Distant Music: On Recollection, Ephemera & James Joyce’s “The Dead”

A stylized screenshot from James Huston's adaptation of James Joyce's "The Dead"

Can anyone claim a memory? Or tame it into something more familiar? We become anonymous—the ultimate air we move across. We ponder The Dead—because that is the ultimate. We are dead, or will be, inevitably. Not like this is some profound revelation, but rather, an invitation. A reminder that what lives is merely ephemera. And so, what of it? What do we become? There are those who move about in life as though they are dead already, and mostly, we care not to mention them. But they do exist, unfortunately. Work life is brimming with them. Corporate clones. I knew one, and he was one who would, in his attempt at comfort, actually make me feel worse. Projecting his convention, he’d remind me of all the ways I differed and why this was a problem.

‘You think you are stressed? This job is nothing compared to working as a computer tech,’ he said one afternoon, amid my duress. Of course, no one’s stress could ever compare to his. He’d then ask the trite questions. ‘Don’t you ever get FOMO?’

‘FOMO for what?’

‘So, you’re telling me that you really enjoy those old movies you watch? Like, you find them interesting?’

‘No, I like to be bored.’ Then he’d passively insult me mid-joke. If I didn’t laugh, he’d presume I didn’t get it. The joke was his attempt at redeeming himself. He was such a great and funny guy, after all.

It’s not that he was shallow, as shallowness requires a base—a platform from which to start. With age and time, one might hope that with enough depth, a shallow person could fill. But he would never fill. Rather, he was hollow—akin to a bucket full of holes. Submerge him and there will be nothing there—he will just float upwards whilst everything empties. I thereby concluded that he was already dead—albeit moving about in some sort of otherwise. His life would not even resort to memory, as no one ever observed him closely enough to recall. Who would care to, anyway?

James Joyce’s story begins at a party. His characters move about as ghosts—blasé and without care. They socialize and sing and Joyce conveys them far better than the many parties depicted within Tolstoy’s works. As the final story within Dubliners, The Dead is the richest. James Joyce does not waste time with frills. There is no nebulous pause amid his modifiers, no strain of depth. Rather, his prose is rich and muscular. He does not resort to clichés.

As a story, The Dead reads like two separate stories, and for good reason. The first half, whilst well written, moves rather conventionally. Yet this convention is undermined by what occurs in the second. The two parts need one another, as the end cannot exist without the beginning and vice versa. One must first feel the lack in order to recognize that there is a lack. Something is amiss among these characters. They don’t seem to notice much beyond their own solipsistic selves. Their worlds, composed of leisure and myopia, very much remind me of my former coworker. Quite simply, there are some who never see past themselves. And not only do they never see, they don’t even realize there is anything to be seen. And so, they move about this life already dead, submersed in vagaries as they flounce about unfettered. Nothing seems to bother them.

The Dead begins at a party and ends later that same evening at a bedroom window. As for which is more somber will be determined by the reader: ‘It was always a great affair…’

Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet. Hardly had she brought one gentleman into the little pantry behind the office on the ground floor and helped him off with his overcoat than the wheezy hall-door bell clanged again and she had to scamper along the bare hallway to let in another guest. It was well for her she had not to attend to the ladies also. But Miss Kate and Miss Julia had thought of that and had converted the bathroom upstairs into a ladies’ dressing-room. Miss Kate and Miss Julia were there, gossiping and laughing and fussing, walking after each other to the head of the stairs, peering down over the banisters and calling down to Lily to ask her who had come.

And so goes the beginning, where the caretaker’s daughter is left dizzying about whilst she labors to greet each guest. There is hardly a moment to reflect or to breathe some tender breath. One moment after another, the situation has busied the character. But note James Joyce’s prose—there is no excess verbosity. Nothing is nebulous. Immediately, we are thrust into this tale without apology.

Gabriel Conroy works as a writer and although the tale’s first half involves an omniscient, objective voice, the second half employs much of his emotion—not just towards his wife but also of his wife’s recollection. Through action we arrive at observation. We get a memory of a memory. A reflection upon another’s recollection. Never sentimental, Joyce is able to dip towards the tender without saturating his reader in bathos.

Gabriel exists as an observer, often standing to the side, wherein he thinks too much whilst worrying about the speech he will give that night. Note James Joyce’s depiction of this somewhat nervous man who, feeling out of touch, worries too much. The passage is littered with insights regarding anyone who has felt as an outsider:

He waited outside the drawing-room door until the waltz should finish, listening to the skirts that swept against it and to the shuffling of feet. He was still discomposed by the girl’s bitter and sudden retort. It had cast a gloom over him which he tried to dispel by arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie. He then took from his waistcoat pocket a little paper and glanced at the headings he had made for his speech. He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they would recognise from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better. The indelicate clacking of the men’s heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his. He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would think that he was airing his superior education. He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry. He had taken up a wrong tone. His whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure.

