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Uh oh, y'all, it's a house party, and Lily's greeting the guests at the door. She helps the men hang up their coats in a pantry as two of the hostesses, Miss Kate and Miss Julia, attend to the women in the upstairs dressing room.
You know it's a dance party. It happens every year at Julia, Kate, and Mary Jane Morkan's house, and it's always a good time.
Kate and Julia are sisters, and they took in their brother Pat's daughter, Mary Jane, after he died. That was over thirty years ago, and they've been having the party every year since.
Here's the who's who on the party throwers: Mary Jane plays organ for a church and supports her two aunts. Julia is the "leading soprano" at a different church, though she's getting old. Kate, who is the most frail, gives music lessons in the house. Get it? Got it? Good.
And Lily, the caretaker's daughter, does the housework, which works out fine. The women are finicky, but Lily's all kinds of good at her job, so they all get along just fine.
Right now, though, they're a little worried, for two reasons. First, because Gabriel and his wife haven't shown up yet, and secondly, Freddy Malins might show up drunk and get sloppy.
Cross that first worry off the list, though: Gabriel Conroy shows up with his wife, Gretta, and blames her for taking forever to get ready.
It's cold outside and there's snow on his coat and shoes, which Gabriel spends some time scraping off. When Lily asks about the weather, he says it looks like it'll keep snowing all night, which never means anything good.
Gabriel asks Lily about school and about boys, and she answers both in the negative. The "bitterness" in her reply about men, whom she claims only care about "what they can get out of you," makes Gabriel blush in shame for having asked (The Dead.19).
Gabriel is "a stout tallish young man." He's clean-shaven, wears glasses over "delicate and restless eyes," and has dark black hair (The Dead.20).
He tries to give Lily a coin as a tip, she tries to give it back. He rushes to the stairs to make sure she has to keep it. Yeah, it's as awkward as it sounds.
Gabriel's still feeling a little jarred by Lily's jab about men, which he thinks about as he waits to go into the room where all the dancing's happening. Clearly this guy does not know how to have fun at a party.
He's written a speech, and he takes it out to look at it and decide if it's too highbrow for everyone. He decides that "his whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure." (The Dead.29). Shmoop generally thinks formal speeches at raucous shindigs are almost always a mistake, but hey, who are we to judge? On with the dancing.
Not so fast. Gabriel's wife and his two aunts, Julie and Kate, come out of the room, and we get his impressions of the aunts. He sees that Julia seems older and more "grey," while Kate "was more vivacious" (The Dead.30).
Gabriel is the son of Julia and Kate's older sister, Ellen, who had married a man named T.J. Conroy. Ellen's dead now.
The conversation turns to Gabriel and his wife Gretta's plans for after the party. Last year Gretta caught a cold, so they've decided not to go straight back to their house in the suburb of Monkstown. Instead, they'll be shacking up at the Gresham hotel tonight, because they have a babysitter they can trust.
Aunt Kate says that Lily seems to be acting strangely recently.
Here comes worry number two. Freddy Malins arrives, and Gabriel heads downstairs to make sure the guy's not sloshed. Back upstairs, several people come out into the hall after the dance to get drinks, including Mr Browne, who brags that he's a ladies man until the three women he's with start to think he's being creepy.
Finally we get to cut a rug. It's time for quadrilles, a French dance.
Freddy's drunk. and pretty happy about it, "laughing heartily in a high key" (The Dead.89). He rubs his fist into his eye when he's like this. It's just sort of a thing.
He runs over to Mr Browne, who has already gotten the message not to let him drink. He pours Freddy a big glass of non-alcoholic lemonade, but Freddy's too interested in repeating a story, laughing, and rubbing his eye to bother drinking it.
Mary Jane plays a piece on the piano that's too fast and lacks melody, and not even Gabriel can appreciate it.
Gabriel sees an embroidered artwork on the wall, and it reminds him of his own mother's gift to him, many years ago, of an embroidered waistcoat (it's like a vest).
Then he thinks of his mother's reputation as the smartest sister, and of how her sense of "the dignity of family life" was responsible for Gabriel's brother's success as a priest and his own completion of a college degree (The Dead.100). We get it, Gabe. You're awesome.
The memory ends with his recalling how his mother had not liked Gretta even though Gretta had taken care of her just before she died. Let's just say this family has its share of dysfunction.
