The Tone of The Dead

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April 24, 2003

ENG 251Q Sec 008

Dr. Morillo



The Tone of The Dead

In many works of literature the meaning is practically spelled out for the reader; this makes no challenge for the reader and often creates less entertainment. On the contrary, there are many works of literature that require work on the reader’s part in order to get the most out of the story. The Dead, by James Joyce, is one of these works of literature. The beginning of the story starts the reader off with much confusion as to why certain aspects of the story are of any importance, but to add to the puzzlement of the beginning of the story, Joyce seems to clear up very little in the end. The reader is left with bewildering thoughts as to whether the last scene implies hope for the main character or despair. After a great deal of reflection, it is possible for one to come to the conclusion that Joyce’s tone in The Dead at the end of the story leaves the reader with hopelessness feelings of despair. The last few paragraphs of the story reflect on the main character’s thoughts, and these thoughts show no signs of hope. He considers the lifeless aspects of the world, which will soon come to an end, as he ponders over his relationship with his “distant” wife.

The reflection at the end of the story begins with Gabriel, the main character, recalling the previous events that had taken place that night. He first thinks of his wife, Gretta, and the story of her past which he had just recently learned. Gabriel stares at her as she sleeps, thinking about how their relationship is not what a marriage should be, mostly due to faults of his, although “it hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life.” Gabriel’s eyes have finally been opened up to his failure to be a good husband. This is a depressing fact, for any husband to realize; but even more depressingly, Gabriel is not as bothered by this fact as he should be. He has failed at being a good husband for his wife, yet his failure does not concern him like he should. Instead of wondering what he could do to improve his relationship, he seems to almost blow off the problem. At this point, Gabriel realizes that he does not match up to his wife’s first love, Michael Furey. He stares at his beautiful wife, but he knows in his heart that she was once more beautiful than she is now; his failure does not bring out her beauty, and he knows in his gloomy heart that it was Michael’s love for Gretta that once made her shine.

Thoughts continue to unfold in Gabriel’s head as Gretta lay there sleeping. His thinking changes from Gretta to the events that had taken place earlier in the night, and these thoughts suggest a tone of despair also. Gabriel’s focus shifts to his “poor Aunt Julia,” and how she will “soon be a shade of Patrick Morkan and his horse.” He begins to imagine being at her funeral and pictures the people dressed in black and the crying. He knows that he will have to be the one to say kind words about her and once again mulls over how he will fail at that too. Not only does Gabriel ponder on the death of Aunt Julia, but also on how “one by one they were all becoming shades,” and a thing of the past. Gabriel thinks of how in this world of despair, people “fade and wither dismally with age.” He makes life seem so gloomy and worthless while also considering death and the loss of loved ones.

If the end of the story does not create a big enough feeling of despair already, Joyce proceeds and describes Gabriel as he begins to cry. Gabriel first imagines the form of Michael Furey, the man who did not fail in loving Gretta. He pictures the frail figure of Michael and Gabriel’s mind then drifts to the dead in general. It is almost as if Gabriel begins to question his own existence. “His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world.” Joyce describes Gabriel and his outlook on the world with a dark and dismal tone.

In the last paragraph of The Dead, Joyce illustrates the setting of the story as it concludes. Gabriel turns his attention to the snow falling outside the window – the same snow that he had previously been in when he felt joy and his love for Gretta as they entered their room for the night. Joyce especially focuses on the snow in this last paragraph. He describes it as if falls on all parts of Ireland, but the importance of the snow surfaces in the last sentence. Joyce, still referring to Gabriel, writes, “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.” Gabriel watches the snowflakes fall, and as they near the ground, their life comes to a close, and the flakes hit the ground where they die, just like everyone will one day. Snow can be a beautiful thing, but in this story, Joyce helps create a tone of despair by describing snow in this way. The death of the snowflakes adds to the dismalness at the end as they symbolize the death that everyone will one day face.


A lot of the gloomy tone at the end of the story comes from Joyce’s choice to express Gabriel’s feelings, which show his depressed and hopeless attitude, but Joyce uses another technique in the end that significantly adds to the final tone. Joyce uses many descriptive words and phrases that help portray the feeling of despair to the reader. Gabriel notices Gretta’s clothes in the room, and her clothes are even described as if they are hopeless. Her “petticoat string dangled” as if it were limp and lifeless. Her boots seemed hopeless too. One boot was not even standing up, and the boot that was standing was limp. Gabriel then thinks back on the previous events of the night and considers how it caused a controversial “riot of emotions” within him. He remembers the “haggard” and worn-out look on his aunt’s face and then thinks of her soon to come funeral; the depressing color of black, blinds drawn to add to the gloomy setting, crying and blowing noses. Next Gabriel thinks back to the present moment and stares at his wife again as even the air aids in depressing him as it chills his shoulders. Joyce continues to uses words and phrases such as “darkness,” “dismally,” “the dead,” “flickering existence,” “dissolving,” and “dwindling” to set the dismal mood. These are words of despair that help the reader feel a sense of despair, which seems to be Joyce’s intention.

With a discouraging title, such as The Dead, one’s first thought is usually that the story will be sad and hopeless, and that is certainly the case for this James Joyce prose. Joyce creates a tone of despair that is exemplified in the last few paragraphs of the story. Through gloomy words, phrases, descriptions, figures, and thoughts of the main character, Gabriel, Joyce is able to get his point across to the reader. He uses the end of his story to organize Gabriel’s thinking as a kind of closure. Gabriel realizes that he has failed in his relationship with his wife. Not only has he failed, however, but he also shows no signs of hoping to make things better. His view of the world only becomes more pessimistic as he recollects the dead and looks ahead to the “shades” of other people that are soon to come. Joyce’s ending suggests what may become of Gabriel. Gabriel’s tone in the end is hopeless, as is his future with the attitude that his thoughts imply.


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