No other composer has had so profound an influence on literature as Richard Wagner. It is often in conscious imitation of Wagner that modernist writers use recurring symbolic leitmotifs, both in fiction (Thomas Mann) and in verse (T.S. Eliot). As a result of the modernists' exhaustive exploitation of them it is hard to use motifs in fiction today without seeming to fall back on a tired machinery. Similarly, as we teach students to discern motifs in fiction, we may come to feel that we are transmitting only a shallow and mechanical response to the texts, one that cannot reach those qualities of language and vision which mark a text as literature. In each original text these qualities pose an enigma to the critics, demanding from them an effort of refined articulation, which may amount to a redefinition of literature. Joyce's works have found many exegetes and commentators, but they may not yet have found the major critical response that would reveal just how they have changed the essence of literature. The thought that the significance of Joyce's art still leaves such space for questioning encourages me to hope that it is not entirely futile to venture the following remarks on a much-annotated story. I shall suggest that the use of motifs is as essential to Joyce's art as to Wagner's, and that it serves to open up the surface action of the narrative (the plot) to a vast, deep background, so that the literary treatment of the stuff of everyday life transfigures and sacramentalizes it (as Stephen Dedalus might say), lending to every word and gesture of the characters an epiphanal status.
Proust's novel is the classic of literary Wagnerism. The motifs he deploys are specifically musical, words or phrases that linger in the ear (notably the carefully chosen proper names); they are not merely symbolic, but melodic as well. As in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande (which Proust could hear in his darkened bedroom, thanks to the Opéra's ‘théatrophone’ service), these haunting figures form a reservoir of allusions, which the lightest touch will set vibrating, so that each incident in the plot is given a penumbra of significance and resonance, a spiritual or even cosmic extension. The motifs are perpetually transformed and re-orchestrated, and enter into polyphonic combinations. But Proust has learned from Wagner something about musical structure as well as texture, for the motifs function within a vast architecture which lends them a potent dramatic impact.
Let me quickly recall some aspects of the musical structure of À la recherche du temps perdu: An overture strikes up the main themes of the work (1988 Pléiade edition, I 3-9), and is recalled at the end of the Combray section (I 183-4). The entire opening section (I 3-47) is echoed in the climactic series of epiphanies (IV 445-62), much as in the Ring Cycle the initial Rhinegold motifs come to the fore again at the end of Götterdämmerung. With a touch of Joycean wordplay (‘dix lieues à la ronde’), a rondo begins (I 47-131) in which the bedridden Aunt Léonie's routine provides the main theme (varied on its returns by the introduction of Eulalie and the curé, while the encounters on the way home from Mass (notably with Legrandin) and the Giottoesque kitchen-maid are secondary themes, similarly varied; the boy's experience of reading (I 82-99) is enclosed within this round. After the development which explores, in a temporal sequence from innocence to disillusion or corruption, the alternative afternoon walks of the boy (Méséglise, I 131-63, Guermantes I 163-76), the two regions are united in the final view from the steeple which also occasions the boy's first composition (176-83). The sonata form of ‘Un amour de Swann’ has as first theme the Verdurin circle (I 185-214); the second theme is Swann's love for Odette (I 214-246); in the second exposition the first theme is varied by the introduction of the rival, Forcheville (I 246-62), the second (I 262-84) ends with the definite exile of Swann from the Verdurin circle, followed by a break in the text. The development, I 284-316, seems to complete Swann's break with Odette, but the recapitulation (Soirée Sainte-Euverte, I 316-47) resurrects his love via the Vinteuil melody (I 316-39), originally heard at I 196-9, and destined to reappear with augmented significance at the centre of La prisonnière (III 752-68); I 347-75 has a post festum atmosphere, as befits a coda. La prisonnière is built as a sequence of five days, with recurring themes such as the meteorological preludes (III 519-22; 589-91; 623-6; 889-90). The seven major social events which are basic pillars in the novel's structure (Mme de Sainte-Euverte, I 316-47; Mme de Villeparisis, II 481-581; the Duc de Guermantes, II 709-839; the Princesse de Guermantes, III 34-122; La Raspelière, III 259-368; the Verdurin soirée, III 697-830; the final matinée, IV 496-625) are a series of variations in which the social elements are metamorphosed. The second half of the novel opens with a new overture which introduces the homosexual theme that will allow every character to be presented in a transformed light (III 3-33). The second Balbec sojourn (III 148-515) is a musical reprise of the first (II 3-306). It begins in the hotel bedroom with the overwhelming ‘mémoire involontaire’ of ‘les intermittances du coeur’ (III 148-178), in which the first sojourn is superimposed on the second; it ends in the same bedroom with another polyphonic blaze of superimposed motifs (III 497-515).
