"The Dead" by James Joyce

Topics: James Joyce, A Story, Literary theory Pages: 12 (4641 words) Published: August 10, 2013
Critical Essay #2

In the following essay, Garrett offers six perspectives on "The Dead" by applying the principles of six different literary theories.

BIOGRAPHY. Joyce once said of one section of Ulysses, "I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant." Similarly, he inserted in his writings remnants of his own life and environment, so that scholars scour the details of his experience, and the people and places that he knew, for clues to the meaning of his work.

The most famous example in "The Dead" is the tragic love that Nora Barnacle knew in Galway when she was not quite sixteen years old, before she moved to Dublin, met Joyce, and ran off with him. Joyce was jealous of his dead rival, but Nora remembered the love fondly. In a conversation years later she spoke on the subject of "first love": "There's nothing like it. I remember when I was a girl, and a young man fell in love with me, and he came and sang in the rain under an apple-tree outside my window, and he caught tuberculosis and died." The dead boy had worked for the local gas company in Galway where Nora then lived. Joyce not only used that part of Nora's life as a model, but saw Nora as Gretta. He once wrote to Nora: "Do you remember the three adjectives I have used in "The Dead" in speaking of your body. They are these: 'musical and strange and perfumed."' And the bedroom scene in "The Dead" captures Nora's character. Ellman says that "these final pages compose one of Joyce's several tributes to his wife's artless integrity"; she was "independent, unselfconscious, instinctively right."

Do we understand "The Dead" better when we know these things? Why not? It seems a narrow and exclusive sense of understanding to deny this. Joyce put in the story his wife, his dead rival, his city, his language, and elements of his national history. You could construct an interpretation of the text that ignored his wife, just as you could construct an interpretation that ignored Dublin, say, or even the English language (could the series of written marks that we call "The Dead" actually be a secret code that can be used by an Italian-speaking accountant in Trieste to record debits and credits?). But why should we want to be so unkind to the Joyces, or to isolate a literary work from the context of its creation? Joyce himself once said, "Imagination is memory." It would seem unreasonable for me to take my own imaginative interpretation of a literary work seriously without anchoring the interpretation at least in my own memory, and therefore setting it (unless I turn solipsist) in a larger history.

One great difficulty with biographical approaches to art is that we often know so little about the genesis of the work, so little that it is frequently counterproductive to look for personal sources. And our understanding of the work often seems still strangely incomplete even when we think we have found the personal sources. So we often make do with the little that we know, such as that a story is in English, is set in Dublin, and was written in 1907 by a man brought up as a Catholic. There often seems to be a kind of incompleteness to any finite summary of any particular meaning, anyway. And perhaps, given our interests, we do not really need to know too many details from the artist's life or environment.

DECONSTRUCTION. However, since our needs and interests often respond to and build on incompleteness, we might want to focus on a theory that stresses the phenomenon of incompleteness in the meaning of a text. In what way is a deconstructive approach to "The Dead" useful? Are we helped in understanding the story if we take seriously the principles that meaning is endless signification, that all interpretation is misinterpretation, or that all texts say also the opposite of what they seem to say?

Gabriel thinks: "Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than...
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