ENG-150: Interpretive Strategies
20 February 2015
Gabriel Conroy’s National Identity and Power in James Joyce's "The Dead"
James Joyce’s intricate short story “The Dead” can be declared as one of the greatest works in Western literature. This short story serves as the final chapter in the collection of stories by Joyce called Dubliners. “The Dead” specifically, considers the complex issues of national identity and power while using historicism, patriarchy and language as a lens for contemplation. These problems can be tied to the deep-rooted political chaos that plagued Joyce’s native Ireland and the social inquires of his time. While using “New Historicist Criticism” by Micheal Levenson and Vincent Cheng’s “Empire and Patriarchy in ‘The Dead’”, the reader further understands the complexity of this short story. In Joyce’s text he uses his narrative to prove that words have their own power especially in the political sphere. In “The Dead”, the protagonist, Gabriel Conroy, unsuccessfully attempts to identify himself with a British man. In doing so Gabriel strives to align him self with superiority and power that he believes lies with the British rule.
The stereotypical hostility between the Irish and British, male and female, and success and failure are exemplified during “The Dead”‘s opening holiday party. The underlining themes of patriarchy and colonialism are exemplified during this simple party as well. For Gabriel Conroy these opposing components produce a society where he struggles with his identity. In his world he cannot be sure of himself as an Irishman or even as a husband to his wife Gretta. In spite of his efforts Gabriel is unsuccessful in separating himself from his Irish and British identity, in turn he cannot relate, communicate or impress the other characters in the short story. Joyce uses Gabriel and the rest of the characters to exemplify the similarities between this protagonist and the complex national identity of those native to Ireland.
In his essay “New Historicist Criticism”, Micheal Levenson inquires over the political implications made by Joyce in “The Dead”. According to Levenson, this short story is socially and politically implicated within the historical context of the time. Thus Joyce’s story should be studied and analyzed while considering the history of the author and also the history of the critic. “Joyce has a political awareness thus history is center of his fiction” (Levenson, 157). Joyce’s writing was heralded by many new historicist critics as sophisticated for its political and social implications. Joyce questions political and historical matters inside of his personal narratives trying to find his personal identity in the social sphere. “The Dead” is then a story of political conflict as well as a personal one. The political conflict during the time of “The Dead” was one of the English colonist vs the Irish revivalists. The revivalists sought to reestablish old Irish culture in a new and diverse nation while the colonist sought to repress them. According to Joyce both of these political stand points were too extreme, there should be no “us vs them”, no desire for a pure race. Joyce’s response was: “he did not see how Ireland, so much a product of long standing English influence, could readily become an independent Catholic culture” (Levenson, 158). Gabriel Conroy thus embodies Joyce’s own “stresses and conflicts” of living with “an unresolved Irish nationality” (Levenson, 157).
In one of the beginning exchanges during the holiday party Gabriel speaks with Miss Ivors a proclaimed nationalist who consequentially flattens Gabriel’s ego and self identity. In this instance Gabriel and Mrs. Ivors represent the two opposing political parties in Ireland. Gabriel represents the fragile, “art loving traditionalists”(Levenson, 166) of a crumbling British identity, while Miss Ivors represents the politically engaged Irish revivalist. “Although at the party she is alone…