Gabriel dances with Miss Ivors, who picks on him for being the columnist who signs his name "G.C." in a conservative, anti-Nationalist paper called The Daily Express.
Gabriel is ashamed but doesn't admit it. He thinks to himself that writing a book review for a conservative paper doesn't make him conservative, and that it has more to do with his love of books, but that argument isn't fooling anyone.
She's still being friendly as they keep dancing, and says she liked Gabriel's review of the poems of Robert Browning. So that's cool, but doesn't really make up for her mean comment.
She asks if Gabriel and Gretta will come along for a vacation to the Aran Isles, but Gabriel sheepishly says he's planning to go to Europe, as he does every year, for a bicycling trip. She retorts, "And why do you go to France and Belgium […] instead of visiting your own land" (The Dead.125). Now she's getting a little out of line.
They argue about whether Irish is a language Gabriel should know, and he disagrees. Then he goes totally postal and says, "I'm sick of my own country, sick of it!" He stops there; he's already too upset (The Dead.131). Looks like this guy's having a bad night.
Miss Ivors is still dancing "warmly" with him, but takes the opportunity to call him "West Briton" one more time before the dance is over (The Dead.135, 138).
While Gabriel talks with Freddy Malins's older mother, who is visiting from Glasgow, Scotland, he's still preoccupied with Miss Ivors's remarks, and feels that they were totally out of line. "She had tried to make him ridiculous before people" (The Dead.139).
Gretta comes over and has noticed that Gabriel was speaking about something with Miss Ivors, but Gabriel's not about to relive that moment.
When he mentions the trip to the Aran Isles, Gretta wants to go.
Mrs Malins is speaking to him but he's already focused on his dinner-time speech; getting up to let Freddy join his mother, he thinks how much better it would be to be outside, walking in the snow, than inside "at the supper-table" (The Dead.155).
He cannot get the speech off his mind, so he rehearses its five main parts: "Irish hospitality, sad memories, the Three Graces, Paris, the quotation from Browning" (The Dead.156). Got it.
Remember that book review that Miss Ivors had said she liked? Well, the Browning quotation in the speech comes straight from it. Only instead of being happy, he doubts her sincerity, and dreads that she'll hear his speech.
Freddy Malins in particular likes the song, and makes a little bit of a scene with his exaggerated compliments. What a shock.
In response to all of this, Aunt Kate brings up the fact that it was unjust for the pope to bar women from singing in church choirs (which had happened in 1903—for real), thus robbing Julia of a place to sing.
Mary Jane helps wind down the discussion, which is getting a little awkward, by getting everyone to come to the dinner table.
Despite several people's objections, Miss Ivors leaves the party before dinner is served, and says goodbye using the Irish expression, "Beannacht libh," which means farewell (The Dead.192). This bugs Gabriel. But then again, everything seems to bug ol' Gabe.
The dinner table would put any all-you-can-eat buffet to shame. The main dishes are goose and ham, and there are enough side dishes, desserts, and drinks to fill the table and the top of the piano.
Gabriel starts feeling better because he "liked nothing better than to find himself at the head of a well-laden table" (The Dead.198). Don't we all? He serves everyone first, and is the last to sit down to eat.
While he eats, the rest of the table discusses opera, and Freddy Malins mentions a black opera singer whom no one else has heard of.
Mr Browne complains that Dublin does not feature performances of "the grand old operas" anymore because they can't hire good enough singers (The Dead.214).
Mr Bartell D'Arcy disagrees, and mentions the great tenors of Europe. Aunt Kate recalls a tenor named Parkinson (who wasn't really a historical tenor, so we'll forgive you for not recognizing the name).
During dessert, Mrs Malins says that Freddy will be traveling to a Trappist monastery called Mount Melleray. Yeah, he'll be a great fit at a monastery.
This leads to a discussion of the strange customs of the monks: "the monks never spoke, got up at two in the morning and slept in their coffins," which, as Mary Jane explains, serves "to remind them of their last end" (The Dead.232). So morbid, right? Well, it pretty much kills the dinner table conversation.
Then everyone hushes for Gabriel's speech. Before he starts, he thinks of the snow outside on the Wellington Monument.
