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"Who is G. C.?": Misprizing Gabriel Conroy in Joyce's "The Dead"

From: Joyce Studies Annual
Volume 2009
pp. 277-303

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The question—"Who is G. C.?"—that Molly Ivors puts to her dance partner midway through "The Dead" is one that has long engaged the story's critics (D 187). Once a man too newly modern, too inappropriately western, too deeply mired in aesthetics to value spirituality, religion, Christianity,1 Gabriel has become a man too enamored of the privilege afforded him by his gender, occupation, and intellectual prowess to value women—not least his wife. Gabriel the spiritual bankrupt has become Gabriel the chauvinist,2 and a tale of tension between the living and the dead has become one of conflict between Gabriel and "the women." The longstanding scholarly focus on the story's symbolism and language, as reflecting a generalized paralysis, has given way to agile examinations of Gabriel's problematic encounters with various women. Mercilessly trying Gabriel for withholding sympathy that they themselves have denied him, generations of critics have tumbled into the ethical trap that Joyce so neatly set. Declining the invitation to intimacy extended by a narrative style that blurs subject and object, thinker and thought, critic and text, scholars have read Gabriel as critically as he has read his fellow Dubliners. Turning their backs on Joyce's textual hospitality, the story's critics have collectively demonstrated a lack of the "spacious[ness]" that Dubliners' final story was written to convey (D 203).3 The door, however, remains open, for if proximity to the story's central, misprizing4 character tempts judgment, it also compels generosity, enabling readers not simply to encounter but also to experience the psychic confrontation between tradition and modernity and its external correlative—although not an inevitable one—the failure of interpersonality.5

Events at and after the Morkans' party illustrate the social challenges faced, primarily but not exclusively, by Gabriel Conroy, the story's most persistently fumbling—and most closely narrated—subject. An inconsistently reluctant patriarch, Gabriel is, at once, beneficiary and victim of his relatively elevated status in his aunt's home. Still master of ceremonies but now only a ceremonial master,6 he is expected to continue serving as figurehead of a familial-cum-tribal community, but also to adapt his behavior adroitly to nascent social conditions—to have mastered, in effect, a set of as yet unestablished mores. Although Gabriel has long attended the holiday gathering and, like the others there, "know[s] [his] part . . . virtually by rote," on this night he fails to anticipate or to satisfy Lily, Miss Ivors, and Gretta, his wife.7 Confronted by the newly emergent "modern woman" and the proselytizing Irish Ireland movement,8 "trapped" both in and by the "mythomania that so characterizes Dublin life" (Pecora 242, 241) and the paralyzing—deadening—nostalgia on which it depends, Gabriel proves unable to commune with the living, or to imagine into existence a truly modern Ireland.

While Gabriel's predicament is that of a particularly Irish, incipiently modern (hence largely traditional), metrocolonial consciousness,9 and a notably privileged one at that, it is not unique. As Raymond Williams has convincingly argued, "residual," "dominant," and "emergent" patterns of behavior, social norms, and "structures of feeling" are always "at once interlocking and in tension," co-extant yet vying with one another for cultural dominance.10 These competing "traditions, institutions, and formations" constitute a minefield for Joyce's turn-of-the-century subjects, who are beset by emotional distance at every pass (Williams 121). Conveyed through intimate narration, this navigational dilemma is most apparent in the case of Gabriel, although it is by no means unidirectional and by no means his alone.

Its manifestation in the social interactions and psychic life of Stephen Dedalus, as he appears in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), led early critics to read him as sympathetic, and later critics as ironic—reductively, in other words, much as Gabriel has been read. Yet the narrative proximity to the central character in both "The Dead" and Portrait compels an evaluative distance that it also leaves room to resist. The access readers are granted to the private thoughts of Gabriel and Stephen no doubt reveals their strong critical tendencies; but if we eschew oversimplifications of these characters—as...



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