Skip to main content

James Joyce's "The Dead" in Dubliners: Repetition and the Living Dead Analysis

James Joyce Dubliners

James Joyce Dubliners

James Joyce published his collection of short stories entitled Dubliners in 1914. Unlike some of his other works, this collection is made up of stories that focus on a particular topic—the lifestyle of the Irish middle-class in Dublin around the late 1800s and early 1900s. The final story within this collection is entitled, “The Dead.” According to Walzl, “The Dead” was written in 1907, three years after the other stories in his collection were written. It is also one of the longest pieces within Dubliners , which suggests its importance and complexity. Some scholars state that “The Dead” should be considered a novella because of its length and tendency to “blend of real and metaphorical that distinguish the genre” (Loe 485). Through various images, Joyce illustrates aspects of norms and ritualistic behavior, which functions as its own narrative at the expense of a classical story arc.

In general, “The Dead” is without a plot. The characters attend a dinner party. The extensive dialogue and repetitiveness makes this story almost painful to read; however, Joyce keeps his reader entertained with comic relief and anticipation of a climactic end. In theory, Joyce’s story illustrates the ritualism of daily life and how norms become social constructs that should not be violated. However, Joyce chooses select characters to violate these norms, which this author will examine in the following pages of this article.

During the late 1800s, Ireland merged with the United Kingdom of Great Britain with Scotland. Many Irish people immigrated to places like Dublin to free themselves of the social inequalities in their homeland. Joyce’s “The Dead” shows the lifestyles of the Irish middle class in Dublin in the late 1800s. As suggested by Whelan, this story is deeply influenced by Irish history: “One of the chief discoveries of this excavation is the buried history of the Famine embedded at its center. The resonance of "The Dead" and its peculiarly charged language derives from this depth of historical layering, all the more evocative because it is hidden” (Whelan 59). Joyce’s work is a masterpiece that thrives on metaphors. Through repetition and other themes, Joyce makes his reader feel as if they are a part of the Irish identity during the late 1800s.

“The Dead” follows the consciousness of Gabriel throughout the story. He is the reader’s guide through the dinner party. If Joyce were to follow a classic form of fiction narrative, Gabriel would experience an epiphany, however, this never happens, as Walzl suggests. Instead, the reader is left with a feeling of attachment to Gabriel. In the end, we see that we should not seek to be like him, succumbing to ritual.

This essay will examine the themes of repetitiveness in Joyce’s story, “The Dead” and aim to analyze its deeper message. Through the use of sociological theory and literary analysis, this author will prove that “The Dead” depicts the ritualistic lives of middle-class Irish men and women living in Dublin during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This essay looks at the works of many different authors including sociologists and literary critics in order to create a content analysis on Joyce’s “The Dead,” and how it relates to Durkheimian theories of norms and repetition in daily life. Ultimately, this article will examine a number of themes and historical messages including but not limited to the ritual aspects of norms, a person’s desire to behave by these norms, how Joyce’s form illustrates these norms and un-relatable characters.

Norms, Ritual and Repetition in “The Dead”

In this final story of Dubliners , Joyce illustrates the power of social norms. Norms are instituted in societies in order to control a population:

The advantages of norm-governed systems are avoiding useless, stupid, and self-destructive behaviour favoured by the rigid execution of routines, as well as the spreading of errors and deviations produced by pure imitation. Therefore, it is promising to construct autonomous artificial agents with a capacity for applying norms. (Saam and Harrer)

Joyce illustrates how norms and rituals embed themselves into his characters’ minds. Many of his characters live their lives like they are part of a machine. They all have their functions that are solidified through the rituals they obey. An extreme example of characters who live by ritual is the monks, which Joyce describes near the beginning of the story: He was astonished to hear that the monks never spoke, got up at two in the morning and slept in their coffins” (Joyce 15). Joyce illustrates intense obedience through the image of the monks. The Mr. Browne’s reaction to the story is “’I like that idea very much but wouldn't a comfortable spring bed do them as well as a coffin?’” (Joyce 15). The group discussing the lifestyles of the monks do not understand why they participate.

By showing this group’s inability to accept or understand these norms, Joyce is illustrating that “…cultural contact and conflict can provoke the articulation of norms inside the group. Here the prescription that ‘the way we do things’ is ‘the way one should do things’ is a function of a kind of group egoism, a way of defining the group in relation to other groups” (Hetcher and Opp 167). Although Joyce shows his reader the difference in values of norms between groups, he continues his story by showing how ritual affects the other characters.

