How Much Did James Joyce Base “The Dead” on His Own Family?
Colm Tóibín on the Greatest Short Story Ever Written
When James Joyce wrote the “The Dead,” which eventually became the last story in Dubliners, it was as though he sought to resurrect those whom he had buried with mockery and distancing in an earlier story for the collection, “Grace.” Instead of studying the main character as though for his own amusement, he entered his spirit, allowed him to have a complex sensibility and a rich response to experience.
The story was also based on an event in his father’s life, but this time instead of recounting it, Joyce began to dream it, reimagine it, and offer it a sort of grace that the previous story had significantly lacked.
This idea of fully imagining events that had occurred in the lives of the previous generation is analyzed in the opening of an essay on Seán Ó Faoláin by Conor Cruise O’Brien in his book Maria Cross. In Joyce’s last years in Dublin, both he and his father, Stanislaus, spent time in the house of the Sheehy family, whose father was an MP for the Irish Parliamentary Party, and they got to know some of the daughters in that house, one of whom, Kathleen, was the mother of Conor Cruise O’Brien. The figure of Miss Ivors in “The Dead” was partly based on her.
In much of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s own writing about Ireland, there is a sense of a twilight time after the fall of Parnell and before the 1916 Rebellion when his mother’s family, the Sheehys, held power in Dublin, a time that Cruise O’Brien seemed to inhabit with considerable ease and a sort of longing, a time that is also when Joyce imagined his Dublin.
Cruise O’Brien wrote:
There is for all of us a twilight zone of time, stretching back for a generation or two before we were born, which never quite belongs to the rest of history. Our elders have talked their memories into our memories until we come to possess some sense of a continuity exceeding and traversing our own individual being . . . Children of small and vocal communities are likely to possess it to a high degree and, if they are imaginative, have the power of incorporating into their own lives a significant span of time before their individual births.
This twilight zone of time entered the spirit of “The Dead” in fascinating ways, as Joyce set his story not only in an imagined past but also in an imagined future. In the time between writing “Grace” and writing “The Dead,” scrupulous meanness in Joyce gave way to a hesitant, hushed generosity. In abandoning his siblings’ version of his father, he managed to release a great deal of psychic energy, which allowed him then to experiment with form and style, to move subsequently from the hesitant and the hushed into a fictional system that was brave and comic and untempered by caution.
He had not attended those parties in Usher’s Island, the parties described in “The Dead.” In My Brother’s Keeper, Stanislaus wrote: “My father and mother had many friends in Bray and in town, and at about Christmas time and New Year they often went up to dances in Dublin and stayed overnight at a hotel, as the Conroys do in ‘The Dead.’” He also noted that his father had a “glib tongue” as a public speaker. “As for his ‘gift of the gab,’ excepting the literary allusions which Gabriel Conroy considers above the head of his listeners, the speech in ‘The Dead’ is a fair sample, somewhat polished and emended, of his after-dinner oratory.” In his biography of Joyce, Richard Ellmann wrote:
The other festival occasions of [James Joyce’s] childhood were associated with his hospitable great-aunts, Mrs. Callanan and Mrs. Lyons, and Mrs. Callanan’s daughter Mary Ellen at their house at 15 Usher’s Island, which was also known as the “Misses Flynn school.” There every year the Joyces who were old enough would go, and John Joyce carved the goose and made the speech.
The quarrel between Gabriel and his mother about his marriage in “The Dead” has elements of the quarrel between John Stanislaus and his mother when he married May Murray.Gabriel is a teacher, as James Joyce was. He has cosmopolitan tendencies rather than nationalist sympathies, as Joyce did.
However, the figure of Gabriel has elements in common with James Joyce himself as well as his father. Gabriel writes book reviews for the Daily Express, as Joyce did. His wife is from the west of Ireland, as Nora Barnacle was.
Gabriel is a teacher, as James Joyce was. He has cosmopolitan tendencies rather than nationalist sympathies, as Joyce did.
Ellmann also suggested, using Stanislaus Joyce as a source, that there could be another model for Gabriel, a friend of Joyce’s called Constantine Curran, and he offers some possible evidence for this, including Curran’s uneasy personality and the fact that Gabriel’s brother in the story is called Constantine.
But it is more likely that Joyce found details wherever he needed them. He was not working from precise models. He began by imagining that house on Usher’s Island, and the twilight time for him when his parents, as a glamorous young couple that he saw depart from the house in Bray, went there, a couple united in their love of song, gifted with good singing voices. He gave his father a rich dignity in the story. It is Freddy Malins who was drunk, not Gabriel. He imagined his parents’ night in all its glowing detail; he saw who else was there; he saw how the evening moved and how it ended.
He saw this so clearly that he entered its spirit until he began to walk himself in those rooms in the footsteps of his father. He saw his own partner Nora Barnacle there in the place of his mother, or in the guise of his mother. He saw himself in the guise of his father. He merged his own spirit with that of his father, as he would do later with the river at the end of Finnegans Wake: “it’s sad and weary I go back to you, my cold father, my cold mad father, my cold mad feary father”; as he invokes his father in the very last lines of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.”
He moved both himself and his father out of time in “The Dead.” To do this, he needed to make a third character, who is the writer of the story, who, as Joyce with the white page in front of him attempts this grand act of emotional recuperation, wavers in his style, begins in a tone of pure colloquialism, like someone casually telling a story, and ends in a tone of high artifice that is close to the language of pre-Raphaelite poetry or Victorian prayer. It begins with the isolated figure of Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, who quickly disappears, and ends with “all the living and the dead.”
In between, the point of view and the texture of noticed things in the story shift and change. And Gabriel’s very uneasiness, his watchfulness, his in-betweenness, operate as a writer does who is attempting to do something new. Nothing is lost on him, least of all his own sense of inadequacy, his own sense of need. Just as Gabriel is unsure that his speech is suitable for the occasion, the story itself is unsure, unwilling to settle into a single tone.
Gabriel is tentative, as much a ghost as Michael Furey is. He is caught between two identities, his Irish one and his efforts to escape insularity, as Joyce is caught now between two visions of his father, the one he knows and remembers, and the other that he wishes to bring into being in order to rescue his imagination from a sense of narrow grievance that is capable only of debasing and maiming that same imagination.
The opening sentence of the second-to-last paragraph of “The Dead” reads: “Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes.” In the mixing of his own sensuality with his imagination of his father’s sensuality, in allowing his own ghost to mingle with that of John Stanislaus Joyce, he banished his scrupulous meanness and performed an act of generosity. He rescued himself for the work that he would now make. But it was still tentative. There is a wonderfully tender passage in Joyce’s Stephen Hero, the early version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, when Stephen the son, who is attending university, asks his mother if she would like him to read out to her an essay he has written on Ibsen. When she assents: “Stephen read out the essay to her slowly and emphatically and when he had finished reading she said it was very beautifully written but that as there were some things in it which she couldn’t follow, would he mind reading it to her again and explaining some of it.”
When he has finished, she expresses an interest in reading Ibsen’s best play. “But do you really want to read Ibsen?” Stephen says. His mother replies: “I do, really.” A few moments later, she says: “Before I married your father I used to read a great deal. I used to take an interest in all kinds of new plays.”
Excerpted from MAD, BAD, DANGEROUS TO KNOW by Colm Toibin. Copyright © 2018 by The Heather Blazing, Ltd. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.