examining The Dead

In the run up to Bloomsday on Wednesday, which marks the 100th anniversary since the fictional events occurred in James Joyce’s Ulysses, I’m going to look at some examples of Joyce’s material.

Of Joyce’s work, I’m particularly fond of his short story collection, Dubliners. Most people plump for Ulysses, or if they’re trying to be particularly impressive, Finnegan’s Wake.

As someone interested in the short story form, Dubliners strikes me as the pinnacle of achievement.

Let’s start with his most famous story from that collection: <a HREF="http://www.bibliomania.com/0/0/29/63/frameset.html”The Dead”. I won’t analyse the entire story, though I highly recommend everyone reads it, but I’ll quote the opening paragraph:

Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet. Hardly had she brought one gentleman into the little pantry behind the office on the ground floor and helped him off with his overcoat, than the wheezy hall-door bell clanged again and she had to scamper along the bare hallway to let in another guest. It was well for her she had not to attend to the ladies also. But Miss Kate and Miss Julia had thought of that and had converted the bathroom upstairs into a ladies’ dressing-room. Miss Kate and Miss Julia were there, gossiping and laughing and fussing, walking after each other to the head of the stairs, peering down over the banisters and calling down to Lily to ask her who had come.

What I admire about Joyce is how he can evoke a character through physical description and action. The wonderful second line describes Lilly’s intense busyness, so she is literally run off her feet; Joyce transforms a cliché into an accurate depiction with ironic humour.

I love “the wheezy hall-door bell clanged” and the marvellous way that sound reverberates in your mind. Lily “scampers”, a great action verb which highlights her activity.

Joyce describes Miss Kate and Miss Juila via their actions: “gossiping and laughing and fussing,” and always interested in who is arriving. We can see them walking with their dresses swishing, their heads bend over the balcony to look into the foyer below–though this is not said; we add in the details.

He embeds physical descriptions of the surrounding in this paragraph: there is a pantry behind the office, the hallway is bare, there is a staircase with banisters overlooking the hallway (or so it is implied), and there is a bathroom upstairs – and considering the period, that is a sign of means.

We know that the ladies are hosting a party, because there are people coming to the door, the house is abuzz with activity, and the evening merits having a changing room for the visiting women.

All of this in one opening paragraph.

Damn, that boy had skillz.