James Joyce is one of those authors who inspires fear in the minds of readers. Not surprisingly since Ulysses is such a dauntingly terrifying tome! However, his short stories are remarkably accessible and I was reminded of Joyce’s brilliance by a colleague of mine yesterday.
So, inspired, I came home and read ‘The Dead’ – according to this colleague, one of the best short stories.
Let me start by saying that I am not a fan of the short story genre. This is not to say that I don’t respect short story writers as to write such a story one has to be accomplished with prose and thought. It is certainly not an easy task. However, for me, the short story lacks the type of character development that I enjoy. While I appreciate the flavour that is provided, in most instances, I find that things are just not developed enough for my tastes.
That said, Joyce’s short story, ‘The Dead’, made for remarkable reading. In part this was due to the fact that I managed to download it for free from the internet and in part, simply because Joyce is indeed a genius and who I am to dislike or criticize such a canonical author?
The beauty of Joyce’s story is that nothing much actually happens. The setting is a dance/recital at the house of a pair of spinster sisters. The entire narrative unfolds over the course of the evening and the deep matter of this text arises more from the subtext – what is not said – than from what actually occurs.
The protagonist is Gabriel. We gather he is a gallant, if somewhat insecure individual, well accomplished academically but uncertain about his ability to engage with company. There are some stellar moments in this story where Gabriel is quite unhinged by things and readers are inspired to feel tremendous empathy for him. He is clearly in awe of his wife and desperate to express this to her, but at the same time, confounded by her nature and too afraid to offend her sensibilities. It makes for a complex relationship and it is this that lies at the core of Joyce’s story.
While Gabriel was a fascinating character and well fleshed out, I thought that the most intriguing individual in this tale was Lily, largely unexplored and mostly sidelined by the other characters. It is Lily who opens this narrative and by far the most interesting exchange happens between Lily and Gabriel in the pantry. I am unsure whether my interest in this individual is a consequence of what Joyce presents of her, or rather the result of what he leaves to the imagination. Regardless, it is this that is one of Joyce’s greatest talents – the morsels that leave readers salivating for more.