George Moore, another ardent Wagnerian, imported the Wagnerian motif into English fiction, particularly in The Lake, a novel which also has the structural disposition of a musical sonata. Like Proust, Moore attempts to use the motifs musically, and to spin out a `melodic line' in his prose. The central motif of the snow in `The Dead' (Dubliners, Grafton Books, 1988) is associated with Gabriel Conroy's soul somewhat as the lake in Moore's novel, or in his story ‘Home Sickness’, symbolizes the protagonists' secret inner life. In both cases the symbol is associated with the poetry of the buried Irish past. The snow motif itself is borrowed from another Moore work, Vain Fortune (1891), as well as from Bret Harte's Gabriel Conroy (1876), Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken and Thomas Moore's `Oh, Ye Dead' (`Hecla's snow'). That multiple origin is characteristic of Joyce's use of motifs: they never have a pure identity, but ramify in all directions, becoming saturated enigmas.
‘The Dead’ (1907) is the work in which Joyce's art first comes into its own, building on the motival skill already shown in the second version of ‘The Sisters’ (1906; first version, 1904), which inserts enigmatic motifs such as the ‘gnomon’, ‘paralysis’ and ‘simony’ of the opening paragraph. ‘The Dead’ is the first full-scale display of Joyce's motival fireworks. The motifs fall into two major clusters: those connected with music and dancing, which extend to include all the sounds and gestures of the characters; and those connected with death, which include the names of the many dead people mentioned, the pervasive coffin-symbolism, and the haunting symbol of the snow (and which are handled more lightly and skilfully than the comparable web of death-motifs in ‘Death in Venice’). Joyce's use of motifs, even in Dubliners, differs from Proust's and resembles Katherine Mansfield's in that the motifs form a hidden `figure in the carpet' which readers have to discover for themselves. But whereas Mansfield's motifs, once identified, have a clear significance and function in the story, Joyce's often elude satisfactory exegesis. There is a poker-faced playfulness in the way Joyce plants the motifs and draws the reader into a game of `hunt the motif', a game that may seem to be only tangentially related to the story he is telling. Many of these motifs are almost jokes: `my wife here takes three mortal hours to dress herself'; `As the subject had grown lugubrious it was buried in a silence of the table'. In itself this does not make Joyce a difficult writer; first-year students in Japan quickly uncover the motifs of music and death in ‘The Dead’. But to discern the significance of this play of motifs, or to assess its literary yield, poses more challenging problems of interpretation and evaluation.
Uncertainty is generated by the feeling that any element in the text may turn out to be a motif, and by the gnomonic character of many of these motifs; the reader is left with the sense that their full implications have not yet come to light. This can produce an effect of unsettling uncanniness, and pose questions for psychoanalytical interrogation. For instance, the repressed gnomonic link between ‘goloshes' and `Christy minstrels' (206) turns out to be `golliwogs', which ties in with images of dolls (Lily's rag doll, 201), dead children (Romeo and Juliet, the murdered princes, 212; `My babe lies cold', 240), and Gretta's maternal feeling for Michael (see R. Spoo, ‘Uncanny Returns in "The Dead”’, In: Joyce: The Return of the Repressed, ed. S. S. Friedman, Cornell UP, 1993, 89-113). The process is carried much farther in Ulysses, which is continuously cryptic both in a humorous sense, like a crossword puzzle, and in a runic, underground way. Even the most elaborate set of annotations cannot assure us that we have traced every allusion, and that we haven't imported unintended ones. That makes Joyce maddening to read, or study. It is not satisfying to say that the problematic density of his texts reflects the texture of life and language, which is a blend of rich significance and irreducible undecidability. For this elaborate game is a shaping, structuring activity, which promises to reveal or create order and meaning. Unless Joyce's motifs work to generate epiphanies, they are damp squibs. If Joyce deconstructs secure identities only to reveal undecidability – if in the present story, for example, the shattering of Gabriel's identity at the end opens out only onto a confused dream - then his art consigns us to the paralysis from which it promised liberation.