Here's how the speech goes:
Ahem. There's a humble beginning: "my poor powers as a speaker are all too inadequate" (The Dead.244).
Then, Gabriel gets in to the subject of hospitality. Like, how much hospitality the hostesses show, and how it's pretty much the best thing about the Irish.
Now Gabriel's going to start showing off some mean speech-making skills. First, he compares the present "thought-tormented age" to the "spacious" past, and orders everyone to "cherish in our hearts the memory of those dead and gone great ones" (The Dead.252).
Then, he's going to link right on to that word, "dead," and use it to pull everyone's heartstrings. An acknowledgment of "sadder thoughts," which include "thoughts of the past, of young, of changes, of absent faces that we miss here tonight," followed by a statement that he will not "linger on the past" (The Dead.254, 55) and who wouldn't need a Kleenex?
Don't worry, though, he's going back to smarty-pants land with two allusions to Greek mythology.
First up? The Three Graces, the mythological daughters of Zeus who represent beauty. Gabriel uses the allusion to refer to the three hostesses of the party.
Then, he alludes to Paris, who was chosen to judge a beauty contest among three goddesses. Gabriel compliments each of the hostesses and says he could not choose among them. Ah, he's got a way with the ladies.
With a quick closing toast, the whole thing is over. Was it really as bad as you thought it was going to be, Gabriel?
Everyone sings the chorus, "For they are jolly gay fellows," Aunt Kate starts crying, and "even Aunt Julia seemed moved" (which really is surprising, since she's been having trouble hearing the speech) (The Dead.264). The rest of the dance party, which had been going on in another room, joins in and sings.
Party over. Hey, at least it ended on a high note. The story breaks and then picks up with Mr Browne and Freddy Malins outside hailing cabs for the departing guests.
Gabriel's putting on his coat and, while he's waiting for Gretta, hears a piano playing upstairs.
While they wait, Gabriel tells the story of Johnny, the horse that was once owned by Patrick Morkan, his grandfather.
The horse worked in the mill, and when Patrick tried to take it out to a military review, it got stuck walking in circles around a statue of King William III (a British king who defeated the Irish). Gabriel goes all out to tell the story, and even imitates a circling horse, and everyone cracks up. Who knew the nervous speech-writer was also a stand-up comic?
Freddy Malins knocks on the door and says that he's only found one cab, so Gabriel and Gretta might have to walk a little bit.
After Freddy invites Mr Browne to ride with them, they have trouble giving the cabbie directions, and everyone ends up shouting something different as Freddy Malins performs for the crowd. Everyone laughs at the situation. This story got funny real fast.
While all this was happening, Gabriel had been inside, "in a dark part of the hall gazing up the staircase" (The Dead.313). He's looking up at the top of the stairs at his wife, who is very still as she listens to something that Gabriel can't hear from where he is.
Gabriel, still standing there, thinks that his wife is a "symbol of something," but he can't decide of what. He thinks of painting a picture of her and of calling it "Distant Music" (The Dead.314). Keep your day job, dude.
Once everyone comes inside and shuts the door, Gabriel can hear that it's a sad song, and Mary Jane identifies the singer as Bartell D'Arcy. He stops singing, even though Mary Jane wants him to keep going. He defends himself by saying that he's "hoarse as a crow" (The Dead.325).
As Mr Bartell D'Arcy gets ready to leave, Gabriel sees that his wife has gotten emotional while listening to the song, and "a sudden tide of joy went leaping out of his heart" (The Dead.333).
Everyone says goodbye and good-night: it's the early hours of the morning by now and Gabriel walks behind Gretta and Bartell D'Arcy.
"Gabriel's eyes were still bright with happiness" (The Dead.350), and he feels, among other things, "valorous." He thinks of her at this moment as someone who needs his protection.
He remembers little bits and pieces of "their secret life together," and in particular one time when she asked a man who was "making bottles in a roaring furnace" if the fire was hot (The Dead.351). You had to be there, we guess.
Gabriel feels like there's still something left in his relationship to his wife, something that "the years of their dull existence together" haven't completely obliterated (The Dead.354). How romantic.
He remembers a love letter he wrote to her, and its words like "distant music" (The Dead.355).
They get a cab with Miss Callaghan and Mr Bartell D'Arcy, and Gretta is very quiet. As they cross the O'Connell Bridge, Gabriel calls attention to the statue of Daniel O'Connell, a hero of the Irish struggle.
