Wednesday, December 1, 2004

James Joyce wasn’t always impossible to understand.

I read a short story by James Joyce called "The Dead" today. As one of his earlier works, the story firmly moves literature from the romantic and realistic Victorian era into the age of Modernism. The first part of the story is straight up plot and dialogue (more Victorian than Modern, but skewing Modern), but the second part is where Joyce practices what will play such a huge part in his later work: stream-of-consciousness writing. This part of the story is really amazing to read - we are made aware of the thoughts of the character Gabriel, who is re-realizing how much he loves (or so he thinks) his wife. The language is swift and concise and fluid, mentioning the "secret life" he shares with her of which no one else is a part. This section is incredible. It is a spot-on depiction of what it feels like to want to be close to the person you love.

Characteristic of Joyce, Gabriel has an epiphany at the end of the novel when he realizes two things. First, he does not know what it means to truly love someone, and is thus frozen in his emotional development. This leads to the second, in which he sees the snow falling quietly outside his darkened window and finally sees the connection between the past and the present, the living and the dead.

Gabriel's inability to connect with people is in step with other Modernist characters, most notabily T. S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock. But the uplift at the end of Joyce's story shows a development of character missing in Prufrock. Don't get me wrong, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is one of my all-time favorite poems, and I will defend its greatness at all costs. But the character of Prufrock is stuck in a place of loneliness and isolation, his coffee spoons will forever be his own and the mermaids will never, ever sing to him. There is no happy ending for Prufrock or for mankind in Prufrock's world. Joyce, on the other hand moves Gabriel from disconnectedness to the possibility of new beginnings. He vows to make his "journey westward" and ends on a note of hope.

You can read some great commentary on "The Dead" at SparkNotes.

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