Epiphanies | On Joyce's 'The Dead'

Epiphanies | On Joyce’s ‘The Dead’


Joyce used to talk of the epiphany (He got some Greek out of his Latin lessons,’ Gogarty sourly said), meaning the showing forth of some great truth in the presentation of the ordinary. The Magi came to worship the Saviour of the World and found him wrapped in dirty blankets in a derelict stable. Brightness does not fall from the air but suddenly flashes out of the filthy Liffey or the remark of a prostitute pinning up her hair for the evenings trade. The truth about human nature is revealed in an instant, when the epiphanic character responds to the fumes of a tenth whiskey or a chance word about his sister Kate.

Anthony Burgess, from his Preface to Modern Irish Short Stories

i.  ‘a submerged population’

Short story collections tend to differ in the degree to which they form a united whole. Most commonly they are, to quote Frank O’ Connor, ‘a summing up of a writer’s experience at a given time’; the stories therein containing a unity of narrative and theme that is not exactly intentional, and is to a certain degree, instinctual. I think here of a collection like Ian McEwan’s debut, First Love, Last Rites, which is really a compilation of pieces he wrote while he was taking the inaugural MA in Creative Writing at East Anglia (and in the time immediately afterwards). The stories are very much individual pieces but all of their characters live in the same dusty, pent-up atmosphere of suburban England in the mid-to-late sixties and early seventies. The prevailing themes, meanwhile, are of shifting identities and pent-up eroticism, of lives lived on the fringes of society. It is almost coincidentally a brilliantly evocative snapshot of England during this period, whereas a collection like Dubliners was always intended to be all of this and much more, as Joyce himself made plain:

My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me to represent the centre of paralysis. I have tried to present it to the indifferent public under four of its aspects: childhood, adolescence, maturity, and public life. The stories are arranged in this order.

This gives you an indication of Joyce’s ambition and of the intention he put into everything he did. While Dubliners can be seen as ‘a summing up of a writer’s experience at a given time’, it is the work of a more advanced artistry than the rawer talent we can see on display in First Love, Last Rites. Joyce has already moved beyond this. He believes in Flaubert’s maxim that, ‘The author in his book must be like God in his creation… must be everywhere felt, but never seen’ and so, as John McGahern says,

Joyce does not judge. His characters live within the human constraints in space and time and within their own city. The quality of the language is more important than any system of ethics or aesthetics. Material and form are inseparable. So happy is the union of subject and object that they never become statements of any kind, but in their richness and truth are representations of particular lives – and all of life.

Dubliners is in no way a compilation: it is an intentionally made whole. In this sense, it already points in the direction of Ulysses, because Joyce is clearly already interested in things beyond the parameters of the short story. Indeed, John McGahern does

not see Dubliners as a book of separate stories. The whole work has more the unity and completeness of a novel.

This would seem to suggest that Joyce was never really a short story writer in the first place. This would be to disagree with O’Connor’s perspective, which was that Joyce was a supreme short story writer who gave up writing short stories because:

One of his main passions – the elaboration of style and form – had taken control, and the short story is too tightly knit to permit expansion like this.

McGahern – and indeed, myself – would argue that Joyce was never really interested in being a short story writer in the strictest sense. First and foremost he was interested in making perfect his vision.

In Dubliners Joyce is interested in the stories linking not only through theme but also through character and place. He is also intent on there being a beginning, a middle and an end.  Almost like a novel but perhaps, more pertinently, like a piece of music. This, after all, was the way in which he had arranged his poetry collection Chamber Music, mostly written in the years directly prior to Dubliners. Here he describes the arrangement of the poems in a letter to his brother, Stanislaus:

The central song is XIV after which the movement is all downwards until XXXIV which is vitally the end of the book. XXXV and XXXVI are tailpieces just as I and III are preludes.

But while McEwan and Joyce’s story collections may differ dramatically in what they make up as a whole, the thing which the two books share is something that all of the best writers of the short story have in common; a strongly identifiable, to use O’Connor’s phrase, ‘submerged population’:

…the short story has never had a hero. What it has instead is a submerged population group… [which] changes its character from writer to writer, from generation to generation. It may be Gogol’s officials, Turgenev’s serfs, Maupassant’s prostitutes, Checkov’s doctors and teachers…. …Always in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society.

