This week found me revisiting one of my favorite short stories, James Joyce’s “The Dead” of Dubliners. The story chronicles a new year’s dinner hosted by two elderly sisters and their niece, told from the perspective of their nephew, Gabriel, who is the guest of honor. The story contrasts lively scenes of dancing, merriment and drunkenness, humorous teasing, and fiery contentions of a large social gathering with the cold and somber reflections of one’s own inner monologue. While the party itself is warm and festive, Gabriel’s head is much more morose, wracked by anxiety, suspicion, and feelings of inadequacy:
“‘Ladies and Gentlemen,
“It has fallen to my lot this evening, as in years past, to perform a very pleasing task but a task for which I am afraid my poor powers as a speaker are all too inadequate.”
“No, no!” said Mr. Browne.
“But, however that may be, I can only ask you tonight to take the will for the deed and to lend me your attention for a few moments while I endeavour to express to you in words what my feelings are on this occasion.'”The Dead, pg 137.
The story ends by drawing a parallel between Furey, Gretta’s dead sweetheart and Gabriel, her living husband who feels he has been competing with a ghost for her affections their entire marriage. Prior to this he ruminated on the likely demise of his Aunt Julia, and how so suddenly she could go from the lively hostess, singing at her soiree, to memory present only in the grief of her sister Kate. This sudden crossing carries into Gabriel’s imagery, conjuring a bridge between the sphere of the living and the dead, in which a divide is present that separates them from one another, just as he would like to distance himself from Furey’s influence. Yet, that is impossible once he has the knowledge of his wife’s past affair, and the story ends with a sort of solemn, but peaceful, realization that both groups share one reality, and are equalized in this co-habitation, because upon them both will fall the exact same snow, blanketing their differences.
“The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling… Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”The Dead, pg 152.
This presentation called to mind a similar ending from Disney Pixar’s Coco, shown below.
The film presents the adventures of a boy named Miguel who accidentally curses himself by stealing a guitar on Dia de los Muertos. The Day of the Dead in Mexican culture is very similar to and occurs around the same time as Ireland’s Samhain. Both are a celebration of life and honoring the departed on a night where it is believed the dead cross over to mingle with the living from the Otherworld. For Miguel, this turns out to be a completely modern and vibrant city inhabited by comic skeletons with punchy personalities. Nothing like the haunting figures of Gabriel’s imagination. Miguel teams up with Hector, a drifter, to gain his family’s blessing to be a musician. Similarly to Gabriel, Miguel is very concerned with attaining the approval of those around him, especially by impressing their families. To Miguel, who comes from a family that despises musicians, a dead ancestor’s blessing is his only hope to express himself. But along the way, he discovers not only the truth about his ancestors, but also about himself, and is able to unlock his own self-worth and discover his own approval is that which matters, even after his family changes their mind.
The final scene depicts the holiday festivities, with Miguel serenading his living family. During this time, Hector finally reunites with his loved ones to cross over for the first time, who turn out to be Miguel’s own great grandmother and great-great-grandmother. Though Mama Coco is revealed to have passed away, she is fondly remembered and honored by her daughter and her great-grandchildren before the party begins, unlike Gabriel’s depiction of the awkward and depressing wake for Julia. They arrive at the party and we see in the clip that despite their differences, the Dead still interact with the living, holding them and enjoying the fun. I was particularly struck by the contrast in this end scene and the one of “The Dead.” The party decorations are vibrant, the air looks warm and sweet, and rather than closing indoors on a solitary pair, the whole family communes in the open air.
When Hector takes the guitar from Miguel in order to play alongside his great-great-grandson, it visually dissolves their differences as well. Yet, unlike the macabre tones of the story’s end, the film focuses in on the ways in which love and light can transcend death and familial affection can survive beyond permanent separation as we pass from one life to the next. Music empowers Miguel to finally speak up and use his voice to share his family’s love. The lyrics address them directly, providing a communication and connection which unites the entire generational tree:
Ay mi familia, oiga mi gente“Proud Corazon” by Anthony Gonzales, Disney Pixar’s Coco
Canten a coro, let it be known
Our love for each other will live on forever
In every beat of my proud corazón
The line translates to “Oh my family, listen to me, my people
Sing as a choir,” which shows how Miguel envelops his family into creating a new tradition around music, which they cast out when Hector died. This spans the gap between the two main characters despite all the years between them or their status as skeleton or human. Living or dead, all the family desires is to be together and enjoy one another’s company as Miguel does what Gabriel cannot: he accepts himself, and moves on from the past, enabling him to truly come into his own.