Joyce continues to show us the monotony of the other characters’ lives through various stories and images including Lily, who is extremely obedient, and “Never-to-be-Forgotten John.” The horse was inclined to continuing his ritual duties. He walked away from the parade to circle around the statue of King William III (Joyce 24), like he is still at the mill. The group avoids discussing the politics surrounding King “Billy”—how he overthrew Ireland and imposed penal laws that were enforced for over 100 years. Instead, the group continues to praise Never-to-be-Forgotten John and his ability to obey ritual. Joyce is showing how engrained norms are in our society. Not only is this story an illustration of ritual, but the repetition in the way it is told is also a clear allusion to the power of norms.

The entire story, “The Dead,” is embedded with allusions of ritual. Like Samuel Beckett who once said that “form is content; content is form,” (Jaurretche), Joyce shows repetition and ritual in his narrative. The horse’s story seems to have been told numerous times within this group. Joyce constantly refers to his characters by their first and last name, as if the reader did not remember his description of them. Molly Ivors is referred to as Molly, Molly Ivors and Ms. Ivors. By doing this, Joyce shows his repetition through language. Even the setting, the dinner party, is a repetition. The guests meet at the same time each week and at the same place although many of them do not seem to enjoy it. By showing us a setting with numerous norms and rituals, Joyce is depicting the ways in which we participate with those norms. Many of the characters do not have children or mates, which causes the reader to notice something different about Gabriel. He is nervous during the party, which is not a trait found in the other characters. By showing us the alternatives to ritual, Joyce shows his reader what happens when people violate the accepted norms.

Throughout the story, there are few characters that have violated the norms. One of the characters that violates them is Molly Ivors. She violates the norms of fashion by wearing not wearing low-cut top. This intrigues Gabriel up until she begins to ask him about his pseudonym. Molly also leaves the party early, which shows he violating another norm. “One dimension on which norms vary is how formalized they are: is a particular norm widely understood but implicit, or is it spelled out and made visible in law, a code of ethics, a religious commandment, and folk counsel?” (Hetcher and Opp 167). By violating norms, one makes them visible to the other members of a group. Joyce deliberately shows most of his characters participating in numerous rituals (like dancing, which is ritualized movement) in order to contrast them to the characters that do not follow these norms:

It shot through Gabriel's mind that Miss Ivors was not there and that she had gone away discourteously: and he said with confidence in himself:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, A new generation is growing up in our midst, a generation actuated by new ideas and new principles. It is serious and enthusiastic for these new ideas and its enthusiasm, even when it is misdirected, is, I believe, in the main sincere. But we are living in a sceptical and, if I may use the phrase, a thought-tormented age: and sometimes I fear that this new generation, educated or hypereducated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity, of hospitality, of kindly humour which belonged to an older day. Listening tonight to the names of all those great singers of the past it seemed to me, I must confess, that we were living in a less spacious age. Those days might, without exaggeration, be called spacious days: and if they are gone beyond recall let us hope, at least, that in gatherings such as this we shall still speak of them with pride and affection, still cherish in our hearts the memory of those dead and gone great ones whose fame the world will not willingly let die.” (Joyce 27)

Gabriel is responding to Molly’s choice to violate the norms with a speech that everyone agrees with. He chose to stand up for tradition and the act of ritual. Again, by showing the violation of a norm, it makes it visible to the rest of the group. In this case, Gabriel attempts to defend his ritualistic lifestyle in order to solidify its purpose.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

By illustrating the ritualistic tendencies of his characters, Joyce successfully illustrates the power of norms and rituals in his piece, “The Dead.” He shows the reader that people who are obedient to these rituals act like a part of a machine. Throughout their lives, his characters have participated in these rituals that become embedded into their lifestyles without purpose or meaning. Through characters like Molly, however, Joyce illustrates the violation of a ritual and the fact that it is now visible to the rest of the group members.

Symbolic and Spiritual Aspects

Some scholars have noted the difference in form and content of “The Dead” to other stories in Dubliners . Much like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Kafka’s The Metamorphosis , “’The Dead’ reflects the half dozen salient features and the distinctively modernist blend of the real and metaphorical that distinguish the genre” (Loe 485). The genre Loe is describing is the novella. He believes, like many others, that “The Dead” has the characteristics of a novella because of its length, content and form. It illustrates its novella qualities through the image of Michael Furey.

Michael Furey is a martyr who died for Gretta’s sake. When Gretta hears the song, The Lass of Aughrim , she begins to cry, thinking of how Michael used to sing. Because he has the ability to affect others even after his death, he is more alive than the other characters who still have life. The monks attempt to imitate death through their lives of ritual by sleeping in coffins. The monks want to exit their carnal existence by refusing to talk. Not only have they freed themselves from speech and society, but they have achieved this through self-negation—or living like they are dead. Some of the characters at the dinner party do not understand their behavior: “Freddy Malins explained to him, as best he could, that the monks were trying to make up for the sins committed by all the sinners in the outside world” (Joyce 16). Unlike the monks, the other characters do not see the purpose to their norms, but spend their time discussing other’s rituals.