Joyce’s submerged population, then, is clearly his largely down-at-heel turn of the century Dubliners, while, in McEwan’s case, it is plainly his pale, introverted, sex-obsessed, and indeed often sexually warped, young men.


ii. ‘Epiphanies’

In a letter to a friend in 1904 Joyce described Dubliners, at that time a work-in-progress, as a ‘series of epicleti’. Terence Brown, in his excellent introduction to the Penguin edition of that book, explains:

The term epicleti here derives from the Greek Orthodox liturgy and refers to the moment in the sacrifice of the Mass when the bread and the wine are transformed by the Holy Ghost into the body and blood of Christ. At this moment of consecration the everyday realities of bread and wine are charged with significance.

This comparison of the transformative process that the bread and wine undergo to the process of storytelling seems very close to the artistic credo that Joyce lay down in Stephen Hero (the first version of The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which Terence Brown tells us that Joyce ‘was at work on concurrently with Dubliners’), whereby he compares the process of storytelling to the three wise men discovering the Son of God in a manger. When he says that

First we recognise that the object is one integral thing, then we recognise that it is an organised composite structure, a thing in fact: finally, when the relation of the parts is exquisite, when the parts are adjusted to the special point, we recognise that it is that thing which it is. Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object, the structure of which is so adjusted, seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany.

What he is essentially saying is look again; that the Christ child is being born in a manger every day. He is saying that the most insignificant person or event, if turned around and looked at from the correct angle will seem ‘to us radiant.’

In describing Dubliners as a ‘series of epicleti’, Joyce is giving a clear indication that he is putting into practice the artistic credo that he lays out in Stephen Hero, and that the stories that make up the book are all transformations of base matter into gold. This is not achieved, it should be stressed, by the use of artistic smoke and mirrors but simply by revealing people as they are.

Indeed during this same period between 1901-02 and 1904 Joyce was collecting a series of impressions that ‘he called ‘epiphanies’ – all that remains of a series that once included at least seventy-one entries’ (A. Walton Litz). Of the forty-one that have survived – which have been published posthumously as Epiphanies – most found their way into either The Portrait or Ulysses. A. Walton Litz again:

He carefully hoarded these fragments, and later – when he had determined their ‘spiritual’ significance – incorporated many of them into his fictions.

When he first began to collect his epiphanies Joyce regarded them, in the words of his brother Stanislaus, as ‘little errors and gestures – mere straws in the wind – by which people betrayed the very things they were most careful to conceal’.

Given Joyce’s use of these surviving forty-one impressions as a resource for either The Portrait or Ulysses it seems very likely to me that the lost epiphanies would have been the ones which, to use Paul Muldoon’s phrase, worked as the ‘feeder springs’ for at least some of the stories that comprise Dubliners.

iii. ‘The Dead’

It is fitting then – and quite clearly deliberate – that ‘The Dead’, which is both the finale of Dubliners and its coda; and which is the culmination of Joyce’s art as a short story writer; should be ‘set at, or just before the feast of the Epiphany’. As if to underline this it begins with a maid called Lily –

whose name is symbolically associated with the Archangel Gabriel who, in the gospel  account, informs Mary at the Annunciation of her role in the Incarnation. In church tradition the Virgin is associated with Lily of the Valley or Madonna lily (Terence Brown)

– opening the door to a man by the name of Gabriel. But Gabriel Conroy is not the bringer of news in ‘The Dead’ so much as its recipient.

The setting for ‘The Dead’ is ‘the Misses Morkans’ [Gabriel’s two aunts] annual dance’; an event that ‘Everybody who knew them came to….’ Joyce’s biographer, Richard Ellmann, says:

That he began with a party was due, at least in part, to Joyce’s feeling that the  rest of the stories in Dubliners had not completed his picture of the city. …he had written his brother from Rome to say that some elements of Dublin had been left out of his stories: ‘I have not reproduced its ingenious insularity and its hospitality, the latter “virtue” so far as I can see does not exist elsewhere in Europe.’

The events depicted in ‘The Dead’ are largely formed from out of Joyce’s own life and so the uncharacteristic warmth of this final piece in the Dubliners jigsaw is real enough. The Misses Morkans and the house where the party takes place are based on ‘his hospitable great aunts Mrs Callahan and Mrs Lyons’ and

their house at 15 Usher’s Island…. There every year the Joyce’s who were old enough would go, and John Joyce carved the goose and made the speech. Stanislaus Joyce says that the speech of Gabriel Conroy… is a good example of  his father’s oratorical style.

