A Freudian Reading of James Joyce's "The Dead"
Sigmund Freud once said that the Irish are the only people who can't benefit from psychotherapy. Despite this, I remain undaunted by the challenge of psychoanalyzing the character of Gabriel Conroy in James Joyce's short story "The Dead," from his 1914 collection Dubliners. In this story, we are invited to a party on Twelfth Night, the eve of the Epiphany. This is significant in itself as much of Joyce's work—and in particular this one—revolves around the idea of the epiphany. Deriving from a Greek dramatic term (from epi- "upon, on, top" and the verb feinien "to shine") used to denote when a god appears to restore order from chaos and later used by Christians to label the Incarnation, it is defined by Joyce as "a sudden spiritual manifestation… The soul of the commonest object… seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany" (Shwarz, 66). It is a sudden shining down of reason, a realization of your situation. It is akin to when one has a psychological breakthrough in therapy, when the superego replaces the id, giving one a well developed ego; an association between Freud and Joyce is no stretch of the imagination.
First, a Freudian primer. There are three components to the human mind: id, superego, and ego. The id is the primitive, libidinous, unrestrained urges for the pleasure principle. In order for a person to function in society, in order for there to be a society, the id must be repressed and rechanneled by the superego into an acceptable form, such as artistic endeavors. When this is successful, the person emerges with an ego (Greco-Latin for "I")—not our term of an arrogant person, but one with confidence to function in society. It’s rather like a mathematical equation:
-------------------- = Ego
When the superego takes over, we have a conscience. If it works overtime, though, we have a guilt complex; if undertime, we are irrational and impulsive. In either case, we are unsuccessful in negotiating a working ego and are reduced to neurosis (Eagleton, 139-140).
The story is of a Christmas party thrown by three elderly sisters, and attended by, among others, their nephew Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta. At the party, we get a feel for the character of Gabriel: an unconscious man who stumbles about his life, imagining his greatness as defined by his jobs as a high school teacher and small-time book reviewer of no real importance. He holds these positions, the fact that he went to the University, and that he is seen as the sole support for his aunts (he helps to get them music students) as ways to look down on others, to placate his ego (here "ego" is not meant in the Freudian term—the reasoned self—but as the colloquial term). This need for self-aggrandizement is the result of unresolved issues with his mother and her belief in the class structure. His mother’s disapproved of Gabriel’s marriage to Gretta (like Joyce’s mother’s disapproval of his wife Nora Barnacle; Gabriel is an alterego of Joyce, a fear of what Joyce might have become had he not left Dublin (Shwarz, 102-4)), a girl from Connacht, the western country of Ireland, a poor land with little formal education (Joyce, 30). Mrs. Conroy apparently emphasized such ideas on class structure—associating with those in your own caste, especially in marriage—as evidenced by her sending Gabriel to the University (ibid), and by his later, adult arrogance about those with less education: for instance, Gabriel feels his speech, because it mentions the poetry of Robert Browning, will go over the heads of those at the party, and ought to rely on lines "from the Melodies" which I assume are like simple operettas (Joyce, 24). He indulges in things from the Continent such as goloshes (sic) so as to emphasize his comparative wealth. Mrs. Conroy’s influence on her son can be inferred from both his reaction to her presence in a photograph mentioned in the story (he is disturbed by her in a domineering pose with his brother Constantine) and the fact than once, he had the passion to stand up to her and marry Gretta (Joyce, 30; Shwarz, 111). But where is that passion now?
The question of passion and sex is a main theme in the story, though not evident until nearly the end. After hearing a song played at the party, Gretta tells Gabriel how, when she was still a girl living in Connacht, she was in love with a boy named Michael Furey (an appropriately angelic name, Michael opposing Gabriel, a fury to his ego), a seventeen year old singer who died of consumption after waiting for her in the rain as she prepared to leave for a Dublin convent. The song triggered the memory of the boy for her, and it torments Gabriel with jealousy that she had a love before him and presumably wasn’t a virgin.
