"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."
New York City got its first snow today, calling to mind perhaps the most famous last paragraph in all of literature: James Joyce's "The Dead." How appropriate, on January 6, the day on which the story is set. A post from my archive.
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For many, the Day of "The Dead" is el Dia de los Muertos.
For me, it’s January 6. Little Christmas. Twelfth Night. The Feast of Three Kings, the day to reread and savor the final story in James Joyce’s Dubliners and so experience Epiphany in all its meanings.
The word epiphany comes from the Greek “epiphaneia” meaning “manifestation." The feast originated in the Greek Orthodox faith, there called Theophany, and it celebrates when the Christ child’s divinity shone through his humanity, as acknowledged by the Magi’s adoration.
James Joyce is generally credited with the crossover of such a religiously charged word to secular life and literature. A Google search brings this definition: Epiphany in fiction, when a character suddenly experiences a deep realization about himself or herself; a truth that is grasped in an ordinary rather than a melodramatic moment.
Leave it to the angry Irish Catholic apostate—taught by the Jesuits at Belvedere College, a willing devotee of Aquinas—to be attracted to the Greek-inflected word and the sheer power of an idea manifested into some type of discernible reality.
Joyce explored his own secular theology of epiphany in Stephen Hero—an early sketch for A Portrait of the Artist, which he hoped to publish as a novel that never happened. From that sketch: “By an epiphany he [Stephen Hero] meant 'a sudden spiritual manifestation,’ whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.”
The Little Christmas Party at Aunt Kate's
And so it is with extreme care that Joyce brings us the annual Little Christmas party at Aunt Kate’s Dublin home, where he captures “the most delicate and evanescent of moments” for the ages. The life in the story is deep and textured—-every sense is engaged, history swirls, humor abounds; we are rooted in place and time by specific references and stirred by timeless emotions. You can read the masterpiece here, and Wallace Gray’s notes are an excellent, down-to-earth guide to the references.
There are many epiphanies in this story, and much is made of Gabriel’s decision that “The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward”—to connect again with his Irish soul and not travel out to Belgium or Germany—in what is one of the most famous last paragraphs in literature.
Gabriel’s first reaction to Gretta’s mood after hearing The Lass of Aughrim is “He longed to be master of her strange mood.”
He suffers through terrible emotions in their hotel room. His lust for Gretta quickly decays to anger when she mentions the boy in Galway from many years ago:
“While he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another. A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror. Instinctively he turned his back more to the light lest she might see the shame that burned upon his forehead.”
Oh Gabriel—all that self doubt, all that horrible self criticism because you think that Gretta is comparing you to another. It’s not about YOU. She’s simply filled with a memory of her own past. Please let her have that part of her life, and don’t punish her for it.
And then, Gabriel does just that.
“Gabriel, leaning on his elbow, looked for a few moments unresentfully. . . So she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake. It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life.
“He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover's eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.
“Generous tears filled Gabriel's eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love.”
From that realization, Gabriel’s soul is opened, and once that happens, anything is possible.
Joyce leaves us in silver shadows, in the peace of falling snow that unites the living and the dead. Critics disagree as to whether Gabriel is spiritually dead at the end, or if now that he realizes he has never fully lived, something more is possible.
At each year’s reading, I like to think that Garbriel and Gretta go on to happier, more deeply conscious lives with each other. But it remains a serious question: do we ever know even the person who most intimately shares our life?
That reminds me, I'm supposed to meet Steed at a warehouse, something about a dead agent with a pair of stilts. Must run.
[photos from John Huston's excellent film adaptation of The Dead.]