Note there is no banality within the text, no forced modifiers, and no emotion is thrust upon us. Rather, Gabriel is presented objectively as some external being who does not belong at this party. How often does one over think, only to then hold himself back? ‘They would think…he would fail…’ (future) to then ‘He had taken…[it] was a mistake’ (past). So much time and disappointment are contained in just this single passage.

Since The Dead is told via Gabriel’s perspective, we are forced to accept his observation. No one around him seems to notice his detachment—including his wife, Gretta. He might as well not even be there. Occasionally, he glances at the snow beyond the window when he is not already irritated by something else:

Gabriel’s warm trembling fingers tapped the cold pane of the window. How cool it must be outside! How pleasant it would be to walk out alone, first along by the river and then through the park! The snow would be lying on the branches of the trees and forming a bright cap on the top of the Wellington Monument. How much more pleasant it would be there than at the supper-table!

It is not that anything terrible is happening to him, but rather, it is that he feels an emptiness, a pointlessness regarding all that surrounds him. It is not merely the guests themselves but the customs they employ—strained singing, uncomfortable dancing, and what is it all for? Everyone else seems perfectly content. So why is he the outlier, the one who notices what is missing? Eventually, when Gabriel discovers his wife amid the shadow upon the stair, James Joyce paints the image with a sort of romantic detachment:

He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.

Note the beauty of the language. ‘The gloom of the hall’ as his wife is stood there appearing not as a person but as ‘a symbol of something.’ In this moment, Gabriel is not nostalgic insomuch as he is romantic—he creates an idealized image of her wherein this depiction manifests as work of art. Naming the imagined painting ‘Distant Music’ indicates that there is not only a separateness but that she too is something beautiful and ephemeral as music. After all, music, like memory, can only be felt and not touched. This is a wonderful example of how the artistic mind works—the subtle noticing that an artist does amid the otherwise pedestrian evening. This scene also foreshadows the second half of The Dead, which begins once the evening is over and everyone has said their goodbyes.

A wave of yet more tender joy escaped from his heart and went coursing in warm flood along his arteries. Like the tender fire of stars moments of their life together, that no one knew of or would ever know of, broke upon and illumined his memory. He longed to recall to her those moments, to make her forget the years of their dull existence together and remember only their moments of ecstasy. For the years, he felt, had not quenched his soul or hers. Their children, his writing, her household cares had not quenched all their souls’ tender fire. In one letter that he had written to her then he had said: ‘Why is it that words like these seem to me so dull and cold? Is it because there is no word tender enough to be your name?’

Gabriel no longer wishes to feel alone and so he now craves his wife. After all, if there is anyone there who can understand him, it should be her. But unfortunately, her reaction does not go as planned, as she too seems detached, as though something is on her mind. Overwhelmed with desire, he longs for their early days of passion together.

Like distant music these words that he had written years before were borne towards him from the past. He longed to be alone with her. When the others had gone away, when he and she were in the room in their hotel, then they would be alone together. He would call her softly: ‘Gretta!’

Once again, Gabriel’s use of ‘distant music’ serves as a past recollection—a nostalgic resurrection that he longs to recreate. It serves as something beautiful and ephemeral yet just out of reach. As example, I am prone to repeat the familiar. I have never been one for adventure, as too much time I spend in my attempt to recreate better moments from the past. In repeating the same experiences, my intention is to bring those moments of past comfort into the present. To relive them. Gabriel is engaging in very much the same.

As they drive to their hotel, this is perhaps the only time Gabriel has felt happy in a long time. He anticipates what he hopes will await. Except much of the happiness exists in his imagination—his fantasy in what he wishes will happen. Gretta, however, is not reacting accordingly. Several times he speaks her name aloud, but her mind is elsewhere:

He was trembling now with annoyance. Why did she seem so abstracted? He did not know how he could begin. Was she annoyed, too, about something? If she would only turn to him or come to him of her own accord! To take her as she was would be brutal. No, he must see some ardour in her eyes first. He longed to be master of her strange mood.

Note the phrase, ‘He longed to be master of her strange mood.’ Gabriel is thinking only of himself, as he wants to be the center of her attention. He wants her entire focus on him. And this is perfectly understandable, given the strained evening he’s had. Why else would he not wish to be close to his wife? But something is bothering her. Something is keeping her occupied. Turns out, rumination is not only delegated to him. Upon asking what is wrong, she explains that she has been thinking about a song that has made her sad. Perplexed, Gabriel presses her for more information. The song she says reminds her of a boy she once knew years ago who died at 17.

