a staff writer for the HPR and a junior at Harvard College, where he studies History and Literature. This is the second installation of a series of book reviews he will be publishing.

The Review:

This famous story reminds me of Instagram. I love Instagram. I think it’s fun. I like seeing what everyone is up to and sharing updates myself. But there is admittedly pressure on Instagram that can be easy to forget; anxiety, fear of failure, and a desire for perfection are universal human experiences, and today many of us experience those feelings online. People mostly post on social media when things are going well in their lives, and seeing all those happy pictures one after another in the feed creates a tacit pressure. But what’s new about Instagram, despite its room for creativity and expression, is the pressure for regular people to produce perfect content themselves  — evidence that we, too, are cool and normal folks. What does that pressure do to us?

The Dead — the final story in James Joyce’s Dubliners collection —  examines a similar question. This is a story of anxiety: a man named Gabriel Conroy frets over a speech at his aunt’s dinner party. Gabriel, a writer plagued by a sense of inferiority, worries constantly about how others see him and fears looking ridiculous in their eyes. He connects his self-worth with the content he produces and thinks in a way recognizable to millenials a hundred years before the new millennium. If you’ve ever spent too much time writing an Instagram caption, you can appreciate the nervous revisions he makes during the buildup to his address.

Soon enough, Gabriel stands up to speak with “ten trembling fingers on the tablecloth.” His speech is a success, but the momentary victory is not enough to calm his nerves. A crisis with his wife Gretta undercuts Gabriel’s brief triumph: “He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealizing his own clownish lusts.”

Indeed, the stress of producing content, of proving himself over and over again, actually influences Gabriel’s patterns of thought. He fades in and out of conversation, fantasizing about things he has written and things he might say. He oscillates between emotional highs and crippling self-doubt. Even with his wife, the person he supposedly knows best, he remains on guard against moments of inadequacy: “Instinctively he turned his back more to the light lest she might see the shame that burned upon his forehead.” Preserving and pursuing the appearance of perfection becomes entrenched in Gabriel to the point of instinct. He hides his true feelings without even realizing it.

I think one reason Instagram has become so popular is that, like Gabriel, many of us understandably want to be special. It’s true that in so much of our lives and routines, there are times that we find boring and might actually like to skip over once in a while. Instagram offers a chance to be a captivating and exceptional amidst the obscurity, maybe more for ourselves than for anyone who might be watching. But Gabriel’s symptoms are a noteworthy drawback to chasing that feeling. In The Dead, Gabriel’s Instagram-worthy ambitions bring him anxiety, even when they are most successful.

At the end of the story, Gabriel does reach a truly profound moment alone and away from the worries of the spotlight. He stands at the window watching the snow and thinking about mortality while Joyce, mirroring the extraordinary intensity of that ordinary moment, turns the banal subject of weather into one of the most beautiful passages in literature. Empathy and reflection, rather than stardom and acclaim, allow Gabriel to feel content and in touch with the world — with the full range of emotions that can be hard to see on Instagram at times. I think we can still find that same empathy and reflection now and then today in a good book.

The Expert Opinion:

Duncan White was kind enough to sit down and talk Dubliners with me recently. He is the Assistant Director of Studies for History and Literature at Harvard College. Here are a few of his thoughts:

On the problem of other minds:

“Gabriel is slightly solipsistic. He’s very much caught up in his own dramas and very much caught up in how he’s being perceived, and he gets really upset when things don’t quite come off the way that he wants them to come off. The key twist in the story, of course, is that his wife, the person he’s most intimate with, is the person who is undergoing a more profound engagement with her own past and feelings. It totally passes him by, and when he discovers it, it makes him feel petty and small and ashamed of himself. So there is this idea of the unknowability of other people and the complexity of human interchange. The story confronts that full on, obviously in a totally different era but in a way that’s incredibly fresh.”

On the depths of The Dead:

“What I think you find with The Dead is that you get something that seems to be on the surface a relatively straightforward story, but it has these great depths to it. You can focus your attention on different characters and see the brilliant way that Joyce develops them. Conroy is the central figure, and we get a lot of his internal processes, but a lot of the peripheral characters are absolutely fascinating in terms of the things that they’re going through.”

On the profound and the everyday:

“There’s a real everydayness about the story that Joyce doesn’t shy away from. Some stories or novels that try to deal with profound ideas will knock you over the head with the profundity of what they’re doing and be very ostentatious in saying that this is a novel of ideas. But this story and Dubliners in general actually seem superficial on one level, and most of our lives are conducted on that level. We have to-do lists and we have commutes and we have things that we need to deal with. Within this story, all of those ordinary things culminate in a meditation on mortality that goes beyond everyday-ness and small petty concerns. That’s kind of what you hope the experience of reading The Dead does to you too. It’s giving you fifty pages and asking you to engage with them, which is in its own way trying to make you to take a break from ordinary stuff. The reading of it ends up replicating the process of the story itself, which is kind of a neat thing.”

The Rundown:

How to read it: With confidence! More wise words from Duncan White:

“The worst thing that can happen when people approach so called serious literature is to do so with the idea that there’s something hidden from them. It’s really about understanding human nature, it’s got nothing to do with literary training. The idea that there are secret meanings or that you need training to fully comprehend something is part of a way of using culture to assert one’s own superiority or status. 99 percent of the things we consider literature are perfectly within the wheelhouse of any reader who’s up for a challenge. And then there is stuff that I have no clue how to deal with or don’t want to read. Finnegans Wake or certain chapters of Ulysses that are hostile to the reader, those are more experimental really. And sure you can come to appreciate the experiment … but Dostoevsky wrote crime thrillers. Dubliners is human drama. There’s a lot of mystification that goes around literature, and really the more people give it a shot the better.”

Page Count: 50 pages

Where to get it: You can find The Dead as a pdf, but reading it online just isn’t the same! Splurge and buy the Penguin edition of Dubliners which includes The Dead, Grace, Eveline, A Little Cloud, After the Race, and other great stories (along with some interesting footnotes).

Favorite Quote:

“His soul swooned softly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

If you like this, you might like: Grace by James Joyce and Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Image Credit: Unsplash/Tom Cleary

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