Before we even meet Gabriel Conroy, there's a lot of anticipation surrounding his arrival at the Morkans' annual party. That's in part because Gabriel's part of the family (Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia are his aunts), and also because they can trust him to keep an eye on things. Without him, who knows what would happen?
In fact, Gabriel's role in all of Dubliners is a little bit like this. All of the other stories' intricate investigations of the feelings of love, shame, anxiety, and disappointment anticipate Gabriel's "arrival" in "The Dead." So put on your thinking caps, because you're about to tackle one of the most important characters in the entire collection.
Sure, he's just arrived at what should be a big bash, but Gabriel's first feeling is one of shame for how his talk with Lily works out. All he does is ask her if she's going to be married soon, and she bites his head off. Then, when he gives her a tip, it's pretty awkward. Their brief chat bothers him so much that he thinks about it later in the story, showing us that this poor guy is more than a little neurotic.
Anxiety makes its way into "The Dead" again when Gabriel frets about the speech he'll give over dinner. He's worried about condescending to his audience, about whether he sounds like a jerk for using very intellectual allusions, and even about whether Miss Ivors will hear him and object to his words. As it turns out, Gabriel's speech goes over quite nicely. Even though he claims that he's most comfortable carving a turkey, his words move his aunts to tears. So we think the dude should take a chill pill.
But of course he doesn't. Things take a turn for the even more emotional and serious in the last few pages of the story, when he discovers that his relationship to Gretta turns out to consist of equal parts love and disappointment.
Just as they leave the party, without understanding why Bartell D'Arcy's singing has Gretta acting all weird, Gabriel feels so strongly toward his wife that he, like Farrington, has to hold himself back to keep from doing something inappropriate: "He longed to be alone with her" (The Dead.355). And even more, he not only sees her face in the present, he cycles through a whole list of memories of the past that are, for him, some of the most important of their relationship. The dude's practically swooning.
But at the same time, Gabriel knows his marriage hasn't been what he might have wished: "For the years, he felt, had not quenched his soul or hers" (The Dead.354). There might be still be hope, and some fire, he thinks, but tonight, as he finds out, isn't going to be the night for it.
Instead of a rare romantic evening away from the children, he'll spend most of the night listening to Gretta's story of another lover. Not only is he bummed that their perfect night didn't go quite as planned, he also feels disappointment and shame that "he had never felt like" Michael Furey, feeling so intensely that he'd risk his life to show his love (The Dead.458).
Despite all the people who anticipated his arrival at the party, and whom he entertained with speeches, turkey carving, and a funny after-party story, Gabriel gets some very important me-time at the end of "The Dead." The epiphany that this time provides marks one of the most famous passages in all of Dubliners, and maybe in all of the last century's stories and novels. The fact that a lowly book reviewer in a slightly unhappy marriage gets to close off the collection by blurring the line between "all the living and the dead," well, that's powerful stuff.
After all, Gabriel is the name of an archangel, and as much as other people want him to arrive and do what they want at the party, he has a message to bring to all of us. A lot of the early stories in the collection end on a note of very painful or negative emotion (think of "An Encounter," "Araby," and "A Painful Case.") While Gabriel didn't expect to be alone at a hotel window tonight, what he accomplishes there in terms of thinking must surely change his life forever. Joyce has better words for it, but sometimes when life gives you lemons, you have to make lemonade.
Gabriel's wife took care of Gabriel's mother in her final illness, but she still said, to Gabriel's horror, that Gretta was just "country cute" (The Dead.100). Now, we think Gretta deserves a better than that.
But before the final pages, we don't know a whole lot about Gretta. We see that her relationship with Gabriel is close: they joke with each other about Gabriel's making her wear galoshes, and after she notices the tense conversation he has with Miss Ivors, she comes over to check on him. Even when he responds rudely to her desire to go to the West for a vacation, she can laugh at his moodiness.
