James Joyce: the decisive moment

As Bloomsday approaches, references to James Joyce in the more cerebral end of the media crop up with increasing frequency. Today, I stumbled (courtesy of The Irish Times) on a fascinating literary discovery — an unpublished Introduction to an edition of Joyce’s great collection of short stories, Dubliners written by Anthony Burgess who in addition to being an accomplished novelist, critic, composer and all-round polymath was one of my colleagues on the Observer Arts pages back in the 1980s.

There are fifteen stories in Dubliners, fourteen of which are memorable and one of which — “The Dead” is a masterpiece. It’s the story of a New Year’s Eve party in the Dublin home of a pair of cultivated, musical, bourgeois spinsters. It is, writes Burgess, “a convivial evening in the Irish manner, full of song, quadrilles, bottled beer and food”. The central characters in the story are the spinsters’ nephew, Gabriel Conroy, and his wife Gretta.

Burgess sees Gabriel as “a sort of James Joyce, though plumper and more complacent”.

He is a literary man, a college teacher, contributor of a bookish column to the Dublin Daily Express. He is Europeanised, unsympathetic to Ireland’s patriotic aspirations, conscious that his own culture is deeper and wider than that which surrounds him in provincial Dublin. He has married a girl of inferior education – “country cute” was his mother’s description of her – but he does not despise her.

Gretta is a quiet beauty, and Gabriel is a possessive husband. Because they live some way out of the city, they have booked a hotel room for the night. As they go to the hotel in the early hours, a wave of desire comes over him: the possessive wants to possess. But Gretta is distracted. Towards the close of the party the tenor Bartell D’Arcy had sung a song called The Lass of Aughrim, and she is thinking about the song. A young boy she once knew in Galway — and who had been in love with her — used to sing it. His name was Michael Furey, and he died tragically young.

Gabriel carelessly asks whether he died of consumption, but Gretta replies, “I think he died for me,” she replies, weeping.

This is how Joyce writes it:

“It was in the winter,” she said, “about the beginning of the winter which I was going to leave my grandmother’s and come up here to the convent. And he was ill at the time in his lodgings in Galway and wouldn’t be let out, and his people in Oughterard were written to. He was in decline, they said, or something like that. I never knew rightly”.

She paused for a moment, and sighed.

“Poor fellow,” she said. “He was very fond of me and he was such a gentle boy. We used to go out together, walking, you know, Gabriel, like the way they do in the country. He was going to study singing only for his health. He had a very good voice, poor Michael Furey.”

“Well; and then?” asked Gabriel.

“And then when it came to the time for me to leave Galway and come up to the convent he was much worse and I wouldn’t be let see him so I wrote him a letter saying I was going up to Dublin and would be back in the summer, and hoping he would be better then.”

She paused for a moment to get her voice under control, and then went on:

“Then the night before I left, I was in my grandmother’s house on Nun’s Island, packing up, and I heard gravel thrown up against the window. The window was so wet I couldn’t see, so I rad downstairs as I was and slipped out the back into the garden and there was the poor fellow at the end of the garden, shivering.”

“And did you not tell him to go back?” asked Gabriel?

“I implored him to go home at oncw and thold him he would get his death in the rain. But he said he did not want to live. I can see his eyes as well as well! He was standing at the end of the wall where there was a tree”.

“And did he go home?” asked Gabriel.

“Yes, he went home. And when I was only a week in the convent he died and he was buried in Oughterard where his people came from. O, the day I heard that, that he was dead!”

She stopped, choking with sobs, and, overcome by emotion, flung herself face downwards on the bed, sobbing in the quilt. Gabriel held her hand for a moment longer, irresolutely, and then, shy of intruding on her grief, let it fall gently and walked quietly to the window.

What follows is one of the most moving passages in the whole of Joyce’s work. It was beautifully captured in John Huston’s magnificent film adaptation of the story. This afternoon I found a clip of that closing scene.

Anthony Burgess thinks that this wonderful short story is the pivotal moment in Joyce’s development as an artist.

“The complex of emotions that now takes possession of Gabriel’s soul”, he writes,

requires more than the technique of realistic fiction for its expression. The Joyce we meet now is not the young chronicler of the earlier Dublin lives. We are in the presence of the author of Ulysses. As Gabriel analyses his tepid little soul, we see that his name and that of his long-dead rival have taken on a terrible significance: Gabriel the mild angel, Michael the passionate one; that dead boy, possessed of an insupportable love, was rightly called Furey.

Gabriel becomes aware of the world of the dead, into which the living pass. That world goes on with its own life, and its purpose is to qualify, literally to haunt, the world of those not yet gone. The living and the dead coexist and have strange traffic with each other. And there is a sense in which that, dead, Furey is more alive, through the passion that killed him, than the living Gabriel Conroy with his scraps of European culture and his intellectual superiority.

Meanwhile, in the all too tangible world of Dublin, the snow is coming down. More, it is, perhaps impossibly, “general all over Ireland”, and it serves Joyce’s symbolic intent more than a concern with meteorological plausibility. For “the snow is falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead”.

It is real snow, but it is also a metaphysical substance that unites humanity in time, not space. Space becomes itself a symbol. When Gabriel thinks of setting out on his “journey westward” he is to take not a train but a time machine. The west is where passion took place and a boy died for love: the graveyard where Michael Furey lies buried is, in a sense, a place of life.

The Dead” is magic”, Burgess concludes, “whereas the preceding stories are merely literature”.