People interact with art for many different reasons, and one of those reasons is the transformation that a person’s intellectual and emotional state go through when using art. Books that have turned into movies have grown in popularity because of their ability to take the emotional feelings that have been created through a text and shape them to be recreated by the physical settings and description the text provides. This claim is similar to what Professor Fowler discusses in her work Art and Orientation. On page 596 and 597 Fowler states, “The usual motive of a person who turns to art, be it verbal, visual, or aural, is a desire for the virtual experience it offers…fiction provides this primary experience.” People read to escape, and authors understand that. Embedded in texts are cues for our mind and body to move through the text as if it were a physical location, “Art invites us by means of real and virtual sensory experience, into emotional or intellectual states and attitudes that combine into sequences” (Fowler 597). A story’s setting becomes that more important, and James Joyce’s The Dead follows this idea. The physical setting and movement in The Dead contributes greatly to the reader’s takeaway of the story, it creates tension, awkwardness, and unease in the reader which leads the reader to search for a resolution that will alleviate the tension and formulate a conclusion that will increase meaning of the story for the reader. This claim will also be supported with the physical space witness at the house which James Joyce based the setting of The Dead on.
Throughout The Dead the reader encounters situations which create awkwardness from physical situations that do not match the spatial or emotional ideas that are occurring. The story begins with just a situation like this, “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet” (Joyce 151). Upon first impression of the story the reader is already encountering a sort of bustling-chaos that Lily is dealing with at the entrance of the house which creates a form of unease. It is also important to note that the story begins at the entrance of the house, following the first line a description of the hallway and pantry is noted. Fowler states on page 559, “…recall that buildings have an interface with the human bodies of their users, and that that interface is an important locus of design and analysis.” This is important to consider for Joyce’s opening of The Dead because when the text is closer inspected, it is realized that Lily really wasn’t run off her feet. The dinner party that is central to this text has been occurring for a number of years, “For years and years it had gone off in splendid style as long as anyone could remember”, so it would seem that Lily would be able to handle herself at the door (Joyce 151). Just as well, when at the physical house where The Dead is based off of it is apparent to see that the hallway, while not extravagant, is able to accommodate a large number of people. When our class shuffled in we were all able to file into the next room all while greeting Brendan Kilty and taking off our coats. This creates a discrepancy between the text and the way a body is oriented in the hall which continues to add to the awkwardness.
The time of year also is important to consider in this piece, as it is thought to have occurred on January 6th which is not even a week into the new year. Awkward situations occur most frequently when Freddy Malins arrives, “Besides they were dreadfully afraid that Freddy Malins might turn up screwed…and when he was like that it was sometimes very hard to manage him” (Joyce 152). This is important because “…his poor mother made him take the pledge on
New Year’s Eve” (Joyce 160). Freddy Malins has made a resolution to give up the drink, but in 6 short days (or possibly sooner) he has already reverted back to selective moments of sobriety. The gossip about his new year’s resolution makes it awkward for a reader who reads through his over the top compliment of Aunt Julia’s singing performance. When someone vows to make a change for the coming New Year it is always interesting to see if they really will follow through with it. When we toured the house on January 6th I reflected on my own New Year’s resolutions and realized how little of an effort Freddy Malins must have given to have not even made it a week before he gave up sobriety.
Walking up to the second floor of the house we entered a large room with a chandelier and a square piano. This was where the dancing would take place. When considering the room size our whole group was able to stand comfortably inside, but what about a group’s ability to dance within those walls? Brendan Kilty mentioned that when Yeats and Lady Gregory came to view the house he had asked them to perform the Quadrille to see if there really was room and they were able to successfully. Imagining this room contributes greatly to the part with Miss Ivors and Gabriel. The French dance, Quadrille, is a slow dance which intertwines partners. In a room of that size depending on how many other couples were dancing as well there would be enough room for Gabriel and Miss Ivors to have their conversation in a hushed manner all the while putting on a warm show and front for the other people, “When their turn to cross had come he was still perplexed and inattentive. Miss Ivors promptly took his hand in a warm grasp and said in a soft friendly tone: -Of course, I was only joking” (Joyce 163). The text and dancing create two different orientations of what is occurring in the story. Miss Ivors carries on the dance as if between two friends, which is how it can be seen, but her words negate the warm demeanor
that is thought to be shown. This moment is especially awkward for Gabriel, and when Miss Ivors leaves the party despite the protests it leaves many unanswered questions for the reader.
Lastly, the ultimate unease and awkward situation is when after Gabriel and Gretta speak of Michael Furey and Gabriel settles in the bed next to his wife. The last pages of the text builds tension between Gretta and Gabriel. Before they say their goodbyes to the dinner party Gretta stands on the staircase listening to Mr. D’Arcy sing, and Gabriel looks on and watches her, but at first does not know it is his wife, “A woman was standing near the first flight, in the shadow also. He could not see her face but he could see the terracotta and salmon pink panels of her skirt which the shadow made appear black and white. It was his wife” (Joyce 182). This lack of recognition is curious, and could foreshadow the lack of connection between the Conroys that Gabriel thinks about later in the evening. After viewing the stairs though, the way they twist makes one realize it could completely be possible that Gabriel really couldn’t see her face and was only when he really looked was he able to make out that it was his wife. The text does work here to create some distance between the couple, physically on the stairs as well as emotionally with the connection of the song. When they arrive at the Gresham they talk of Michael Furey and after Gretta cries herself to sleep, Gabriel settles next to her, “He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife” (Joyce 193). In terms of orientation this is a very strange manner of position for a husband to take. The use of the word cautiously feeds into the awkward feeling of distance that has occurred between the two, and yet if he really meant all of the conflicting emotions he has about how close they really are he wouldn’t have taken such an intimate position of lying next to his wife.
All of these situations create an awkward and uneasy feeling in the reader which forces the reader to search for a solution to these feelings, just as Gabriel does in the ending of the
story. The main question though, would be if the story truly has a resolution and what it would be? Through the text and the orientations that are given, there is no real resolution to the story, but it is the search for a resolution that gives meaning to the reader and the story. Without this uneasiness the reader would be content with what is occurring in the story and there wouldn’t be a need to contemplate the ending further and it is the ending paragraphs that make this story one of the greatest. The reader identifies with Gabriel, who is trying to reach for a conclusion about life and it is this big picture reflection that the reader is doing as well and leads to such an impactful ending.
In conclusion, there are many areas in James Joyce’s The Dead which bring up awkward, uneasy, and tension filled moments that lead a reader to have unanswered questions. The conflict of orientation and text fuel this. The physical setting of the house on Usher’s Island contributes to this idea of conflict by negating some of the texts suggestions and agreeing with the underlying message, such as Lily not really being run off her feet because of the large space of the house’s entrance and the habitual dinner party, Freddy Malin’s shortcomings on his New Year resolution, the conflict of Miss Ivors warm dance and sharp words, and the distant feelings and intimate positions that are shared between Gabriel and Gretta. It is because of these ideas that the reader searches for an answer that is not available at the end of the story and is able to create their own meaning from the powerful last paragraphs, thus taking away a greater sense of understanding from the story than they would any other way.