The smile passed away from Gabriel’s face. 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.

‘Someone you were in love with?’ he asked ironically.

‘It was a young boy I used to know,’ she answered, ‘named Michael Furey. He used to sing that song, The Lass of Aughrim. He was very delicate.’

Gabriel was silent. He did not wish her to think that he was interested in this delicate boy.

Whilst Gretta is reminiscing, Gabriel is both angered and jealous that this intruder is now interrupting their time together, occupying his wife’s mind so much so that Gabriel begins to feel like an outsider within his own marriage. Just as with the party, he is once again cast outside. This is an intimate moment for her—one in which he does not take part. Turns out she believes this boy died for her, that perhaps he was her One True Love. But as result of his death, she was forced to choose Gabriel instead. Ultimately, no intimacy develops between Gretta and Gabriel that night. He feels like the spare, the side dish and she, following her revelation, merely falls fast asleep. Hence, Gabriel is alone again.

Gabriel, leaning on his elbow, looked for a few moments unresentfully on her tangled hair and half-open mouth, listening to her deep-drawn breath. So she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake. It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life. He watched her whilst she slept, as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife. His curious eyes rested long upon her face and on her hair: and, as he thought of what she must have been then, in that time of her first girlish beauty, a strange, friendly pity for her entered his soul. He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful, but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death.

In this moment, Gretta becomes someone alien to him, someone detached. Throughout The Dead, he has never viewed her as part of him (given his idealistic description of her on the stair as some work of art) but now he is resentful. She has, in a sense, isolated him from her via this intimate memory about some dead boy. She’s betrayed him. Gabriel is then left to ponder. Who are any of us, then? What defines the dead and separates them from the non-dead? Perhaps no one is alive and we only exist within varying states of dead and non-dead. His realization leads him to tears. The ending is possibly one of the most beautiful passages ever composed in all of literature:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. 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.

To quote my words at the beginning of this essay, ‘Can anyone claim a memory? Or tame it into something more familiar? We become anonymous—the ultimate air we move across.’ What is reality? Gabriel comes to realize, or rather, his wife’s revelation reinforces the fact that there exists no difference between us—the living and the dead. We are equally ephemeral. Here, Gabriel feels overshadowed by a dead 17-year-old. Within his wife’s mind, Michael Furey still rattles her heart and so, where does Gabriel reside? To Gretta, Michael will always be 17 and he will continue to hold some place within her. Dead or alive, they will forever be linked. As result, Gabriel feels like the stranger within his wife’s life. A stranger within his own life, in fact.

The ending of The Dead puts me in mind of Robert Frost’s poem ‘Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening,’ wherein the last line echoes, ‘And miles to go before I sleep.’ The use of snow to evoke peace and death is nothing new, but the tale’s skill resides within Joyce’s use of words. Gabriel ‘hears’ the faintly falling snow, even though there would be no literal noise to accompany it. Is this the distant music he speaks of? The moment overwhelms him so much so that it causes his soul to swoon, rather than his heart. It is as though his soul departs his body, and leaves for the outside. All night he has been looking out the window. This is why. James Joyce’s poesy is accurate and delicate. Selected carefully, each word matters.

Great writing is an experience. Not just in creation but in participation. The quality will remain constant but one’s perception will vary. What is life to most? Ultimately, we become our memory, as who would any of us be without it? The image of the snow is not only peaceful but it becomes the lone leveler for all. There is simply nowhere to escape. It falls everywhere, all over Ireland, including the headstones. Not even the dead can escape it. So what separates us then? The characters throughout this tale lack self-reflection, as they seem to accept what lives at the surface. But we see now that surface can ultimately be covered. That most of life can remain unseen, beneath that of the falling snow. It covers the crooked crosses and headstones and leaves us with an image that ultimately becomes part of our own memory. The dead is the finality no one can defeat. None will last—that is certain. And of those who yet live, where do they inhabit? Quietly found among the downy flake.

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If you enjoyed this review of James Joyce’s The Dead, check out the automachination YouTube channel and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include a breakdown of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigha dissection of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel, Galapagos, and a long discussion of photography from Alfred Stieglitz to Fan Ho and Vivian Maier.

More from Jessica Schneider: Obscured by Fog: George Cukor’s “Gaslight” (1944), Honoring the Master: Henri-George Clouzot’s “Les Diaboliques” (1955)The Envy of One Man’s Family: “Cape Fear” (1962)