A few thoughts on James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ (Study Notes)

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James Joyce is considered by many to be the single greatest writer to emerge from the modernist ‘avant-garde’ that took place early in the 20th Century. He strived to convey a more accurate depiction of contemporary life and society than those found in the somewhat rigid formats offered in fiction up until that point. However, Joyce was certainly not alone in his questioning of the purposes of contemporary fiction, or in his quest to find a new, more realistic way to convey what it is to be human. One critic, Parsons, notes that “what had become the conventional forms of fiction seemed inappropriate, even hostile, to the depiction of their contemporary moment”, and people began to question fiction – both the relevance of its content, and the appropriateness of its form.

Amidst the revelations of Darwin and Freud that human beings are simply organic machines that can be reduced down to its subsequent parts, and have the ‘magic’ veil of creation lifted, the advances made through industrialisation that rendered manual labour somewhat redundant in certain areas, and the inescapable shadow of world war hanging over them, this distinctly ‘Victorian’ generation had to find new and innovative ways to express themselves. This meant there was a need for authors to throw off the shackles of the fiction that came before them – as Woolf puts it, to stop “[forcing] the form they [used] to contain a message which [was] strange to it”.

One of the ways authors like Joyce achieved this was through the creative use of narrative perspective (i.e. point of view). For instance, in Joyce’s short story ‘The Dead’ (the last story in his revered collection, Dubliners), the author offers the reader a narrative that aims to portray the subjectivity, chaos and multiplicity of human consciousness in a way quite different to ‘classic’ Victorian fiction. Rather than telling the story strictly from the protagonist’s point of view (i.e. as an internal narrator), Joyce instead employs a heterodiegetic, third-person narrator. His tendency to mimic the linguistic qualities and habits of his characters mean that often, the distinction between narrator and internal character can sometimes be difficult to make.

This can be seen in the opening line of the story: “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet”. The character is not, of course, ‘literally’ run off her feet – a fact of which Joyce would have been very much aware – but by describing her this way, the audience gains a clear sense of her manner of speaking and general personality. It even suggests that she has a certain socioeconomic status and level of education. This is known as ‘psycho-narration’. ‘Psycho-narration’ is where the narrator provides a window into the psyche of the characters, so that the reader knows how they think, feel, speak, behave, and generally experience life.

This is not the only narrative technique that Joyce employs – he also uses ‘interior monologue’ (where the narrator quotes the character’s thoughts directly), and ‘narrative monologue’ (which is where the narrator maintains the third-person reference and tense of narration when presenting the character’s thoughts). Of the three, ‘narrative monologue’ can be understood to be the most traditional, as when it is used, the reader is clear that an external narrator is telling the story. Once ‘interior monologue’ and ‘psycho-narration’ are thrown into the mix, things become a bit more complicated.

Take, for instance, the following passage:

Gabriel hardly heard what she said. Now that supper was coming near he began to think again about his speech and about the quotation… Gabriel’s warm trembling fingers tapped the cold pane of the window. How cool it must be outside! How pleasant it would be to walk out alone, first along by the river and then through the park!…How much more pleasant it would be there than at the supper-table!He repeated to himself a phrase he had written in his review: ‘One feels that one is listening to a thought- tormented music’…Miss Ivors had praised the review. Was she sincere?…Perhaps she would not be sorry to see him fail in his speech.”

(Psycho-Narration: Bold;   Interior Monologue: Italic;   Narrative Monologue: Underline)

Joyce employs a varied blend of techniques here (as is shown by the different formatting styles)…. However, the question has to be ‘why?’ According to one critic, Hagan, Joyce is trying to convey consciousness in an objective manner, much the way a tape recorder or video camera would observe events. This is an idea raised again by Christopher Isherwood – another modernist author – in ‘I Am A Camera’.

However, I would argue that this modernist technique must be understood to be more than simple objectivity, because these technologies are not able to record what we think and feel unless we express it aloud. Thus, the very fact that Joyce breaks down the wall between intra-personal observation that is consciousness and inter-personal observation achieved through cameras and film shows that, to Joyce, whilst consciousness is like technology, it is more than technology: a revelation created by the circumstances of existing in the modern era. Kerner’s arguments support this theory, stating that Joyce realised early that “reality…does not answer to the ‘point of view’… the monocular vision, the single ascertainable tone”.

Thus, it is the singular and rigid nature of fiction that comes under attack in Joyce’s work – this is, in fact, what all modernist writing seeks to reform. Modernist literature can thus be understood as a revolution; a transformation in the way modern Victorians sought to understand themselves, and to translate their experiences into stories. After all, isn’t that what stories are for? A way to convey a little piece of ourselves, and our experience

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