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THE LOVE TRIANGLE IN JOYCE'S 'THE DEAD' JOHN D. BOYD AND RUTH A. BOYD James Joyce's 'The Dead,' by nearly unanimous consent, is thought to be among the greatest works of short fiction in our language. Yet, curiously , despite general agreement about its worth, anyone who has frequently discussed or taught the story discovers that readers differ radically in their interpretations of its essential elements. Key issues of controversy are the nature of Gabriel Conroy's marriage to Gretta, and the tone and implications of the story's climactic scene. These questions are, of course, interdependent: any interpretation of the hotel-room scene depends upon how one has come to understand and to judge Gabriel and his marriage, from the evidence of the preceding narrative. A sensitive reading of the Michael Furey episode is particularly important in clarifying these issues, and is an element often oversimplified in a way that distorts interpretations of the entire story. Clear resolution of these questions must precede appreciation of the work's full complexiry. A frequent tendency in reading 'The Dead' is to exaggerate Gabriel's personal defects, and to deny any authenticity to his relationship with Gretta. It is necessary to insist, as a preliminary to more controversial observations, that one may eaSily rob the story of subtlety and powerful empathetic appeal by overstressing Gabriel's hypocrisy and egotism. It is important to see not merely that Joyce treats Gabriel's nervous selfcentredness charitably Cas too few readers have acknowledged' ), but that Gabriel's degree of selfish weakness is to be regarded as altogether human, normal, and therefore worthy of sympathy without the need for speCial pleading. Gretta speaks truthfully when, in the hotel room, she remarks upon her husband's character: he is a generous person - this remains true even though his generosity, as with most men, comes mixed with other motives and is partly a resnlt of his insecurity and desire to be approved of by others. If his generosity is usually expressed in ways that cost him little, this implies not that Gabriel is inherently incapable of more demanding and self-effaCing forms of it (the end of the story shows that he is so capable), but primarily that the Heeting encounters of social intercourse with friends or acquaintances who are not one's intimates offer little UTQ, Volume XLII, Number 3, Spring 1973 THE LOVE TRIANGLE IN JOYCE'S ''THE DEAD' 203 opportunity for heroism. And so, before that hotel-room scene, Gabriel's generosity is shown in unobtrusive ways: his gift to Lily, after his wellintended remarks fail to please her; his previous loan to Freddy; his kindness to his provincial, slow-witted aunts; his attentions to the excruciatingly boring Mrs Malins, whom no one else thinks of noticing (admittedly , he approaches her partly in order to escape from his unpleasant confrontation with Miss Ivors) ; his offer to take Miss Ivors home, despite his lingering annoyance with her. Along with his other shortcomings, real and imagined, readers often see in Gabriel a neurotic inability to love.2 Such a claim usually seeks support from the signs given at the party that Gabriel and Gretta are two separate and autonomous individuals, whose rapport has its limits. These limits, typically, are exaggerated, and the fact conveniently ignored that married partners do remain separate to some degree, and may manifest , quite as often as do Gabriel and Gretta, failures of sympathy and communication. We do not deny the important clues to the temperamental differences which sometimes stand between the two: Gabriel's literary intellectualism, European aspirations, inhibited mannerisms, and self-consciousness; Gretta's simple ingenuousness, spontaneity, and love for her rustic girlhood homeland in the west of Ireland. The incident of the galoshes can be taken to epitomize their disparity of temperament, as can the contrast between Gabriel's cold rejection of Miss Ivors' Galway invitation and Gretta's enthusiastic response. The 'distant music' tableau symbolizes the same disjunction, and prepares for the more intense shock of separateness to which the hotel episode will expose Gabriel. Nevertheless, one must not overlook equally significant indications of a genuine affection between Gabriel and his wife; indications that each is Sincerely appreciative...


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pp. 202-217
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