Yet if Joyce exposes his art to these nihilistic possibilities, it is with the intention of saving significance from the jaws of chaos (be it the jumble of city life in Ulysses or the dark places of dream and madness in Finnegans Wake). No incident is too low or insignificant to fit into Joyce's ballet of symbols, in which it becomes revelatory of the human condition (as localized in Dublin) while it sparkles as an element of artistic form. Gabriel's goloshes, Stephen's shaving-bowl, Bloom's hat become `transparent things' (the title of a 1972 Nabokov novel). As we realize what magic of literature is afoot here, our interest quickens, our study of Joyce is released from the dull round of exegesis and `theory'. His characters take on the aura of mythological or allegorical types, who seem to stand for eternal attitudes of the human being in the cosmos: `It gives one the sensation of something ludicrous and at the same time stellar – and one likes to recall that the difference between the comic side of things, and their cosmic side, depends upon one sibilant' (V. Nabokov, Nikolay Gogol, London, 1973, 142).
If the texture of the writing generates a disorienting undecidability, this is countered to some extent by the structural divisions of the narrative, which invite close attention in all Joyce's work. For example, the chaos of Finnegans Wake, which is relieved by no apparent progress in plot or meaning, can be mapped by the macro-structure of the division into parts and chapters along with subdivisions within each chapter. If the texture, in its bottomless allusiveness, generates a sense of cosmic significance, the structure reinforces this by pacing the action as a solemn ritual.
‘The Dead' is structured as a sequence of musical scenes, corresponding at first to the sequence of musical events at the party, and later slowing to the final adagio in which the lyrical voice associated with Gabriel's inner musings prevails over the noises of the day. A quick glance through the story shows this division into scenes, which usually end with strong musical cadences.
1. P. 199, l. 1 [`Lily, the caretaker's daughter, ...']. This passage is in ternary form (ABA), the recurrence of the opening phrase (with its funereal overtone: `caretaker' evokes `undertaker') marking the beginning of the final A section. This section is pervaded - haunted? - by a voice or voices which appear to belong to the milieu of the Misses Morkan, and which abound in clichés carrying connotations of death: `literally run off her feet'; `Never once had it fallen flat. For years and years it had gone off in splendid style as long as anyone could remember'. These co-exist with an authorial voice, which is deadpan, Flaubertian, and also conveys intimations of mortality: `the wheezy hall-door bell clanged again'. At times Lily's own voice seems almost to surface, in free indirect style: `It was well for her that she had not to attend to the ladies also'. The submerged character of the voices here may remind one of the scraping of an orchestra as it tunes up.
2. P. 200, l. 29 [`-- O, Mr Conroy, ...']. Now we hear those strongly marked individual voices which are so characteristic of this story. The most memorable such riposte in this section is: `The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you', marked by a grammatical irregularity, a hapax in vocabulary (`palaver'), and an unmistakable personal tone. The scraping of snow, draughts of cold air, Lily's paleness in the gaslight, create a wintry backdrop for the parody of an annunciation-scene. The stamping of the waltzers overhead matches the clumsiness of the two speakers. Lily's final words, `Well, thank you, sir', are a firm cadence. Gabriel is described in his own language, marked by poetic rhythm, inversions, and fastidious diction: `and on his hairless face there scintillated restlessly the polished lenses and the bright gilt rims of the glasses which screened his delicate and restless eyes'. This is the first entry of the inner voice that flowers at the story's end. If there is a base-line in Joyce's English style, beneath all its virtuosity, I should find it not in the `scrupulous meanness' of flatter passages but in this tenderly rhythmic diction, reminiscent of the fragrant prose of Pater or Yeats, yet held to clean, precise detail as in George Moore (a writer whose massive, relatively unexplored oeuvre can be seen as the foundation of modern Irish literature).
3. P. 203, l. 14 [`He waited outside...'] The waltz continues through a paragraph of Gabriel's broodings. `The indelicate clacking of the men's heels' continues the association of `delicacy' with Gabriel, in ironic proleptic counterpoint with the `delicate' health of Michael Furey at the end of the story. (Prolepsis is perpetual in Joyce's texts, which are made to be re-read, not merely read.)