This makes us like Gretta a lot, just like we like Gabriel, and that's going to make the last few pages of the story really tough on us. Because we're going to learn some painful things, and we're going to have to see them through both Gretta and Gabriel's eyes.
Though she doesn't do much at the party, Gretta does one major thing in the story: she kills the mood. And how does she do that? By bringing the dead to the land of the living.
When they're back at their hotel, and Gabriel's feeling, shall we say, affectionate, Gretta tells him why she paused so long on the stairs to listen to Mr D'Arcy singing "The Lass of Aughrim." It turns out Gretta had been in love once, when she was younger. But it couldn't last, because the boy had died.
And that story changes everything.
First, it shows Gabriel that there's a lot about his wife he doesn't know. This throws quite the wrench into their relationship, because, as our narrator tells us, "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." Poor Gabe's clearly worried that he doesn't stack up.
And secondly, it puts death front and center for our main man Gabriel. After Gretta shares her past, he thinks of Julia's impending death—she is an old lady after all. And then he thinks to himself, "One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. […] 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."
Yikes. That's some serious stuff that Gretta's story has brought about in her husband's mind. Suddenly the world of the dead is right there in the room with him, and all over Ireland, for that matter, just like the snow. Maybe the difference between the world of the living and the world of the dead isn't much of a difference after all. After all, the snow covers graves and homes all the same.
Along with her sister and niece, she's a host of the annual party. Gabriel describes her in contrast to Aunt Julia, and says that "Aunt Kate was more vivacious. Her face, healthier than her sister's, was all puckers and creases, like a shrivelled red apple, and her hair, braided in the same old-fashioned way, had not lost its ripe nut color" (The Dead.30).
Aunt Kate claims to be more with it, but she's just pretending a lot of the time. When Gretta talks about "galoshes," Aunt Kate makes fun of her sister for not knowing what they are, but then she has to admit that she doesn't really have any idea either. Still, Aunt Kate's manner is totally likable. She wants to make sure that Gabriel and Gretta will be safe getting to their hotel after the party, and she can't say enough times how much better she feels with Gabriel around. When he gives his speech and recognizes her, she tears up because it means so much to her.
With her sister, she hosts the annual party at their house on Usher's Island. She had been a singer in a church until the pope banned women from singing in choirs (and this topic causes some heated discussion around the dinner table). Gabriel describes her as "an inch or so…taller" than her sister, and adds that she hasn't aged as well. The word that he repeats when describing both her hair and her face is "grey."
She's also a little more confused, and had "the appearance of a woman who did not know where she was or where she was going" (The Dead.30). It's a little ironic that Gabriel says this, because later, as his epiphany approaches, he tells us that he knows exactly where Aunt Julia is going: "Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade […]" and he imagines returning to the house for her funeral (The Dead.456).
During the party, Aunt Julia sings "Arrayed for the Bridal," and it's surprisingly good. Unlike her niece Mary Jane's piece, with its runs that no one can follow, Gabriel notes that "though she sang very rapidly she did not miss even the smallest of the grace notes. To follow the voice, without looking at the singer's face, was to feel and share the excitement of swift and secure flight" (The Dead.157). It's her biggest achievement of the night, and it really is quite a surprise because almost every other description of Aunt Julia highlights her confusion or her age.
The youngest of the hostesses of the party, Mary Jane is a cousin of Gabriel and a niece of Aunts Kate and Julia. She came to live with them when her father (and their older brother) Pat, died. She earns money by playing the organ for a Dublin church and by teaching music lessons to children.
In the story, Mary Jane has a small but significant role. She's present in a small way in some of the most important scenes of the story, and interacts with or comments on the drunkenness of Freddy Malins, the nationalism of Miss Ivors, and the singing of Bartell D'Arcy, in turn.
Early on in the party, and unlike the other accompanists, she shows off her talent by playing a complicated song that causes most of the guests to leave the room or to get bored. "The only persons who seemed to follow the music were Mary Jane herself, her hands racing along the keyboard […] and Aunt Kate standing at her elbows to turn the page" (The Dead.99). Now Gabriel in particular thinks that it "had no melody for him," so it sounds like he and Mary Jane are at odds a little bit.
