Featured Photo Source: Frank Shovlin’s Journey Westward: Joyce, Dubliners and the Literary Revival, Oxford University Press
In James Joyce’s “The Dead,” protagonist Gabriel often appears to be politically torn with beliefs not always fully solidified. At one point during the night, Gabriel tells Miss Ivors, “I’m sick of my own country, sick of it” (Joyce 190). However, Gabriel can’t seem to explain to Miss Ivors why he feels this way, and perhaps he can’t even explain it to himself. True to reality, Gabriel’s beliefs appear to waver and his confidence dwindles in and out. Readers feel all of this very deeply with Joyce’s implementation of free indirect discourse which continuously collapses the boundaries of the private, rendering Gabriel’s anxieties very fluid. With Gabriel’s faltering political views and anxieties in mind, I am curious as to how others interpreted one of the story’s final lines:
“The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward” (Joyce 225).
What do you think is meant by this journey westward? Since the next lines maintain Ireland in its discussion, I read it as Gabriel’s journey to explore and embrace his country again. He goes on to discuss the mention of snow all over Ireland and mentions western parts of Ireland including the Shannon River. These lines could suggest that Gabriel will go west to the Aran Islands where he told Miss Ivors he would not go. Or perhaps westward to where Galway is, a place that will take his thoughts to where Michael Furey rests and where his wife is from. Like Yeats’ Innisfree, the west of Ireland served as a powerful source of mythologizing, so perhaps Gabriel’s outlook at the story’s end will eventually align him closer to Miss Ivors and a stronger nationalist disposition. Like the falling snow interwoven between these lines, maybe Gabriel will not just embrace Ireland, but also fall in love with it. I find this likely, especially considering Gabriel longs to be alone in the park in nature twice during the night when his nervousness increases.
Or on a more morbid note, perhaps the westward journey means that Gabriel will travel west to the ocean and find death or west to the setting sun’s darkness. Maybe Gabriel finds himself darkened and obscured by the place that can’t be seen, the gnomon mentioned at the very start of Dubliners. On a less morbid note, Gabriel’s westward journey could implicate traveling to America to find a new life. But as we have discussed, there is no answer to the questions posed by Joyce’s language and his characters. Our discussion will continue to be cluttered with many a perhaps and maybe. And perhaps one of the most telling signs of a good story is one that makes you worry about the outcome of a fictional character who can’t seem to remain within the pages of a book but is instead taken to live in the memory of the reader.
Feel free to listen to the beautiful final lines of “The Dead” while watching snow cover tombstones here: