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The Old Gentleman’s Horse: Raising “The Dead”

 

James Joyce’s short story/novella “The Dead” concludes with one of the great passages in English literature. That much was evident to me on first reading. The brilliance of the 13,500-word slog I endured to arrive at the Gresham Hotel and that deathless final paragraph—not so much. Subsequent rereadings imparted a greater appreciation for the music of Joyce’s language and his skill in laying the foundations of Gabriel’s soliloquy. I had clearer images of the Misses Morkan’s annual dance. But I remained none the wiser about why I should wish to attend it. Like Joyce when he wrote “The Dead,” I’d rather have been in Trieste.

Historical context
The totality of “The Dead” didn’t come alive until I did a little research, much of which would have been unnecessary for Joyce’s contemporaries. The political tension that recently tortured Northern Ireland with three decades of troubles was, a hundred years ago, general all over Ireland. Joyce grew up in a beggar colony struggling to emerge from three centuries of draconian occupation. The native Catholic population had repeatedly been decimated by “risings” against British/Protestant overlords, by famine and mass emigration. Poverty and ignorance had rendered the island a polarized backwater, the armpit or worse of Europe.

James was nine years old when the death of Charles Parnell provoked him to a telling response. Parnell, an Irish Protestant member of Parliament, had been wildly popular among Catholics and all who desired Irish Home Rule. The “uncrowned king of Ireland” was a master conciliator. Gladstone praised him as the most remarkable man he ever met. Despite fierce opposition from Unionists and British Conservatives, Parnell almost pushed Home Rule through. But it came out that he lived with a woman officially married to another man. Important Catholic allies deserted Parnell, also known as the Chief, on moral grounds. He soon died of exhaustion while attempting to build a new political coalition.

The Joyces were ardent Parnellites. James commemorated the death in a poem his father John published under the title “Et tu Healy.” James’s younger brother, Stanislaus, later wrote of the poem, now lost:

It certainly was a diatribe against the supposed traitor, Tim Healy, who had ratted at the bidding of the Catholic bishops and become a virulent enemy of Parnell, and so the piece was an echo of those political rancours that formed the theme of my father's nightly half-drunken rantings to the accompaniment of vigorous table-thumping. . . . At the end of the piece the dead Chief is likened to an eagle, looking down on the grovelling mass of Irish politicians from

His quaint-perched aerie on the crags of Time
Where the rude din of this . . . century
Can trouble him no more.

John Joyce lost his tax collector job after Parnell died, and the family slowly spiraled into poverty. But John found ways for his eldest to continue a Jesuit education. James was a prize-winning student, a voracious reader, a prankster and an easily bored egotist who began to doubt received wisdom from whatever source. At sixteen he rejected Catholicism and its moral constraints. (N. p. 39) He came to see Irish nostalgia for bygone glories as a provincial impediment to life in the present. He even tired of the furor for Irish independence. By the time he left Ireland in 1904 the twenty-two-year-old might have applied the sentiments of “Et tu Healy” to himself. Art as it presented to him was his sole unquestioned allegiance. Though he rejected the rude din of Ireland, permutations of youthful experiences in Dublin were the basis of his entire literary career.

An artist with something to say
In 1904 Joyce wrote that his intention for Dubliners was to “betray the soul of that hemoplegia or paralysis which many consider a city.” (J.J. p. 163)  Rejectionist anger tinges the majority of the stories in the book. “The Dead” is different. It comes last in Dubliners and, in 1907, was the last to be written. At the grand old age of twenty-five Joyce was ready to expose the pulsing landscape of a heart torn by Ireland.
  
Annie Dillard notes that fiction writers with “something to say” face the problem that readers generally consider what’s being “said” to be the most dispensable part. Authors may have to downplay what they most want to communicate. She writes:

The perfection of “The Dead” resides in the total disappearance of ideas into their materials. Why this? we ask, as we ask of the great world: Why this, and not some other?
. . . The sentences have in their rhythms an austerity that is complete. They exhibit, by their perfect concealment of it, an absolutely controlled tension, like that of a mastered grief or longing. I suggest that the austerity with which a writer wholly subsumes his thoughts to his fictional materials reminds us of—or is even identical to—the difficult dignity with which some people control strong and private feelings. We are people, and we call this ‘power’; it will always command our respect.

Concern for readers may not have been foremost among the reasons Joyce subsumed his thoughts. Stanislaus Joyce observed, “. . . my brother never cared a rap who read him. I think he wrote to make things clear to himself.” (M.B.C. p. 34) But Dillard’s question remains. Why this? Why the lengthy feast of manners at the Misses Morkan’s party before Gabriel and Gretta arrive at the hotel? The cottage industry that is Joycean studies offers a fascinating range of perspectives on “The Dead.”  But for me, the key to the story is contained in Gabriel’s anecdote about his grandfather, Patrick Morkan, and the old gentleman’s horse.

The old gentleman and his horse
Before Gretta sets him straight, Gabriel incorrectly introduces his grandfather as a glue-boiler. His horse Johnny’s regular job was “walking round and round in order to drive the mill.” One day, Gabriel tells us, the old gentleman decided to attend a military review. He donned his best tall hat and collar and harnessed Johnny to drive him to the event. Here Gabriel makes another error of fact, stating that his grandfather lived in Back Lane, a poor Dublin neighborhood. Gretta again corrects him, saying only the mill was there. Then:

—Out from the mansion of his forefathers, continued Gabriel, he drove with Johnny. And everything went on beautifully until Johnny came in sight of King Billy's statue: and whether he fell in love with the horse King Billy sits on or whether he thought he was back again in the mill, anyhow he began to walk round the statue.
Gabriel paced in a circle round the hall in his goloshes amid the laughter of the others.
—Round and round he went, said Gabriel, and the old gentleman, who was a very pompous old gentleman, was highly indignant. Go on, sir! What do you mean, sir? Johnny! Johnny! Most extraordinary conduct! Can't understand the horse!

A hundred years ago, glue was derived from horse hooves, hides and other animal parts. Gabriel’s first mistake implies that Johnny witlessly participates in the destruction of his own kind. The second mistake places the pompous old gentleman’s ancestral manse in a seedy neighborhood. Patrick Morkan is a poser who drives forth in his finery to humiliation at the statue of King Billy, William of Orange, who forcibly stripped Catholics of land, power and political voice.

Here in distilled form we encounter the tragicomic essence of Joyce’s feelings about his abandoned homeland. The Irish masses—Johnny—persist in acting against their own interests despite attempts by the old gentleman—Irish leaders and intelligentsia—to present a proud and self-determined vision of Ireland. There’s no malice in Joyce’s pen for either figure. Johnny and the old gentlemen are instead hopeless, sad and strangely endearing.

A larger frame
Prior to this anecdote “The Dead” revolves around a variety of thinly disguised characters and situations from Joyce’s past. Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce devotes a chapter to exploring them. What the partiers seem mainly to be celebrating is another year of survival. Their hospitality, small talents, inadequacies and foibles are portrayed with an almost gauzy—snowy?—sweetness. We like the lot of them, excepting perhaps lecherous Mr. Browne. But the crowd is as stultifying as the old gentleman’s horse. We’re clopped around in circles for 10,000 words until we are begging, even pleading, to move on. Joyce has treated us to an exquisitely balanced portrait of mixed feelings. His anger has subsided. Is he now suggesting that he left Ireland because it hurt too much to stay?

Following the account of Johnny and Patrick Morkan, Joyce gradually tightens focus on the old gentleman’s grandson. Gabriel, true to family tradition, considers himself a good and superior man. He looks to the future without neglecting his responsibilities to the common folk. His performance at the party pleases the Three Graces, his aunts and cousin. At party’s end he anticipates some quality lust with Gretta. Might he have been a tad patriarchal and condescending to Lily, the caretaker’s daughter? Did Miss Ivors catch him out as a clueless west Briton? She has no right to say so, even in jest. He can brush aside those faux pas, but Gretta’s distant music will be his undoing.

Poor Michael Furey is modeled on two dead former lovers of Joyce’s common-law wife, Nora. (N. pp. 15-17) Learning about Michael Feeney and Michael Bodkin deflated James. Tossing in an archangel harmonic for good measure, Joyce invests Gretta’s Michael with the passion Gabriel lacks. Gabriel isn’t, however, a direct cutout for his author. Joyce had passion aplenty and wasn’t much of a comfort to anyone, including Nora. If he doubted his adequacy, the source must have been different. He once described his wife as having an untrained mind. (J.J. p. 191) The brash baker’s daughter from Galway had both feet in Dillard’s great world. Joyce’s body, though withdrawn from Ireland, resided with her in that world but his obsession had left it. He preferred the life inside his head. Nora might be forgiven if she occasionally pined for simpler loves.

I imagine both Gabriel and Joyce in somber reflection at the climatic scene. Gabriel turns to the window. Snow is falling faintly and faintly falling as the generations rise and fall in futility toward their last end. The time has come for him to begin his journey westward, whether to death or the more Irish life of Galway we’re not sure.

Joyce, contemplating the miserable push and pull of Ireland’s grip on him, may or may not have been aware that he was choosing door number three. As artist he might still be a flawed old gentleman, but his Johnny need no longer be dear and benighted Ireland. He was already transforming Nora and the old Dublin gang to an interior troupe he would drive into the idiosyncratic labyrinths of Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake.

—Michael Hopping
copyright © 2009 all rights reserved

Sources:

Stanislaus Joyce, My Brother’s Keeper (New York: Viking, 1958) pp. 45-46. 

Brenda Maddox. Nora: A Biography of Nora Joyce. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1989)

Richard Ellmann, James Joyce: new and revised edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983)

Annie Dillard, Living by Fiction (New York: Harper Perennial, 1982) p.161.

James Joyce, “The Dead,” Dubliners: authoritative text, contexts, criticism, ed. by Margot Norris (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006) p. 181.

 

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