4. P. 204, l. 4. ['Just then his aunts...'] There follows a conversational waltz between Gabriel and three women (his wife and his aunts), which turns on colds and goloshes (Gabriel's exotic European prophylactic against the cold). Another firm cadence: `Thanks for your beautiful waltz, Miss Daly. It made lovely time'. Gabriel's poetic voice is heard again in the description of Aunt Julia: `Her hair, drawn low over the tops of her ears, was grey; and grey also, with darker shadows, was her large flaccid face'. References to colour (`her hair... had not lost its ripe nut colour', or earlier, `the high colour of his cheeks') are part of the death-symbolism, through the contrast with greyness or pallor.
5. P. 207, l. 18 [`A tall wizen-faced man...'] The appearance of Mr Browne brings a concentration of images of death (`two square tables placed end to end'; `straightening and smoothing a large cloth'; `the closed square piano') and his movements suggest a dance of death: `the three young ladies laughed in musical echo to his pleasantry, swaying their bodies to and fro, with nervous jerks of their shoulders'.
6. P. 209, l. 8 [`A red-faced young woman...'] The quadrilles scene is the background for the entry of Freddy Malins, `laughing heartily in a high key' until he eventually explodes `in a kink of high-pitched bronchitic laughter' as Browne plies his sinister ministrations. All the laughter in this story has a hollow sound, from Gretta's `peal of laughter' (p. 205) to the `peals of laughter' which are `interrupted by a resounding knock' (p. 238). Freddy's movements, too, betray a lack of natural animation: `Freddy Malins' left hand accepted the glass mechanically, his right hand being engaged in the mechanical readjustment of his dress'. Freddy is an uncanny double to Gabriel, embodying the failure and the breakdown of order which Gabriel is nervously warding off. He is `of Gabriel's size and build'. `His face was fleshy and pallid, touched with colour only at the thick hanging lobes of his ears... His heavy-lidded eyes and the disorder of his scanty hair made him look sleepy'. Gabriel, in contrast, was described as follows: `His glossy black hair was parted in the middle and brushed in a long curve behind his ears where it curled slightly'.
A break in the text marked by a line of dots occurs at this point, indicating that the first stage of the action, the assembly of the dramatis personae, is now complete.
7. P. 211, l. 26 [`Gabriel could not listen...'] Mary Jane's Academy piece is in ternary form (`she was playing again the opening melody') and so is this section, which begins and ends with descriptions of her playing (and with the departure and re-entry of the four young men in the doorway), between which Gabriel's broodings are sandwiched. The piece is musty, and calls up associations with Gabriel's dead mother, one of the unpropitious ghostly presences in the story. The woollen pictures of Romeo and Juliet and the two murdered princes belong to this stale past, connecting proleptically with the grave of Michael Furey. Michael Furey himself represents perhaps a stale past, which Gretta desperately tries to keep alive as a corner of romance in her life. Joyce, like Flaubert, is a master sentimentalist, but all the tear-inducing scenes in his fiction carry indications that their sentimental dimension is being held up for judgement: Stephen's home-sickness in Clongowes, Mr Dedalus's tears for Parnell, Bloom's for his lost son or Dignam junior's for his lost father.
8. P. 213, l. 20 [`Lancers were arranged...'] The joust with Miss Ivors, to the background of this Victorian military dance, falls into two sections; the end of the first is marked by a cadence: `Of course, I was only joking. Come, we cross now'; the final cadence is: `West Briton!' Of the many light remarks in the first part of the story which point forward ironically to the dénouement, the following is one of the most important: `And haven't you your own land to visit... that you know nothing of, your own people, and your own country?'
It is interesting to note a little set of motifs (his blushes, knitting of the brows, glances, agitation covered by energetic action) connected with Gabriel's nervous response to social embarrassment. Here we have: `Gabriel coloured and was about to knit his brows'; `blinking his eyes and trying to smile'; `A look of perplexity appeared on Gabriel's face'; `He continued blinking his eyes and trying to smile and murmured lamely...'; `Gabriel glanced right and left nervously and tried to keep his good humour under the ordeal which was making a blush invade his forehead'; `the retort had heated him'; `Gabriel tried to cover his agitation by taking part in the dance with great energy'. Earlier we had, in the encounter with Lily: `Gabriel coloured as if he felt he had made a mistake' and `flicked actively with his muffler at his patent-leather shoes'; he was `discomposed by the girl's bitter and sudden retort. It had cast a gloom over him which he tried to dispel by arranging his cuffs'. In the conversation about the goloshes, he `laughed nervously and patted his tie reassuringly' and `knitted his brows' as if `slightly angered'. When he appears with Freddy, `his brows were dark'.
