At the end of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” a man named Gabriel hears snow falling outside of his hotel room window and meditates upon death. He hears in that snow each soul, living and dead, falling as light as a snow flake in the vastness of the universe: “His soul swooned slowly 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” (286). Joyce’s language in this last sentence of the story is so evocative—the image of the slow swoon, the repetition and reversal of “falling faintly” and “faintly falling”—and is a powerful culmination of the story’s theme of death and the dead.
It may seem strange to dwell on this story only a few days before Christmas, when we are supposed to be merry. But, ever since I read this story for class a few weeks ago (right before Thanksgiving, I think), I have been mulling it over and trying to figure out what it means, and how it relates to this Christmas feast. Joyce actually sets the story at an Epiphany party—celebrating the moment when the three wise men came to find the infant Christ—so I feel encouraged to see the connection as a meaningful one.
Just to give you a brief sketch of the plot, the story opens at the home of Gabriel’s two aunts and their niece, who host this big annual party for their friends and music students. Gabriel arrives with his wife, Gretta, and then the narrative focuses on his experiences and impressions of the party and its attendees. As they prepare to leave, he sees his wife listening in a reverie to something—a man singing— in the upstairs hallway, and suddenly is moved by the thought that she must be reminiscing about their relationship. Because of a snowstorm, they planned on staying at a nearby hotel rather than brave the trip back to their home (where they left their children with a trusted maid). On the way to the hotel, Gabriel is aflame with tender lust and affection for his wife, waiting eagerly for when they can be alone together.
When they finally are alone in their room, he is hesitant: he can’t tell whether she is feeling the same way. After a bit of talking, he finally asks her what she had been thinking of while she was listening to the song. She bursts into tears, admitting that she was reminded of a boy she had liked when she was young, who used to sing that song. His name was Michael. She met him before she went off to school, and he was very sweet but sickly. The night before she left, he came in the rain to see her, and she insisted that he should leave because he was too weak. A few months later, she learned that he had died. Gretta thinks he died for love of her. Gabriel reacts rather resentfully to her revelation and feels very threatened by this dead boy. She falls asleep crying, and then Gabriel lies down next to her and listens to the snow, which brings us to the ending when his soul swoons slowly as he realizes that the same snow is falling on him as on Michael’s grave stone somewhere.
Throughout the story, we see Gabriel’s struggle to navigate relationships with both the living and the dead. He alternates between good cheer, magnanimity, and, at times, elation, and then despair, pettiness, and loneliness, as he encounters other people or memories of people. Both the living and the dead threaten something in him. In his sense of community, the present threatens the past as the new generations abandon the good values and “humanity” of the older generation.
But then, for him personally, the past threatens his present. He cannot recall his deceased mother without remembering her criticisms of his wife, which still seem to unsettle him with doubt. In a lengthy toast he gives at dinner, he reflects on the “sad memories” which are “strewn” about our lives: “were we to brood on them always we could not find the heart to go on bravely with our work among the living” (260). And so Gabriel holds the dead at a distance, he cannot deal with them. When Gretta tells him that Michael died for her, he is overcome by terror, and envisions an “impalpable and vindictive being” vying against him (282). As much lip service as he gives to the past and the dead, he himself is deeply haunted by them. They disturb his delicate sense of self and the fragile order he tries to maintain in his world.
His reaction to Michael confirms his fear and insecurity with the past and the dead. But, when his soul swoons, what kind of realization does that reflect? When I first read this story and this ending, I interpreted it rather sadly, as though Gabriel was left feeling even more alienated from life and the living, thinking only of living as a process of dying. After further reflection upon the story, I have come to see a different way to understand it.
For, I wonder if Gabriel came to feel a sudden sense of communion with the dead, a closeness and intimacy with them that paradoxically draws a person closer to life and the living. Whether Gabriel does actually see this is not clear to me, but I do think that Joyce means for us, the readers, to see that as a possibility. The reason for this is the repeating theme of hospitality—an offering of communion with other people—and the sense that Joyce is very intentionally pairing it with death. What is this necessary connection between the dead and communion with them that Joyce is drawing towards life and the living?
What is hospitality but the gracious welcome and care for guests and strangers, a kind of intimate communion? And what is stranger to us than Death and the dead? The brief, though potent example of hospitality and death that we are given in the story are monks who take in guests for free: these monks, we are told, sleep in their own coffins. It is a very morose image and seemingly paradoxical that such people could be joyful or hospitable in life, and yet, I could believe it.
Perhaps only stranger is God himself, whose nature is so mysterious to us. Then I think of the Epiphany, of the story of the three wise men welcoming God made Man into the world, and what a strange soul-swoon they must have experienced in finding God as an infant. Their gift of myrrh—an embalming oil—symbolizes that God has come to die; even in those early moments of life, Christ’s death is prefigured. That, too, is mystery worthy of a soul-swoon. We worship a God who died. The upheavals and paradoxes present in the Christian religion are very palpable at Christmas, if you reflect deeply enough.
One August day about six years ago, I found myself standing in a deep rectangular ditch, resting a shovel under my hands, trying to be still for a moment. Though I could hear the recurring clink of my companion’s shovel into the ground and then the muffled crumble of the dirt as he turned it out, everything seemed very quiet to me. I took it all in; I tried to let the space seep into my senses. I was in a grave, and my soul swooned. I had been living at a monastery of Benedictine nuns that summer, working on their farm. In the last week of my stay, one of the oldest nuns in the community died. I helped in various preparations for her funeral, but the most memorable of all was helping to dig her grave in the pine grove at the top of the hill where the cemetery sits.
My own soul-swoon in her grave, I think, has been one of a few moments when death and the dead have been made real to me in such a way that unlocks the fullness of life. Instead of leading us to fear and escapism, such moments can make us see the very ordinary things of life to be the material and means of our ascent, rather than descent, into death and life beyond it. Death is so ordinary, such an ultimate leveler, that those who seek to be extraordinary and self-creating can get caught up in a feeling of living as an inevitable fall
Gabriel is such a man, who views his marriage, his children, as impediments to real love that is worth dying for—he can’t see that these are the material of such a love. Hence, he so defines his present by escape from or uneasy acquiescence to, rather than gratitude toward, life in all its ordinariness, and he misses the real footholds by which he can climb to the summit of life. To death. For this is why Christ came as a baby, through a family, and lived an ordinary life, and then even died. At Christmas we welcome him, the God who died for love of us.