Whereas Michael gave up his life for the love of Gretta, Gabriel sacrifices that love for positions of minimal power (as a teacher, a reviewer, and a "pennyboy" who supports his aunts). It is a sublimation of the neurotic kind, where he displaces connubial love with work and the approval of his aunts (an Oedipal feature seems to run throughout the piece, with his devotion to his aunts, fear of strong, emasculating women like Miss Ivors, and his unresolved issues with his domineering mother). Instead of a healthy sublimation of the libidinous id through art, he makes a mockery of it. Sublimation is evident in story’s emphasis on the relationship of music and love: the relatives of Gabriel (his aunts and cousin), who are unsexual in being, teach music as an outlet of frustration, as well as having many paintings throughout the house, another form of sublimation. Gabriel is unresponsive to artistic endeavors—he doesn’t understand his wife’s reaction to the song which reminds her of Michael, and he doesn’t understand the paintings of Romeo and Juliet's death (Joyce, 30). He even remarks that his mother had no skill for music, a trait evidently passed onto her son (ibid). Whereas others may channel their frustrations into books, Gabriel can only review that channeling, can only listen to Gretta’s story—he cannot truly understand what the person is going through. The passion he once may have felt was sublimated in an unhealthy workaholic attitude that leaves no time for creation, only passive reception.
At one point in the story, Gabriel is questioned by Miss Ivors, a political radical and fellow teacher, about why he works for The Daily Express, a British paper. She needles at his disloyalty to Ireland, inviting him to the western lands of Ireland, when finally he declares, "Oh, to tell you the truth, retorted Gabriel suddenly, I’m sick of my own country, sick of it!" He gives no reason why, even after Ivors questions him about it in detail (Joyce, 32). However, there is a deeper, psychological meaning to why he hates Ireland, in particular the western lands. Gretta and Michael exhibit a healthy sublimation and relationship with sexuality, and together represent to Gabriel the western lands of Connacht. Connacht is for him equated with sex, and he is filled with sexual guilt because of his inability to successfully sublimate his id. Moreover, Connacht is also a symbol of poverty, and his mother’s disapproval. He is fearful of his mother, and is guilty over his marriage with Gretta, which his mother disapproved. His hatred of Ireland is quite obvious—there is an answer, only it needs to be guided through a psychoanalysis. His superego is out of whack, unable to repress the id in a meaningful way, and so there is no realized ego, but only an egotism, expressed by his placing emphasis on wealth, educational, and filial piety.
The final scene of the book is his awakening, his realization of his failure at love and artistic achievement—the epiphany. Leaving the party, they take a room at a hotel—the room is described as small, square and box-like, with a ghostly light from the street—the perfect image of a mausoleum. Here, the story of Gretta and Michael is told after a failed attempt at lovemaking. Gabriel realizes he can’t possess her, and grows in jealousy as she falls to sleep.
In the silence of the room, he begins to go over the events of the evening, and so, for once objective, he begins to see the night for what it was: "From his aunt’s supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merry-making... Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade… He had caught that haggard look upon her face for a moment when she was singing Arrayed for the Bridal." The relationship between sex and death becomes quite clear. It is the Eros-Thanatos struggle popularized by Freud, the idea that we are obsessed with. "The final goal of life is death, a return to that blissful inanimate state where the ego cannot be injured. Eros, or sexual energy, is the force which builds up history, but it is locked in tragic contradiction with Thanatos or the death drive" (Eagleton, 139). Ironically, the most sexually healthy character is the one who dies--Michael gave his life for his love, giving into the Thanatos when the Eros couldn’t be fulfilled. Gabriel realizes this sad fact, and so heals himself in this epiphany—death comes for all, and so we must treasure that which we have and those we hold close, before the snow, white like death, covers us all, "the living and the dead."
Eagleton, Terry. "Psychoanalysis." Literary Theory: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Minnesota: Minnesota Press, 1996: 131-168.
Joyce, James. "The Dead." The Dead: Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from Five Contemporary Critical Perspectives. ed. Daniel R. Schwarz. New York: Bedford Books, 1994: 21-58.
Shwarz, Daniel R. "A Critical History of ‘The Dead’." The Dead. ed. Daniel R. Schwarz. New York: Bedford Books, 1994: 63-84.
----- "Gabriel Conroy’s Psyche: Character as Concept in Joyces’ ‘The Dead’." The Dead. ed. Daniel Shwarz. New York: Bedford Books, 1994: 102-124.