The characters attending the dinner party participate in numerous rituals, which allow them to solidify themselves as part of the group, a metaphorical machine. As the story turns into a narrative of death, specifically Michael Furey’s death, the characters illustrate that they are living a life that is moving toward death—from a metaphorically dead world toward their physical death. The following section will analyze the ways in which Michael Furey illustrates a man who has been living long past his physical death.

The Living Dead

There are many theories on why Joyce chose to depict a group of people that resemble what this author calls, “The Living Dead.” Like parts of a machine, the characters obey norms blindly, without any concept of their purpose or outcome. In time, these parts will cease to exist from their physical death, and their function will be replaced with another person. A character that contrasts this behavior is one that has physically died, Michael Furey. Because of Gabriel’s role in the story, it is important to analyze his character in contrast to Michael. Gabriel shares his name with an angel whose duty is to guard heaven. He is also known as the angel of death and often appears in the Bible when important characters are about to die. Michael, however, is the name of an angel in Revelations. He drives the Anti-Christ out of the world. In Joyce’s story, Michael Furey is linked to the concept of revolt.

Furey died for Gretta’s well-being. It is made clear through song that his character is continuing to live through death. The other characters are not as alive. Bowen illustrates the connection of the living dead with the state of Dublin at that time: “In a way the company’s affirmation that the Morkans are ‘jolly gay fellows’ fails to sense the imminent presence of the dead, which permeates the nostalgic scene of Dublin gone by, and fails also to realize, despite all the talk of death, that the Morkans’ only vestige of life comes from their memories of the dead” (Bowen 20). By showing that these characters are so influenced by Michael’s life and death, he lives on, making the others realize the monotony of their lives. This almost makes the first part of the story useless and repetitive to the reader. It is like the end of the story is the main message, causing it to be more like a novella than a short story.

Through song that they are singing, Gretta is reminded of Michael and embarrasses Gabriel. He believes that she wants to visit him and soon finds out that he is dead:

Gabriel felt humiliated by the failure of his irony and by the evocation of this figure from the dead, a boy in the gasworks. While he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another. A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror. (Joyce 54)

Gabriel was the person that they reader relates to up until this point in the story. After the description of Michael Furey, the reader switches their reliability toward Michael. Joyce is showing them the power of norms and acceptance. If we follow with the ritual that Gabriel is our guide throughout the story, then we are simply performing a repetitive function (Walzl 27). He shows us “…a number of individual cases of hopelessness and frustration in previous stories is drawn together in a progressively tighter knot in ‘The Dead,’ until the final metaphor of the snow stresses the communal existence of all the living and the dead and they become interchangeable, all in fact part of the same existence” (Bowen 12)—the same machine. It is in Joyce’s final paragraph that he more explicitly shows the purpose of his work:

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. (Joyce 56)

The story ends with a description of Michael Furey’s gravesite. Because the rest of the story is without mention of Furey, this image seems like a strange choice for Joyce to end his book. By ending his work with the image of the lonely churchyard and Furey’s grave, he is illustrating the importance of living beyond one’s death (Walzl). The only way to achieve significant life after death is to have an effect on people. Without Gretta’s memory and Darcy’s inclination to play the piano, Michael is able to live on.

What is more important to Furey’s function in this story is that he was not remembered by a place or photo; Gretta’s memory of him was sparked by the piano and a song of resistance to Britain. This detail illustrates that Furey is alive through something completely separate and detached from himself. Joyce is illustrating that the significance of ritual, like singing a song is not solely for the ultimate purpose of the machine. Rather, the purpose of living is to attach yourself to others through memory and experience.

Joyce’s story, “The Dead,” concludes his collection entitled Dubliners. The fact that it is the longest story in the novel and that it deals with supernatural themes and images caused many scholars to believe that it could be considered a novella. Through various images and the story’s overall form, Joyce illustrates that repetition is embedded in our society, but without purpose, these norms will create a lifestyle for its obedient followers that is much like a mechanical part. Joyce ends his story, or novella, with the image of Furey’s grave, a symbol that highlights the significance of Furey’s life and ability to live-on beyond his death.


Bowen, Zack R. Musical allusions in the works of James Joyce: early poetry through Ulysses. 1974. Albany, NY: University of New York Press.

Dilworth, Thomas. “Sex and Politics in ‘The Dead.’" 1986.James Joyce Quarterly. Vol. 23, No. 2. 157-171.

