Thursday, January 4, 2018

Nothing Without Art: January 4, 2018--Joyce's "The Dead"

So already, the much forecast snow began this morning at 7:10. The winds picked up, and the blur of still-gentle snow began blunting the edges of dwellings, objects, and vegetation.* As often happens when snow begins to fall across a broad swath of place, uniting all who reside in it in a common experience seasonally ordinary but nonetheless serious, my mind intoned with these words from the last paragraph of James Joyce's "The Dead": "snow was general all over Ireland" (225)*.

Really there couldn't be a more apt time for resurrecting "The Dead": at the center of the story is a Twelfth Night dinner party given annually by the main character's maiden aunts and their devoted niece. And since Epiphany--Twelfth Night--is just two days from now, the time and the weather are both twisting my literary arm.

I often taught "The Dead" as a high school English teacher--always with some trepidation because of the story's scant physical action: people go to a dinner party; they talk, listen to music, dance, eat, and sing; and then they leave, one long-married guest couple for a local hotel. I warned my students that the story might seem more like a still-life than a film, though we would watch a film version of it. To emphasize its interpersonal activity, we read the central dinner scene out loud as if it were a play, with class members playing the parts of the story's various assembled guests. Every year, the whole class enthusiastically sang in appreciation of the party's three hostesses (206-207); later, they paid close attention to how the film's actors performed the lines they had read.

But what really saved the educational day was Joyce's language and choice of details, especially those that conveyed the state of mind of Gabriel, the story's main character. "Gabriel's eyes, irritated by the floor, which glittered with beeswax under the heavy chandelier, wandered to the wall above the piano" (186). A polished floor as a source of irritation? A chandelier providing light and heaviness? What was really going on with this Gabriel guy, the kids wondered.

As I look out my window, there's no question that the snow has intensified. It's time to share that final paragraph of "The Dead": 
      “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" (225).
As I read this yet again, I can hear the "light taps," understand how "silver" can be "dark," easily envision "the treeless hills" and "the lonely churchyard." The assonance of "thickly drifted" and alliteration of "soul swooned slowly," "faintly falling," and "faintly falling"--oh, I love that near-repetition--almost lull me. But not quite. The gates have "spears," the monuments to the dead are "crooked," and the "barren thorns" can prick. The "journey westward" is never fully smooth; the waves themselves are "mutinous." 

Snow is contrary stuff. Peacefully, stiflingly, or dangerously blanketing, depending on any number of subjective and physical realities. Mostly I have every reason to love it, and I'm both loving it and taking it seriously today. If you've never seen the film version of "The Dead," be sure to watch to the very end: the final paragraph is read in its entirety, and the images*** that accompany it are near perfect companions to the text.

* This is not a photo of Ireland; it is a photo of the Princess Eve Salt Marsh in Quincy.
** Joyce, J. (1993). "The Dead". In Dubliners. New York, NY: Penguin Books. 
*** Photo from the film version of "The Dead" found in Phelan, B. (2010, December 7). Classic scene #25 [Web log post]. Retrieved January 4, 2018, from (The whole blog is entitled "The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of.")

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