Thursday, April 26, 2012

Revisiting "The Dead."

I finished reading "The Dead" yesterday while sitting on a bench beside the UMF pool. I'd been intermittently reading and watching my daughter jump around in the water in her yellow floatie ("Mom, look at me!"). I made some notes as I read -- I thought particularly about "Signs and Symbols" (or, wait, is it the other way?), wrong numbers, and incompatible language games. That is, I thought about failures of communication and interpretation, which the story seems to foreground from its opening. I vaguely remembered the snow and some of the references to Irish politics from my first reading of it, when I was twenty.

And then I got to the last few pages (beginning with Gabriel's rhapsody watching Gretta at the top of the stairs).  How had I forgotten all this? I didn't entirely forget -- I remembered enough to know during the rhapsody that Gretta was thinking of Michael Furey -- but I had no memory of being moved, no memory at all of the awfulness of the revelation that, this time around, felt like someone squeezing my lungs with a giant fist:

Gabriel felt humiliated by the failure of his irony and by the evocation of this figure from the dead, a boy in the gasworks. While he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another. A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror. Instinctively he turned his back more to the light lest she might see the shame that burned upon his forehead.
Had I not been moved? Had I not understood enough then to feel what was at stake in this moment? Had I registered it but then forgotten? In any case, I had, I have, no access to that person reading these same words fifteen years ago.

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.
Scrupulous meanness, indeed.

I want to echo Noelle and Devin, both of whom connect "The Dead" to Emerson's "Experience." For me, too, this story speaks (brutally, really, mercilessly) to what Emerson calls "the most unhandsome part of our condition," the "evanescence and lubricity of all objects which lets them slip through our fingers then when we clutch hardest." The ungraspable objects here being not only other selves, but also one's own self. I read in Gabriel's self-refelection above an alienation  from himself: "he saw himself as a ludicrous figure."  And this distance is as profound as his distance from Gretta (-- which is profound. Even in the act of recognizing his error, it seems to me, he's still missing her, still making the error. I don't see any evidence that Gretta "had been comparing him in her mind with another." She seems simply not to have been thinking of him at all.) 

I have mixed feelings about the snow. More on that tomorrow.

1 comment:

  1. I find the last few pages of this story very moving and sad, as you say: devastating, really. To me the key interpretive question is whether there is anything in the final paragraph to redeem that devastation--whether there is something hopeful or transcendent there, or just more romantic delusion. Does it make a difference that his tears are "generous," that he sympathizes with Gretta's having aged, that the integrity of his personhood seems to be dissolving? How you read the snow is an element in that interpretive crux, so I am interested in hearing about your mixed feelings.

    One thing I noticed this time through was how self-conscious Gabriel is throughout--always touching his sleeves, fixing himself, making adjustments--how much there is to prepare for the moment of self-reflection you quote here at the end. Everything is a performance for him, particularly with women: he worries about how he has done or will do with Lily, with Miss Ivors, with Gretta, in his Browning review, in his speech, even in the imagined funeral conversation with Aunt Kate. He worries about how he appears, whether or not he is a fool or has failed. It is not just that he objectifies Gretta, narrativizes her, makes her into a symbol; he also reads himself as a character, is at several removes from himself.