The deliberateness of such annotations, when we notice it, increases our sense that the story is paced, choreographed, an effect which in itself lends significance to each incident and phrase. Loosely-flowing narration is a luxury Joyce never permitted himself; like Flaubert, he regarded it as fatal to his art.
9. P. 216, l. 25 [`When the lancers were over...'] Mrs Malins' tedious conversation (with its repetitions of `beautiful') sandwiches a tense exchange between Gabriel and Gretta; ternary form again. A waltz is in progress throughout the scene (`the waltzing couples'; `as soon as this waltz is over'), and once again Gabriel is caught in an uneasy conversational waltz with women.
10. P. 218, l. 19 [`Gabriel hardly heard...'] Gabriel broods on the snow, which now acquires poetic associations: `Gabriel's warm trembling fingers tapped the cold pane of the window... The snow would be lying on the branches of the trees and forming a bright cap on the top of the Wellington Monument'. At the same time he rehearses his fatuous speech. The fatuous voice will win out at the end of the first part, when he delivers the speech, while the poetic voice, the voice of his soul, is held in reserve for later.
11, P. 219, l. 25 [`A murmur in the room...'] Mr Browne presides over Aunt Julia's party piece, `Arrayed for the Bridal' (the reader supplies `Funeral'). He gallantly escorts her, as a bride of death, while `an irregular musketry of applause escorted her also'. The death-tinged military imagery (which pervades the whole story) chimes well with the military atmosphere of I puritani from which the aria comes. Brown plays his role as personification of death when he exclaims: `Miss Julia Morkan, my latest discovery!' The cadence to this section is Mary Jane's firm: `we had better go to supper... and finish the discussion afterwards'.
12. P. 222, l. 25 [`On the landing...'] This is an appendage to the earlier scene with Miss Ivors. It ends with Gabriel in low mood: `He stared blankly down the staircase'. The warm, vital Miss Ivors has been given two carefully marked-off scenes; the lingering impact of her stong personality reverberates in after-echoes until the end of the story.
13. P. 223, l. 27 [`At that moment Aunt Kate...'] Gabriel shakes off his mood `with sudden animation' and `felt quite at ease now' as he throws himself into the goose-carving. The rich foods are described with a sprinkling of death-images: `a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs'; `a pyramid of oranges and American apples'; `the closed square piano'; `three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals drawn up according to the colours of their uniforms' (there is more musical military imagery in `the noise of orders and counter-orders'). The pudding has associations with death by its dark colour, underlined later when it prompts Browne to pun on his name. Two little epiphanies of half-aliveness occur here:
- Miss Furlong, what shall I send you? he asked. A wing or a slice
of the breast?
- Just a small slice of the breast.
- Miss Higgins, what for you?
- O, anything at all, Mr Conroy.
The scene ends with the cadence: `kindly forget my existence, ladies and gentlemen, for a few minutes'.
14. P. 226, l. 14 [`He set to his supper...'] The conversation on opera weaves together the motifs of music and death with many anticipations of their unhappy conjunction in the case of Michael Furey (Mignon, delicate and lovelorn; Georgina Burns who died of a cold). Aunt Kate's memory of Parkinson parallels Gretta's memory of Michael, and provides a lingering cadence: `A beautiful pure sweet mellow English tenor'.
15. P. 228, l. 16: [`Gabriel having finished...'] The conversation on the monks touches explicitly on the topic of death: `The coffin, said Mary Jane, is to remind them of their last end' (a remark neatly turned into a swordthrust of Mrs Malins against Mr Browne in John Huston's film). This remark brings `a silence of the table'. A cadence is provided by Mrs Malins' muttered remark, `They are very good men, the monks, very pious men'.