And indeed Ellmann goes on to say that, ‘Most of the other party guests were also reconstituted from Joyce’s recollections.’

But if there is uncharacteristic warmth in this story it is at least in part to contrast with the cold of the falling snow with which the story ends.  And we are still in very typical Dubliners terrain in the party section of ‘The Dead’; as John McGahern says, ‘The prose [in Dubliners] never draws attention to itself except at the end of “The Dead”, and by then it has been earned….’ 

However, if we look at ‘The Dead’ as a separate story rather than as the culmination of a whole piece, we can see that it is precisely because the prose ‘draws attention’ to itself at the close of the story that ‘The Dead’, as well as forming the crescendo and coda of one of our greatest works of literature, also stands as an equally major work in its own right. It is perhaps partly because of the contrast between the steady, ‘classical balance’ of the party section, with the lyric poetry of the Gresham section, that Gabriel’s epiphany moves us so greatly. As with Frank O’ Connor, Joyce’s first desire was to be a poet. He turned to prose after reading Yeats’ The Wind Among the Reeds, a collection he greatly admired but one which made him realise that he could never hope to surpass Yeats’ abilities in verse and metre. He had no such doubts about his abilities in prose. However, he unquestionably loved to write poetry and it appears to me that McGahern is thoroughly correct to suggest that the poetry at the close of ‘The Dead’ ‘has been well earned’ because it seems to me that part of Joyce’s – possibly subconscious motive – in contrasting a perfect version of Flaubert-esqe prose with a close relation of the work to be found in his volume of poetry, Chamber Music, is to create an ideal environment within which his poetry could shine; whereas it could sometimes be found wanting – if only in comparison with Yeats – when set by itself.

At the end of the party Gabriel watches his wife, Gretta, from the bottom of the stairs. She is above him,

leaning on the banisters, listening to something. Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained to his ear to listen also. But he could hear little save the noise of laughter and dispute on the front steps, a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man’s voice singing.

As well as illustrating Gabriel’s incomprehension of what Gretta is listening to, Joyce is also illustrating what Gabriel does not at this point know and in doing this suggesting some of the emotional distance between the two of them. It also ties in nicely with Gabriel’s somewhat smug attitude towards the West of Ireland and the Irish Ireland movement (with which, in the shape of Miss Ivors, he has already had a run-in) because the song that Gretta is listening to ‘seemed to be in the old Irish tonality’ and is not one that Gabriel would probably have cared for himself:

The voice, made plaintive by distance and by the singer’s hoarseness, faintly illuminated the cadence of the air with words expressing grief:

                O, the rain falls on my heavy locks

                And the dew wets my skin,                         

                My babe lies cold…                                 

It is Mr Bartell D’Arcy, a tenor with a bad cold, who is singing the song although he cannot remember all the words. This is another echo of distance and incomprehension but not only between Gabriel and Gretta but also between Gretta and Michael Furey, the dead boy who loved her when she was younger. Mr Bartell Darcy tells her the name of the song: The Lass of Aughrim. To add to the West of Ireland theme, the ever reliable Terence Brown tells us that

Aughrim is a village in the County Galway and the site of the catastrophic Irish defeat at the Battle of Aughrim (in the Irish tradition the place is known as Eachroim an áir – Aughrim of the slaughter) in 1691.

Something in Gretta’s manner (combined perhaps with the excitement and overindulgence of the party) fills Gabriel with admiration and lust for his wife and during their journey to the Gresham hotel (where they are staying the night) ‘moments of their secret life together burst like stars upon his memory’:

A heliotrope envelope was lying beside his breakfast-cup and he was caressing it with his hand. Birds were twittering in the ivy and the sunny web of the curtain was shimmering along the floor: he could not eat for happiness….

Which must surely be one of the most beautiful descriptions of love in the language. It is, I think, not only the beauty and perfect accuracy of that ‘sunny web of the curtain… shimmering along the floor’ – and the way the ‘twittering’ birds from the ivy seem to be there in the web as well, because everything, at that moment, is in harmony – but also because this degree of tenderness and romanticism in the character of Gabriel is, at this stage of the story, quite surprising and all the more moving for it. Something which is only compounded by these lines from a letter he had written to Gretta at that time: 

Why is it that words like this seem to me so dull and cold? Is it because there is no word tender enough to be your name?

