There is no doubt that “The Dead” plays a significant role in Dubliners and there are still many debates about it even today: what or who the title hints at and what happens to the central character at the end, for instance. However, most people agree on the main characteristics of the protagonist, Gabriel Conroy: he is insecure2 , restrained3 , socially awkward2 , has “defensive feelings of intellectual and social superiority” (Loomis 150)4 and self-centred.5 In my essay I would like to focus on Gabriel’s irresolute nature and examine it through his conflicts with Lily and Miss Ivors and also through his reactions to Gretta’s story about her first love, Michael Furey.
Gabriel has mentionable ‘quarrels’ with Lily, the servant of Miss Kate and Miss Julia, to whom he only would like to be nice; yet, all his attempts end in failure. He does not know how he should treat the young girl; whether he should behave as her friend or a man superior to her.
The first conflict is right in the beginning of the story. Gabriel finally arrives and Lily precedes him into the pantry where she helps him off with his overcoat. A little conversation develops between them, there. After talking about the weather, Gabriel switches to a more friendly tone and asks her “tell me, Lily, do you still go to school?” (Joyce 123) and “I suppose we’ll be going to your wedding one of those fine days with your young man, eh?” (123). Although Gabriel knows her since her childhood, his questions are too intimate. He acts as though he would know her well and they would be good friends for a long time. The girl responses bitterly to him and Gabriel, “coloured, as if he felt he had made a mistake” (124), realises that it was too much and he cannot even look at her in his embarrassment. Gabriel should have been more tactful as this way he has hurt her, without any intention.
Their other conflict takes place right after the first one. Gabriel would like to correct his mistake, “but instead of apologizing or explaining what he meant”3 , he takes a coin from his pocket to give it to Lily as it is Christmas. “O no, sir! . . . Really, sir, I wouldn’t take it” (Joyce 124) reacts the girl. He has made things even worse by giving her a ‘present’. He wants to show her how generous he is to the lower class; yet, he offends the girl more by treating her as a servant now. It seems that Lily thinks she is more a member of the family, hence finds Mr. Conroy’s gift humiliating. Gabriel claims that his inability to treat the girl adequately is due to his higher education but the fact that he gives her money may suggest that “he relies on the comforts of his class to maintain distance”.3 Gabriel cannot find the safe middle way, thus he is “almost trotting to the stairs” (Joyce 124) at the end to avoid the situation getting even more embarrassing.
Gabriel also has a significant debate with Miss Ivors, with whom he has had a good relationship before. Miss Ivors accuses him of being a “West Briton” as a consequence of her discovery that Gabriel writes for The Daily Express (“a respected and comprehensive newspaper, but one that was decidedly pro-British in its positions”)6 under the name G.C. Miss Ivors, as being a nationalist, emphasises that she is ashamed of Gabriel as he is more loyal to England than to his own country: “Well, I’m ashamed of you . . . To say you’d write for a paper like that. I didn’t think you were a West Briton” (Joyce 130). Gabriel does not feel that writing reviews in a pro-British paper makes him a West Briton but does not know how to react to her charges. He only knows that a “grandiose phrase” would not do. Finally Miss Ivors says: “Of course, I was only joking” (131) and confesses that she does like his reviews, though. He interprets her accusation a personal attack for which he will compensate in his speech later.5
Things are getting even worse later as Miss Ivors asks him whether he and Gretta will go to an excursion to the Aran Isles, which is a symbol for Irish roots and nationalism and thus it is a true representation of whole Ireland).6 Gabriel answers no as he is going for a cycling tour with his friends and adds awkwardly, as he is pushed to tell her where exactly, that “well, we usually go to France or Belgium or perhaps Germany” (Joyce 131). Miss Ivors asks him sharply “and haven’t you your own language to keep in touch with – Irish?” (132) for which Gabriel responses “if it comes to that, you know, Irish is not my language” (132). Miss Ivors accuses him of being uninterested in his own culture and would like to know the reason why but Gabriel answers nothing. For Miss Ivors Gabriel’s silence is unacceptable. She finds nothing is a good reason for ‘neglecting’ one’s own country and language. He cannot stand up for himself and say that it is a false charge. He is interested in it but not the way she is, however, this does not make him a ‘traitor’. His problem is that he cannot explain the reasons of his feelings and also feels uncomfortable as he is obliged to answer in front of a huge crowd.7