We can compare and contrast Mary Jane's role as an aging single woman on Usher Island to Gabriel's isolation as a married family man. Their "performances"—her song and his speech—are very different, just as their ways of perceiving the world are. When Mary Jane hears Bartell D'Arcy, she rushes up to him to make him sing more, and ends up offending him. Gabriel waits at the bottom of the stairs and pays more attention to his wife, thinking about a painting he would make of her called "Distant Music."
Even if Mary Jane is, in some ways, a convenient contrast to Gabriel, she does contribute two lines that return in Gabriel's epiphany, and they are two of the most recognized lines of "The Dead."
First, speaking about the weather, she has a strange way of phrasing the observation that it's snowing everywhere: "They say, said Mary Jane, we haven't had snow like it for thirty years; and I read this morning in the newspapers that the snow is general all over Ireland" (The Dead.329). In the final paragraph, Gabriel notes, "Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland" (The Dead.459).
Secondly, her description of the Mount Melleray monks also ends up in the climactic final sentence of "The Dead." After several vague explanations of why these monks sleep in their coffins, Mary Jane, with a startling directness, says to the dinner table, 'The coffin […] is to remind them of their last end" (The Dead.237). These little insights just go to show that Mary Jane is more than just a partygoer. She's got a little wisdom in her, too.
A funny drunk whose exaggerated gestures and loud words provide comic relief in "The Dead." Even though the Morkan sisters worry that he will show up "screwed" (that is, drunk), when he does he's pretty tame. Sure, he repeats his stories and rubs his hand in his eyes, and his compliments on Julia's singing are a little bit over the top. And to top it off he silences the dinner conversation by accusing Mr Browne of not respecting a black opera singer. But all in all he doesn't cause any major gaffes. Especially if we compare him with Farrington from "Counterparts." Near the end of "The Dead," Freddy's hijinks about giving directions to the cab driver provide an intense contrast with Gretta Conroy's simultaneous listening to Bartell D'Arcy's singing of "The Lass of Aughrim."
This poor singer unfortunately has a cold on the night of the party. He speaks briefly about famous tenors during the dinner conversation, but his main contribution to the story is his singing a few bars of "The Lass of Aughrim," the song that Gretta Conroy's old flame, Michael Furey, used to sing. Even though he only sings for a minute, it's enough to change the course of the whole story, since after this Gretta's story of Michael Furey and Gabriel's pondering of these events makes up the last pages of "The Dead."
A Protestant guest at the Morkan's party, he's a little bit of a creepy old man, but for the most part he's pretty tame. During the course of the party, he helps take care of Freddy Malins, flirts with dancing girls while drinking, and questions the strange habits of the monks of Mount Melleray. He takes a cab home with Freddy Malins and his mother, and is part of the final scene of laughter in the story before things turn significantly more somber.
A vivacious and aggressive young Irish nationalist, she challenges Gabriel during a dance. Her remarks to him make a big impression. Not only does she accuse him of being a "West Briton," or a supporter of English rule, she accuses him of not paying enough attention to his own country, his own language, and his own customs. She says all this because Gabriel writes a book review for a conservative (English-leaning) newspaper and because he vacations in Europe rather than in Ireland.
Gabriel remembers her words later in the story, and even worries about how his dinner speech will affect her. Miss Ivors, however, has to leave the party before eating dinner, so she's not even present to hear his words on the great "hospitality" of the Irish. Crisis averted.
A young woman who does the housework for the Morkans, Lily seems to be acting differently recently, maybe because of a problem with a boyfriend or lover. When Gabriel asks her, almost jokingly, if she'll be getting married soon, she sends back one of the harshest lines of the story (and definitely the least grammatically correct): "The men that is today is only all palaver and what they can get out of you" (The Dead.19). Lily's lines are mostly important because they have an effect on our main character's mood, and he's embarrassed that he said anything in the first place.