When we bring into account the fact that, according to Ellmann, these last lines ‘are taken almost directly from a letter Joyce wrote to Nora [his partner and eventual wife] in 1904’, we can begin to see how willing Joyce is to use his private emotional life in the service of his art. Indeed there are many elements of Joyce in Gabriel’s make up. As Ellmann says:

There are several specific points at which Joyce attributes his experiences to Gabriel…. Joyce… wrote book reviews, just as Gabriel Conroy does, for the Dublin Daily Express. Since the Daily Express was pro-English he had probably been teased for it during his frequent visits to the house of David Sheehy, M.P. One of the Sheehy daughters, Kathleen, may well have been the model for Miss Ivors, for she wore that austere bodice and sported the same patriotic pin.

Which is to say nothing of the way that Gabriel, with his ‘hair parted in the middle and rimmed glasses’ looks the mirror image of Joyce. However, the one thing which assuredly marks ‘The Dead’ out as a an example of the transformation of the bread of personal experience into the body of art – as an example, in other words, of epicleti – is the fact that like Gretta, Joyce’s wife Nora, also had a young man called Michael – only his surname was Bodkin – when she lived in Galway, who:

contracted tuberculosis and had to be confined to bed. Shortly afterwards, Bodkin seems to have stolen out of his sickroom, in spite of the rainy weather, to sing to her. He died soon after.

Joyce himself had been somewhat dismayed to learn of this from Nora; he:

did not much like to know that her heart was still moved, even in pity, by the recollection of the boy who had loved her. The notion of being in some sense in rivalry with a dead man buried in the ground at Rahoon was one that came easily, and gallingly, to a man of Joyce’s jealous disposition.

And Joyce does not spare himself in his depiction of Gabriel’s struggles with jealousy and lust. When Gretta first tells him about Michael Furey:

A dull anger began to gather again at the back of his mind and the dull fires of his lust began to glow angrily in his veins

and he asks her if that was why she so favoured a holiday in the West of Ireland – Miss Ivors had invited them to join her there at the party. Gretta doesn’t understand him and when he makes his jealous point clear, still doesn’t understand his implication and simply tells him that the ‘boy died when he was only seventeen.’ Unashamed, Gabriel ironically asks what profession the boy was in, to which Gretta, unaware of his dishonourable intent, replies matter of factly that ‘He was in the gasworks.’ Gabriel feels that

While he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another. A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownishlusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror. Instinctively he turned his back more to the light lest she might see the shame that burned upon his forehead.

This whole scene – and in a way perhaps all of ‘The Dead’ – seems to describe a coming of age moment in the life of Gabriel which parallels that in Joyce’s personal and artistic life. Joyce had been dramatically changed by his meeting with Nora Barnacle and the date they had on June 16, 1904, a date on which he claimed Nora made him a man. Joyce scholars tend to argue over whether his meaning is literal or metaphorical here but for me this extract from a letter he wrote to Nora, (admittedly it was part of a series of erotically imaginative letters they wrote to one another some years later – but still), seems fairly definite:

It was you yourself, you naughty shameless girl who first led the way. It was not I who first touched you long ago down at Ringsend. It was you who slid your hand down down inside my trousers and pulled my shirt softly aside and touched my prick with your long tickling fingers and gradually took it all, fat and stiff as it was, into your hand and frigged me slowly until I came off through your fingers, all the time bending over me and gazing at me out of your quiet saintlike eyes.

And, of course, this date was the one on which he chose to set his most important book; the date which, in his artistic life, he chose to fill with a character named Bloom – a surname, surely, of some sexual and spiritual significance.

But I digress, the essential point to make is that Nora Barnacle changed Joyce. On however many levels we choose to read his phrase, ‘made him a man’, there can be no question that she helped to change him from the somewhat priggish/dilettantish youth we find in the early pages of Ellmann’s biography, and who we can recognise in the Stephen Dedalus of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, to the man who writes with such earthiness and empathy of the inner and intimate lives of Leopold and Molly Bloom.