16. P. 230, l. 7. [`The raisins and almonds and figs...'] There is a lull as they await Gabriel's speech: `the conversation ceased. A pause followed, broken only by the noise of the wine'; `a few gentlemen patted the table gently as a signal for silence. The silence came'. In the wide allusive space that has been projected as background to the action, this sentence, `The silence came,' is another signature of death, the invisible guest at the dinner-table. As Gabriel stands, `the patting at once grew louder in encouragement and then ceased altogether'. In the background a waltz tune is heard (recalling Gabriel's unhappy performances to the background of the earlier waltzes). Again there are references to Gabriel's trembling fingers, his nervous smile, and his raising his eyes to the chandelier. In the momentary lull his soulful, poetic thoughts move westward, anticipating the turn-about at the close of the story: `The air was pure there. In the distance lay the park where the trees were weighted with snow. The Wellington Monument wore a gleaming cap of snow that flashed westward over the white field of Fifteen Acres'. The snow is heavier now than in his earlier musing on it.
17. P. 231, l. 3 [`He began: ...'] The speech is ironically undercut by its unconscious allusions to his wife's feelings for her dead lover: `thoughts of the past, of youth, of changes, of absent faces that we miss here tonight. Our path through life is strewn with many such sad memories: and were we to brood upon them always we could not find the heart to go on bravely with our work among the living'. There are several oratorical cadences, often carrying a reference to death: `the victims – of the hospitality of certain good ladies'; `...is still alive among us'; `the memory of those dead and gone great ones whose fame the world will not willingly let die'; `We have all of us living duties and living affections which claim, and rightly claim, our strenuous endeavours'. The song, `For they are jolly gay fellows', with Browne as leader and Freddy Malins as conductor, brings the first half of the story to a crashing close.
A line of dots marks the major break in the story. All the characters have just sung loudly, in unison. Now they begin to split up and go their separate ways, until the stage narrows and quietens to a scene between the two principals and finally to the protagonist alone.
18. P. 235, l. 16 [`The piercing morning air...'] More references to people getting `their death of cold', a clever development of the gas-motif: Mr Browne `has been laid on here like the gas', and more music of death in the hollow laughter of Browne (`as if his heart would break') and Freddy Malins and in the rattling of the cab in which they take their leave (the verb `rattle' occurs on pp. 204, 236, 239 and 245 twice). The cadence: `The horse was whipped up and the cab rattled off along the quay amid a chorus of laughter and adieus'.
19. P. 239, l. 22 [`Gabriel had not gone...'] Gabriel's literary style is evident in the lingering `also' in the following sentences: `A woman was standing near the top of the first flight, in the shadow also... Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also'. The song, `The Lass of Aughrim', sung offstage, brings the music of ancient Ireland, coming from a deeper dimension than that of the British and European dances and songs which have provided the musical background so far. The song ends with a sudden cadence: `the singing stopped and the piano was closed abruptly'.
20. P. 241, l. 7. ['- O, what a pity...'] The tenor's cold provides occasion for another batch of references to the cold night air and the snow (`snow is general all over Ireland'). Then we return (ternary form again) to Gretta's poetic attitude (`the flame of the gas lit up the rich bronze of her hair which he had seen her drying at the fire a few days before'; Gretta's association with fire is underlined later: `Is the fire hot, sir?', 244) and to the song. The coda is a long string of cadences, from `Well, good-night, aunt Kate...' to
- Good-night, Miss Morkan.
- Good-night, again.
- Good-night, all. Safe home.
- Good-night. Good-night.
21. P. 243, l. 15 [`The morning was still dark...'] Gabriel's inner voice begins to dominate from this point on: `the thoughts went rioting through his brain, proud, joyful, tender, valorous'; `Like the tender fires of stars moments of their life together, that no one knew of or would ever know of, broke upon and illumined his memory'. The word `soul' makes its first appearance in the story, apart from Aunt Kate's compassionate `The Lord have mercy on his soul' (237): `For the years, he felt, had not quenched his soul or hers. Their children, his writing, her household cares had not quenched all their souls' tender fire'. Cadence:
- A prosperous New Year to you, sir.
- The same to you, said Gabriel cordially.
22. P. 246, l. 3 [`She leaned for a moment...'] Gabriel's inner voice prevails: `the first touch of her body, musical and strange and perfumed'. The music is the music of silence: `They followed him in silence, their feet falling in soft thuds on the thickly carpeted stairs' (anticipating the music of the falling snow at the end of the story). A sharp cadence: `Gabriel shut the lock to'.
