James Joyce’s “The Dead,” the final story in his first novel Dubliners (1914) tells of an annual Christmas ball given by two elderly maiden aunts, Miss Kate and Miss Julia Morkan. Central to the story is late arrival Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta. Very early in the story, Joyce lets the reader know that Gabriel is better educated and of a higher class than most of the other guests: he is a successful university teacher and literary critic, who has moved beyond the circles of music pupils and friends of his aunts. He is in many ways a cosmopolitan snob.
“The Dead,” like much of Joyce’s writings remains somewhat enigmatic. (He is perhaps most famous for producing the world’s most unreadable book, Ulysses.) Is the story about the party or about Gabriel’s inner epiphany that night? The particulars of the setting are less important, I believe, than the understanding of human experience in Gabriel’s character.
From Gabriel’s first appearance at the party, he is uncomfortable and awkward. The entrance of he and Gretta causes a small stir because of his galoshes—a new continental fashion he insists upon. He says the wrong thing to Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, and immediately feels like a fool, offering her a coin to make up for his discomfort, plying it on her as a Christmas present. These two blunders then weigh upon his thoughts about the speech he must give, becoming afraid that his remarks will appear too high class. “They would think that he was airing his superior education. He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry”.
Gabriel is the favorite nephew of Miss Kate and Miss Julia and is looked up to by them because of his education and social position. He is the one dispatched to meet Freddy at the door, to determine how drunk the man is. Gabriel’s worldliness, they know, will allow him to handle the situation with diplomacy and play the role of “man of the house” if need be.