Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Irish writer James Joyce was born in 1882 in a suburb of Dublin. In his early twenties, shortly after his mother died, he met and fell in love with Nora Barnacle, who was working as a hotel chambermaid. The couple immigrated to continental Europe, where they would raise two children and spend most of their adult lives together in Italy, France, and Switzerland. The family scraped by on Joyce’s income from teaching English — he knew seventeen languages in all — while he struggled to get his writing published. Joyce achieved notoriety in the early 1920s with his novel Ulysses, which takes place in Dublin on June 16, 1904, the day of his first date with his wife. The book was banned in the U.S. for its explicit sexual content until 1933. Joyce’s other novels are A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man and Finnegans Wake. He died in Zürich, Switzerland, in 1941.
“The Dead” is the final story in Dubliners, Joyce’s 1914 collection of tales about the city’s inhabitants. When the excerpt begins, Gabriel Conroy and his wife, Gretta, have just attended a party at which Gretta was transfixed by a song called “The Lass of Aughrim.” As she listened to the music, the awkward and frustrated Gabriel saw his wife for a moment as if she were a stranger and felt a sudden and intense desire. When they arrive at their hotel room later, however, Gabriel is unable to tell his wife how he longs for her and instead makes small talk about a drunk at the party named Freddy Malins.
A ghastly light from the street lamp lay in a long shaft from one window to the door. Gabriel threw his overcoat and hat on a couch and crossed the room towards the window. He looked down into the street in order that his emotion might calm a little. Then he turned and leaned against a chest of drawers with his back to the light. She had taken off her hat and cloak and was standing before a large swinging mirror, unhooking her waist. Gabriel paused for a few moments, watching her, and then said:
She turned away from the mirror slowly and walked along the shaft of light towards him. Her face looked so serious and weary that the words would not pass Gabriel’s lips. No, it was not the moment yet.
“You looked tired,” he said.
“I am a little,” she answered.
“You don’t feel ill or weak?”
“No, tired: that’s all.”
She went on to the window and stood there, looking out. Gabriel waited again and then, fearing that diffidence was about to conquer him, he said abruptly:
“By the way, Gretta!”
“What is it?”
“You know that poor fellow Malins?” he said quickly.
“Yes. What about him?”
“Well, poor fellow, he’s a decent sort of chap, after all,” continued Gabriel in a false voice. “He gave me back that sovereign I lent him, and I didn’t expect it, really. It’s a pity he wouldn’t keep away from that Browne, because he’s not a bad fellow, really.”
He was trembling now with annoyance. Why did she seem so abstracted? He did not know how he could begin. Was she annoyed, too, about something? If she would only turn to him or come to him of her own accord! To take her as she was would be brutal. No, he must see some ardor in her eyes first. He longed to be master of her strange mood.
“When did you lend him the pound?” she asked, after a pause.
Gabriel strove to restrain himself from breaking out into brutal language about the sottish Malins and his pound. He longed to cry to her from his soul, to crush her body against his, to overmaster her. But he said:
“O, at Christmas, when he opened that little Christmas-card shop in Henry Street.”
He was in such a fever of rage and desire that he did not hear her come from the window. She stood before him for an instant, looking at him strangely. Then, suddenly raising herself on tiptoe and resting her hands lightly on his shoulders, she kissed him.
“You are a very generous person, Gabriel,” she said.
Gabriel, trembling with delight at her sudden kiss and at the quaintness of her phrase, put his hands on her hair and began smoothing it back, scarcely touching it with his fingers. The washing had made it fine and brilliant. His heart was brimming over with happiness. Just when he was wishing for it she had come to him of her own accord. Perhaps her thoughts had been running with his. Perhaps she had felt the impetuous desire that was in him, and then the yielding mood had come upon her. Now that she had fallen to him so easily, he wondered why he had been so diffident.
He stood, holding her head between his hands. Then, slipping one arm swiftly about her body and drawing her towards him, he said softly:
“Gretta, dear, what are you thinking about?”
She did not answer nor yield wholly to his arm. He said again, softly:
“Tell me what it is, Gretta. I think I know what is the matter. Do I know?”
She did not answer at once. Then she said in an outburst of tears:
“O, I am thinking about that song, ‘The Lass of Aughrim.’ ”
She broke loose from him and ran to the bed and, throwing her arms across the bed-rail, hid her face. Gabriel stood stock-still for a moment in astonishment and then followed her. As he passed in the way of the cheval-glass he caught sight of himself in full length, his broad, well-filled shirt-front, the face whose expression always puzzled him when he saw it in a mirror, and his glimmering gilt-rimmed eyeglasses. He halted a few paces from her and said:
“What about the song? Why does that make you cry?”
She raised her head from her arms and dried her eyes with the back of her hand like a child. A kinder note than he had intended went into his voice.
“Why, Gretta?” he asked.
“I am thinking about a person long ago who used to sing that song.”
“And who was the person long ago?” asked Gabriel, smiling.
“It was a person I used to know in Galway when I was living with my grandmother,” she said.