Hechter, Michael. Karl-Dieter Opp. “Social Norms.” 2005. Social Science.

Jaurretche, Colleen. Beckett, Joyce and the Art of the Negative.

Saam Nicole J. Andreas Harrer. “Simulating Norms, Social Inequality, and Functional Change in Artificial Societies.” 1999. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation vol. 2, no. 1.

Whelan, Kevin. The Memories of "The Dead." 2002. The Yale Journal of Criticism, Vol. 15, No. 1. 59-97.

Walzl, Florence L. “Gabriel and Michael: The Conclusion of ‘The Dead.’" 1996.James Joyce Quarterly. Vol. 4, No. 1. 17-31.


Andrew Spacey from Sheffield, UK on March 01, 2013:

Thank you for this detailed hub, you've used different categories to take us through the analysis and added insights and comments and quotes to move the essay along. I enjoyed reading your account of what has become a Joyce classic.

Dubliners has some great material in it, plus some puzzles for the reader. When I read it for the first time I was amazed at how many strange and sudden endings the stories had. They seemed to add to the enjoyment! The cut offs made me think, and stirred the imagination. And as an Englishman all the Irish connections became red hot again reading Joyce!

Interesting stuff. Nothing straightforward for the husband of Nora Barnacle.!

Votes for this hub.

Brittany Kennedy (author) from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on February 13, 2012:

Thank you, ytsenoh! I loe Joyce and Dubliners is definitely one of my favorite works by him. Thanks again for your kind words.

Cathy from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri on February 12, 2012:

I was happy to find this hub and happy to see that molometer found it too. Joyce is one of my favorite writers. I liked "Sisters" and "Araby," but overall, I really like his style. I'm in the process of dissecting, but you do a fine job here. Very well organized and well written. I hope you have eluminated others into persuading them to read his work if they have never done so, yet. Thumbs up.

Brittany Kennedy (author) from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on January 31, 2012:

There are so many themes, but some of the more prominent ones in the story are sexuality, death, life, love and legacy. Which ones are you interested in knowing more about?

khalida on January 31, 2012:

i donot undestand well the themes of the daed help me

polyglot from Dallas, Texas on January 05, 2012:

Thanks :)

Brittany Kennedy (author) from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on January 05, 2012:

Thank you, polyglot. I totally think people would be interested in a hub on Kafka's great work! A ton of students view my hubs because they are writing papers on these subjects, so I think you would do good with that. I love Kafka and actually wrote my college essay on him and my similarities to him. Haha. I can't wait to read your hub! Let me know when you publish it.

polyglot from Dallas, Texas on January 05, 2012:

No problem. I read "The Dead" last semester and was very impressed by it. He implements realism better than anyone else, and it is interesting how he shifts from an "inner" narrative voice, to their "dialogue" outer voice(that is the characters at least. I do an analysis of Kafka's the Judgment. Do you think people would be interested in it?

Brittany Kennedy (author) from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on January 05, 2012:

I did include some theory, but will consider adding more when I go back to edit this article. Thanks for the suggestion and for reading.

polyglot from Dallas, Texas on January 05, 2012:

You're essay was very informative. However, I wish you would have used more theory in your analysis. Especially in the section when you deal with social constructs. I definitely think a structuralist investigation into that sphere would have helped your argument. But, Joyce is difficult enough as it is. Great work!

Brittany Kennedy (author) from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on November 03, 2011:

Thank you! I totally agree. I think I am going to post another hub about some of the other stories like "Clay" and "Eveline" since they are so similar. Mahalo

Micheal from United Kingdom on November 03, 2011:

I read Dubliners many years ago and this article reminded me how darn right opaque Joyce can be at times.

In my memory he paints a picture of everyday mundane life in Dublin that you point to your essay.

The utter futility of existence.

We see these characters now, in our everyday life which is more shocking.

I enjoyed your analysis and it has helped me to better understand what Joyce was describing.

These norms are all that some people have?

If we blow them apart; one wonders how they would cope if they had to think for themselves. Without some greater understanding of philosophy.

Religion springs to mind. Well done.

Brittany Kennedy (author) from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on October 31, 2011:

Thank you, Derdriu. This is one of the more ambiguous stories in the collection. I guess that's why I was inspired to write about it. Thanks again for your comment.

Derdriu on October 31, 2011:

BrittanyTodd: James Joyce is always a worthwhile challenge to meet! It is impressive that you are tackling the story which does and does not fit in with the rest of the collection and of the author's work. You explain the absurdity and non-absurdity of ritual well.

Thank you, and voted up etc.,


Related Articles