Sunday, February 24, 2013

One by one, they were all becoming shades

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 hyper-educated as it is, will lack those qualities of humanity, of hospitality, of kindly humour which belonged to an older day.

Can we not say the same today? The Dead, by James Joyce, was originally published in 1914. I'd never read Joyce until a few weeks ago.

It was fully engrossing, funny and poignant, and, contrary to my expectation of Joyce, not at all hard to read.

The story takes place during a holiday party. Tension mounts from the beginning, and the reader prepares for a secret to be revealed, but it's not at all clear where that secret resides — the maid, the old aunts, Gabriel's past? Is it political, to do with the Irish nationalist in attendance? Will it fall from the lips of the drunk? And who are the eponymous dead?

One by one, they were all becoming shades.

The secret, it turns out, is much quieter than the possibilities Joyce forced me to consider, but no less devastating for the characters involved.

He watched her while she slept, as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife. His curious eyes rested long upon her face and on her hair: and, as he thought of what she must have been then, in that time of her first girlish beauty, a strange, friendly pity for her entered his soul. He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful, but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death.

I read somewhere that Gabriel is generally considered pathetic. But I don't see that. He seems to me to act like an outsider, though he is very much the centre of this story, and very near the centre of the social circle gathered this night. But he is not in his skin, and he questions himself. He is highly sympathetic.

While I think the ultimate revelation is somewhat prosaic, the turmoil Gabriel experiences is intensely human and believable. The emotional complexity that is conveyed is stunning, oh so male, and soul-wrenching, and for this I look forward to reading more Joyce.

Gabriel is of that thought-tormented, hyper-educated new generation, and it is difficult for him, but he does well to find within him kindness.

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