23. P. 247, 12. [`A ghostly light...'] The final conversation takes place in ghostly gaslight as the presence of Gretta's buried girlhood makes itself felt in the touching, natural locutions of her birthplace, among the most memorable of the story's conversational epiphanies: `I used to go out walking with him'; 'I was great with him at that time'. Her narration further enhances the musical aspect of the story in its references to Michael's voice and in her own efforts `to get her voice under control'. Gabriel finds that the settled identity he has built up is completely overthrown. He sees himself objectively as 'a ludicrous figure'; there is a retrospective assessment of his speech: `orating to vulgarians'. But this negative epiphany is followed by the positive one which follows, when Gabriel sheds this `pitiable fatuous' identity in order to open up to the voices that have been pressing on him throughout the story and to which he now yields: the tapping of the snow, the intimations of mortality in the evening's events, the warm, passionate voice of the West of Ireland.
24. P. 253, l. 27 [`She was fast asleep...'] A gap of one line marks off this last section. Gabriel assimilates his wife's revelation in a poetic meditation on love and death, in which the characteristics of his inner voice are given full play: `He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death'. The language of `soul' is again sounded: `His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead'; `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'. Gabriel has been deluded through most of the story, and some critics see even this final epiphany, despite its matchless beauty of language, as ironic, signifying Gabriel's ultimate defeat, and the confirmation of his identity as a loser and a sentimentalist, or even as signifying that `the paralysis of Dublin's public life expands to include "all the living and all the dead"' (E. Brandabur, A Scrupulous Meanness University of Illinois Press, 1971, 116). But though Joyce often treats ironically the language of love and of the soul, they remain themes that are at the very centre of his work. The rhetoric of Irish Nationalism is often satirized by Joyce, too, but the Celtic past remains a source of inspiration for him right through to Finnegans Wake.
Joyce felt his Flaubertian irony had been laid on too heavily in the first fourteen stories of Dubliners and wanted to end with one that would do justice to the warmth and hospitality of Irish life. The last story opens a window westward, on the passionate rural hinterland which Joyce knew best through his wife. Many of the place names of the story (Stony Batter, Oughterard, the Bog of Allen) point back to the world of Saint Patrick and the `vast hosts' of ancient Irish heroes (see D. T. Torchiana, Backgrounds for Joyce's Dubliners, Boston, 1986). The close of the story brings the full emergence of Gabriel's poetic voice, the voice of his soul, which is the most beautiful, the most haunting music yet heard int he story.
The subtle blending of protagonist's and narrator's voices achieved in the creation of Gabriel Conroy, Joyce's first three-dimensional character, is pursued further in his successors, Stephen, Bloom and Molly. The `problem of distance' which this blending creates (and which Wayne Booth and others have denounced as a weakness in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) is already evident in the trouble readers have in situating themselves towards Gabriel. Joyce deliberately cultivates this uncertainty. In Ulysses, for example, one is often in doubt as to where a stream of consciousness passage begins or ends. By allowing characters' inner voices to pervade his prose, Joyce injects it with `a thought-tormented music' (p. 219).
The process begun in `The Dead' culminates in Finnegans Wake where voices from various dimensions of individual and collective dream, laced with echoes of innumerable songs and rhymes, intermingle in what is intended to be a sumptuous musical composition. Yet there is a leaden character to the rhythms of much of Finnegans Wake. Did Joyce's ear fail him in the end? It seems that the finest music of prose depends on a link with passionate human eloquence. The sound-patterns of Finnegans Wake may have grown too distant from this basis, breaking the classic equilibrium admired by David Lodge: ‘One of the remarkable features of Ulysses, it has always seemed to me, is the way its "sense of felt life" (Henry James's phrase) is not undermined, but rather complemented, by the elaborate patterning, allusiveness, and stylistic virtuosity of which Gilbert gave the first comprehensive account’ (Write On, Penguin Books, 1988, 62). To `aspire to the condition of music' can be fatal for literary art.
In `The Dead' the `snow falling faintly through the universe' has not yet drowned out human voices, though as we trace the motifs we sense its erosion at work throughout. In the cosmic loftiness of `Ithaca' the snow threatens to erase the significance of humans and their stories, leaving only a distant music, the play of ghostly murmurs, or remains of the day, left behind by the human comedy. In Finnegans Wake it falls so thick and fast that it is not yet clear whether there are any survivors.
Joseph S. O'Leary
From The Harp: IASAIL-Japan Bulletin 11 (1996)