Is it too much, then, to think of the portrait of Gabriel’s shame in ‘The Dead’ as also -through the transubstantiating process of art – a portrait of Joyce’s own shame? Furthermore, if Gabriel’s admission that ‘The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward’, is both a recognition of the smug attitude he has had towards the Irish movement and Gretta’s (and therefore Nora’s) home in the west of Ireland (as well, perhaps, as a nod to Yeats’ advice that he go to the west for artistic inspiration; a piece of advice J. M. Synge had taken and Joyce had not; Synge, of course, subsequently wrote the artistically successful and riot-causing, The Playboy of the Western World) an attitude very accurately and amusing described by Ellman:

During most of the story, the west of Ireland is connected in Gabriel’s mind with a dark and rather painful primitivism, an aspect of his country which he has steadily abjured by going off to the continent. The west is savagery; to the east and south lie people who drink wine and wear galoshes.

 – does it not seem parallel to Joyce’s own altered attitudes to his own country – which were seemingly brought about by a combination of Nora, moving abroad and simply growing up – exemplified in this extract from a letter to his brother Stanislaus (written once he had completed all of Dubliners save ‘The Dead’)?:

Sometimes thinking of Ireland it seems to me that I have been unnecessarily harsh. I have produced (in Dubliners at least) none of the attraction of the city….  I have not been just to its beauty: for it is more beautiful in my opinion than what I have seen of England, Switzerland, France, Austria or Italy.

Further evidence that ‘The Dead’ is concerned with Joyce’s reappraisal of his world view may also be found in the theory advanced first by John Kelleher in 1964 and now latterly by Paul Muldoon, in his excellent ‘abecedary’ of Irish Literature, To Ireland, I:

a significant strain of ‘The Dead’ may be drawn from the old Irish saga Togail Bruidne Da Derga, ‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’… the story of Conaire Mór, the king whom Kelleher identifies as ’Conroy’ from the fact that Gabriel smiles ’at the three syllables’ Lily the caretaker’s daughter ‘had given his surname’.

Da Derga means ‘Red God’ and Kellerher argues that the Gresham hotel ‘“would suit admirably as a surrogate Da Derga’s Hostel” what with its “red brick”’. In the myth Conaire Mór has broken a series of ‘geasa’ (social taboos) and meets a terrible fate in Da Derga’s Hostel. He has his head cut off indeed. (Although not, it should be noted, before he has killed twelve hundred men defending himself.)

To model the Gabriel/Joyce character on Da Derga would seem to me perfectly in keeping with the both the sense of humour and the artistic credo behind the thinking that had Ulysses remodelled as a lowly Dublin advertising canvasser named Leopold Bloom. Indeed, as with Bloom, this would represent an exact manifestation of Joyce’s theory of the epiphany – placing, as it does, the myth-like in the everyday. The Gabriel/Joyce character is, in a sense, destroyed in The Gresham Hotel by the sudden revelation that his wife had once loved another man in a way (or so at any rate the jealous Gabriel/Joyce thinks) that she could never love himself. This knowledge could indeed be seen in the sexual sense to represent the cutting off of his head – it would certainly fit with Joyce’s Shakespearean sense of humour – while the killing of six hundred men would surely not be out of place as a self-depreciating allusion to the jealous and interrogative temperament Nora often witnessed in Joyce in their early days together.

But for all that, ‘The Dead’ ends with Gabriel tenderly watching his sleeping wife through ‘generous tears’ with ‘a strange, friendly pity’ and with the admission that he

had never felt [what Gretta had felt for Michael Furey] like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love.

He has been the recipient of news; he has had his epiphany and he sees the world as it is. He thinks of the boy, Michael, standing under the tree and imagines the forms of other shades near:

His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend their wayward and flickering existence. His own existence was fading out into a grey, impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had at one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.

This act of dissolving shows Gabriel’s acceptance of his own limitations and of a new feeling of empathy towards those close to him and for the entire human race. His grainy perception of the dead feels similar to the grainy vision caused by snow as does the dissolving of his consciousness and the eventual dissolving into water of snow. If the world of the snow is a world in-between life and death then it is a world where one is acutely aware of the frailty of individuality and of the sameness of individuals. Gabriel’s ‘soul swoon[s] slowly’ at his apprehension of the vast expanse of human consciousness ‘falling faintly through the universe.’

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis