Geographical Poetics 1: James Joyce, ‘The Dead’ (1914)

Space, place, and environment are equally suited to carry meaning within a work of art. The closing scene of Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ has Gabriel Conroy looking out at snow falling over Dublin but his gaze extends beyond the streets of the city and out towards the west so that in his mind’s eye, he can recapitulate the narrative sweep of his failed marriage:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. 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. (Joyce, ‘The Dead,’ in Dubliners (1914))

There is environment, place and space in this passage and each operates both descriptively and metaphorically. The weather, with its blanketing of Ireland in snow is evidently a metaphor for the chill of the recognition that for all his self-importance, he meant less to his wife than did the memory of her youthful lost love, the boy Michael Furey who had stood out in the graveyard in the foulest weather and borne witness to a devotion that imperilled his own life. Nature reflects the state of Gabriel’s own despair, not just in being cold, but also in being silenced by the accumulating flakes, and offering only barren and prickly bushes with no promising sprigs of green.

Many locations are evoked. Certainly, the Dublin of the hotel, and then a set of geographical reference points as the inward gaze of Gabriel takes him across the expanse of the country towards Galway. This is not a journey towards home. There is nothing nostalgic about it. Even the river is evoked as ‘mutinous’. And as we approach the final resting place of the story, there is a deliberate loss of consciousness. Gabriel’s own swoon is matched by the snow twice being described as faint, before the parallel between gravity and death is underlined (‘the descent of their last end’). There is equality in death but it is found only in a ‘lonely’ churchyard. A meaning is being given to this place but if it is a homecoming, it would bring little comfort.

There is space here too, for Gabriel looks out from the colonial capital of Ireland towards the West, the region from which he has been told the Irish revival will surely come. Yet, as he looks out westwards, he sees not a real Ireland preserved against the predations of colonial rule, but rather the land of the setting sun and thus the direction in which his own life was destined. This is no land of eternal youth, no Tír na nÓg resolute against the foreign invader. Rather, he faces the entropy of ageing and the failure to have ever reached the heights of a passion that might justify all that dissolution to come.

The various ways that Dublin and the West might be set in relative contrast set up a grid of spatial relations that can carry significant metaphorical force. And this is perhaps where Romantic Ireland is given its most fatal reading. Gretta’s attachment to the young boy who risked life is perhaps characteristic of a romantic attachment to enervation. Even within this passage, the newspapers are presented as getting things right. This is the urban rationality that Gabriel wanted as his rock. Yet a romantic desire for communion with, or for testimony that extends unto, death, is more than a match for his anaemic good sense. This is perhaps one of those contradictions that produces the general malaise of stasis so characteristic of the sclerotic city depicted in Dubliners.

Gerry Kearns, 12 June 2015

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