Gabriel’s desire to control over others and the happenings around himself derives from his insecurity. A piece of evidence for this is his reaction to the story of Michael Furey. Gabriel watches his wife when she is listening to the music, The Lass of Aughrim that Mr D’Arcy plays and “a sudden tide of joy [goes] leaping out of his heart” (Joyce 148) as he sees her coloured cheeks and shining eyes. Although he does not know the reason why Gretta’s face has changed so much, Gabriel wants to “have control of her strange feelings”.3 After they leave the Morkan’s house, Gabriel intensely longs to “run after her noiselessly, catch her by the shoulders and say something foolish and affectionate into her ear” (Joyce 148-49). He feels an immense desire to possess her, to dominate her. All the way through, when they are getting closer and closer to their hotel, Gabriel thinks about his wife and their life together. He remembers their happiest moments and wants Gretta to forget “the years of their dull existence together” (149). He realises that in the past years romance has disappeared from their marriage. When Gretta gets off the cab, her touch makes him longing for her even more after all those memories that has come to his mind. When they are going up the stairs, he feels that “his arms [are] trembling with desire to seize her” (150). He only feels secure when the happenings around himself are calculable and he ‘determines’ them, that is, he controls them. “Though Gabriel remembers their romantic courtship and is overcome with attraction for Gretta, this attraction is rooted not in love but in his desire to control her.”3 Gabriel imagines what and how will things happen later , however, it does not even occur to him that something may ruin his plans. His keenness to get Gretta is so enormous that he does not even willing to realise that she is tired. He is too sure about his success and this is the reason why he cannot react adequately later.
After they go to their room in the hotel, things are not going according to Gabriel’s plans. Gabriel says to the woman “Gretta!”, as he has imagined in his vision, but the woman does not react the way the man wants. As the woman’s face “looked . . . serious and weary . . . words would not pass Gabriel’s lips” (Joyce 151); he realises that “it [is] not the moment yet” (151). He fears that he would become diffident so he starts talking about Malins who has given his money back; nevertheless, he is not at all interested in that topic, he only feels that he has to talk about something and he is very annoyed by the look on Gretta’s face. He knows that he cannot ‘attack’ his wife and wants her to come to him by herself and “[longs] to be master of her strange mood” (151), to “overmaster her”. At the end Gretta does come to him, by herself, and kisses him for which “his heart [is] brimming over with happiness” (152). He thinks that his wife might feel the same, however, he does not understand why he has become so timid. He manages to make some move towards her, though, but sees that she is still thinking about something and wants to know what it is. She tells him that she is thinking about the song Mr D’Arcy played and then ” [breaks] loose from him . . . [runs] to the bed and [hides] her face” (152). He starts asking her why she has started crying but the answer makes him angry. He tries to be ironic when Gretta talks about the boy who used to sing The Lass of Aughrim but he always fails to reach his goal and feels humiliated by his failure. In spite of the fact that he wants to continue the interrogation in a cold tone, his voice becomes “humble and indifferent” (153). Gretta tells him that Michael Furey was her lover in Galway but he died and Gabriel asks ironically “and what did he die of so young, Gretta? Consumption, was it?” (154); however, he is taken aback by the response and feels that everything is against him. He is holding her hand more and more irresolutely as she progresses in her story till she falls asleep. Finally, Gabriel realises “how poor a part he, her husband, [has] played in [Gretta’s] life” (155) and that he “will never be “master” “.3
This incident is another piece of evidence that Gabriel is not self-assured. He has felt lust for his wife and is secure that everything will go according to his plans; however, when it occurs to him that his wife is not in that mood, at all and that she is thinking about her late lover he does not know what he should do: he becomes irresolute. He cannot react in such an unexpected situation and feels awkwardly. In spite of the fact that Gabriel is Gretta’s husband, he is not acting like that. He does not stand up for himself, his marriage and his feelings. He is not jealous, does not bring her to book, and neither does quarrel with her, even when he has the right to do so. He does nothing at all. He simply cannot cope with the situation. It seems that they have a happy marriage and they do have some feelings for each other, nonetheless, Gabriel cannot show her that she hurts him very much by telling him this story as he is paralysed. He wants her so much but he just cannot express himself, he rather leaves her alone in her grief. He is not at all acting like a man as he cannot handle the problem self-confidently.
After all, we can conclude that the incidents with Lily and Miss Ivors, which lead him to awkward, uncomfortable situations, prove that Gabriel is not a confident person: he is very insecure in certain cases and cannot defend himself even if he will be humiliated. In connection with his wife, Gretta, we can say that by hearing the story of Michael Furey, he is so paralysed that he cannot react in the way a man should: assertively. All in all we can assume that Gabriel Conroy lacks self-assertiveness.
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