For more than 20 years, I have read James Joyce's "The Dead" at Christmas. The story, the last in the collection "Dubliners," has a lugubrious title in stark contrast with the setting, a festive Christmas party.
Joyce is known for complicated fiction replete with arcane references testing scholars' knowledge of mythology and religion. "The Dead" is, for the most part, clear, direct, fast-moving prose and tight story telling. The "action" often consists of conversation -- and reflection. The dead are present only in the characters' memories and have lived only in memory for years.
The two Morkan sisters, Julia and Kate, and their niece Mary Jane, hold a holiday party. The Morkan party is an annual event, drawing a large crowd of Dublin friends. The women teach music. Many students and former students attend. The event is not lavish, but the sisters' provision generous.
The evening is off to an energetic start -- music, dancing -- when the sisters' nephew, Gabriel Conroy, arrives with his wife, Gretta. The Conroys are an attractive couple of about 40. He teaches and has literary interests (as well as literary pretensions); she is a homemaker with two children. Gabriel is essential to a successful party, the Morkans believe. He has a valuable role as the man of the family -- the polished male host.
As Gabriel's evening begins, the man of polish is verbally clumsy, apparently offending several women he encounters, and begins to criticize himself and become cranky. Snow is accumulating outside the windows, and Gabriel wishes he were walking alone in the falling flakes, "how much more pleasant it would be." Nevertheless, he puts on the show expected of him, including an intellectually weighty, lengthy toast to the Morkans and their tradition of hospitality. As the party further unfolds, the dead -- Gabriel's mother, other family members, musical performers of yesteryear -- enter the characters' reflections and conversation.
Preparing to leave as other guests depart, Gabriel observes his wife transfixed by a traditional Irish song a young professional singer has begun to a piano accompaniment. Gretta's reaction alters the evening dramatically. Eventually Gretta confesses to Gabriel she was moved by the music because years ago she was much taken by a young man, Michael Furey, who sang this song, "The Lass of Aughrim," to her. Michael, a frail young man, risked his health to visit her. He died at 17, Gretta explains, adding "I think he died for me." The revelation leaves the tormented Gabriel with the realization Gretta had another love.
Joyce, in the form of the omniscient narrator, ends the story by telling the reader that on this night the snow was falling not just on Dublin but all over Ireland. On the living and the dead. On "the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried." Joyce does not explicitly say the snow unites the living and the dead, but that is what he meant.
"The Dead" approaches perfection as a tale of human dynamics. From the opening at the party to Gabriel's realization -- in a hotel room he and Gretta have taken for the night rather than make a long journey home -- we are privy to a wide range of the characters' emotions and memories, especially their ongoing relationship with the dead. In them we recognize ourselves.
I read the story every year out of appreciation for Joyce's artistry -- and in anticipation I will discover something missed in previous readings. I have never been disappointed.
Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org