The smile passed away from Gabriel’s face. A dull anger began to gather again at the back of his mind and the dull fires of his lust began to glow angrily in his veins.
“Someone you were in love with?” he asked ironically.
“It was a young boy I used to know,” she answered, “named Michael Furey. He used to sing that song, ‘The Lass of Aughrim.’ He was very delicate.”
Gabriel was silent. He did not wish her to think that he was interested in this delicate boy.
“I can see him so plainly,” she said, after a moment. “Such eyes as he had: big, dark eyes! And such an expression in them — an expression!”
“O, then, you are in love with him?” said Gabriel.
“I used to go out walking with him,” she said, “when I was in Galway.”
A thought flew across Gabriel’s mind.
“Perhaps that was why you wanted to go to Galway with that Ivors girl?” he said coldly.
She looked at him and asked in surprise:
Her eyes made Gabriel feel awkward. He shrugged his shoulders and said:
“How do I know? To see him, perhaps.”
She looked away from him along the shaft of light towards the window in silence.
“He is dead,” she said at length. “He died when he was only seventeen. Isn’t it a terrible thing to die so young as that?”
“What was he?” asked Gabriel, still ironically.
“He was in the gasworks,” she said.
Gabriel felt humiliated by the failure of his irony and by the evocation of this figure from the dead, a boy in the gasworks. 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 idealizing 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.
He tried to keep up his tone of cold interrogation, but his voice when he spoke was humble and indifferent.
“I suppose you were in love with this Michael Furey, Gretta,” he said.
“I was great with him at that time,” she said.
Her voice was veiled and sad. Gabriel, feeling now how vain it would be to try to lead her whither he had purposed, caressed one of her hands and said, also sadly:
“And what did he die of so young, Gretta? Consumption, was it?”
“I think he died for me,” she answered.
A vague terror seized Gabriel at this answer, as if, at that hour when he had hoped to triumph, some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him, gathering forces against him in its vague world. But he shook himself free of it with an effort of reason and continued to caress her hand. He did not question her again, for he felt that she would tell him of herself. Her hand was warm and moist: it did not respond to his touch, but he continued to caress it just as he had caressed her first letter to him that spring morning.
“It was in the winter,” she said, “about the beginning of the winter when I was going to leave my grandmother’s and come up here to the convent. And he was ill at the time in his lodgings in Galway and wouldn’t be let out, and his people in Oughterard were written to. He was in decline, they said, or something like that. I never knew rightly.”
She paused for a moment and sighed.
“Poor fellow,” she said. “He was very fond of me and he was such a gentle boy. We used to go out together, walking, you know, Gabriel, like the way they do in the country. He was going to study singing only for his health. He had a very good voice, poor Michael Furey.”
“Well; and then?” asked Gabriel.
“And then when it came to the time for me to leave Galway and come up to the convent he was much worse and I wouldn’t be let see him so I wrote him a letter saying I was going up to Dublin and would be back in the summer, and hoping he would be better then.”
She paused for a moment to get her voice under control, and then went on:
“Then the night before I left, I was in my grandmother’s house in Nuns’ Island, packing up, and I heard gravel thrown up against the window. The window was so wet I couldn’t see, so I ran downstairs as I was and slipped out the back into the garden and there was the poor fellow at the end of the garden, shivering.”
“And did you not tell him to go back?” asked Gabriel.
“I implored of him to go home at once and told him he would get his death in the rain. But he said he did not want to live. I can see his eyes as well as well! He was standing at the end of the wall where there was a tree.”
“And did he go home?” asked Gabriel.
“Yes, he went home. And when I was only a week in the convent he died and he was buried in Oughterard, where his people came from. O, the day I heard that, that he was dead!”
She stopped, choking with sobs, and, overcome by emotion, flung herself face downward on the bed, sobbing in the quilt. Gabriel held her hand for a moment longer, irresolutely, and then, shy of intruding on her grief, let it fall gently and walked quietly to the window.
She was fast asleep.
Gabriel, leaning on his elbow, looked for a few moments unresentfully on her tangled hair and half-open mouth, listening to her deep-drawn breath. 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 watched her while she slept, as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife. His curious eyes rested long upon her face and on her hair: and, as he thought of what she must have been then, in that time of her first girlish beauty, a strange, friendly pity for her entered his soul. He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful, but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death.
Perhaps she had not told him all the story. His eyes moved to the chair over which she had thrown some of her clothes. A petticoat string dangled to the floor. One boot stood upright, its limp upper fallen down: the fellow of it lay upon its side. He wondered at his riot of emotions of an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt’s supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merry-making when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow. Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade with the shade of Patrick Morkan and his horse. He had caught that haggard look upon her face for a moment when she was singing “Arrayed for the Bridal.” Soon, perhaps, he would be sitting in that same drawing-room, dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees. The blinds would be drawn down and Aunt Kate would be sitting beside him, crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died. He would cast about in his mind for some words that might console her, and would find only lame and useless ones. Yes, yes: that would happen very soon.
The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. 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. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. 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.