Gabriel's still happy, and pays for the cab for all of them. As he walks with Gretta on his arm, he starts to feel "a keen pang of lust" (The Dead.368). It gets stronger and stronger as they go up the stairs to the hotel.
Stay strong, readers! We've reached a place in the story where the plot moves fast, and the tears flow even faster.
Once they're in the room, Gabriel sees that she's tired and holds back a little. He asks her if she's okay, and she says that she's "tired: that's all" (The Dead.381). We don't believe her for a second.
When he tells her a story about Freddy Malins, she doesn't pay attention and it annoys him.
He starts to worry that she's also "annoyed," and knows he can't seduce her just yet. But "he longed to be master of her strange mood" (The Dead.388).
When she asks him a follow-up question about his Freddy Malins story, he's even more frustrated because it's totally beside the point, and not really what he's worried about right now. But she surprises him by coming up to the window without his noticing. She kisses him and says he's "a very generous person." (The Dead.393) He thinks for a sec that maybe, just maybe she's on the same page as him.
Spoiler alert: she's not
When he asks her what's the matter, she doesn't answer at first, and then bursts into tears and tells him that it's the song, "The Lass of Aughrim." Suddenly she runs to the bed and hides her face there, all drama queen-like.
After a moment of "astonishment," Gabriel follows and keeps asking (The Dead.400).
Gretta reveals the story little by little: a person she used to know sang that song, that person was someone she knew when she lived in Galway with her grandmother, and he was a young boy named Michael Furey who was sickly, or "delicate" (The Dead.409).
She keeps talking about Furey and his "big dark eyes" (The Dead.411).
Uh oh. Gabriel's jealous.
Gabriel asks for a second time if Gretta was in love with him, and hints that this is the reason she was excited to go to West Ireland just like Miss Ivors suggested back at the party. Now it's about to be a real fight between them.
But Michael Furey is dead, Gretta tells him. Gabriel's trying to be ironic, but Gretta is totally and completely not joking. This is serious.
In response, Gabriel's completely humiliated: he'd been excited about Gretta, but all the while "she had been comparing him" with Michael Furey (The Dead.424).
Gabriel's ashamed of himself for the whole evening, the speech included. And now he hides his face so she can't see, but keeps asking her if she was in love with Michael Furey. Like a broken record.
Finally, she pretty much admits it by saying, "I was great with him at that time" (The Dead.427).
Gabriel takes this pretty badly, but he still keeps a hold of her hand.
There's more to the story: Michael Furey was a great singer and liked her a lot. He was the right guy at the completely wrong time. Right as Gretta was about to leave her grandmother's house and come to Dublin to go to school, Michael got really sick—so sick that he couldn't have visitors or leave his house.
Gretta was like, "see you next summer," but he sneaked out in the rain and cold just to come and see her one last time. How romantic, right?
Well, Gretta didn't think so: she knew he was way too sick to mess around with being romantic. So she told him to go home, and eventually he did.
Only a week later she found out that he had died.
When she's done with this sad story, Gretta collapses on the bed, full on sobbing. She falls asleep.
Gabriel stays awake, and thinks that he hasn't really been an important part of Gretta's life compared to Michael Furey.
Probably she was a lot prettier when Michael Furey died for her. Ouch.
Is there more to the story, he wonders? Why had he been so emotional on the ride home? Maybe it was the dinner, or the speech, or the craziness of the party, or his performance of the story of Johnny, or even the walk in the cold? He's not sure.
It's always a good time for some morbid and anxious thoughts right? So Gabriel starts thinking ahead to how he'll have to attend Aunt Julia's funeral when she dies.
Then he switches back to thinking of how long Gretta had kept the memory of Michael Furey alive. It's not like he, Gabriel, has ever loved anyone like Michael Furey loved Gretta. And he also starts to cry. To be fair, wouldn't you?
Hang on tight, folks, because things are gonna get a little mystical: "His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their vague and flickering existence" (The Dead.458).
Gabriel notices that it's snowing again. He thinks of all the parts of Ireland where snow is falling, including the cemetery where Michael Furey is buried.
Then he gets completely caught up in the snow, and hears it as if it were death itself "falling […] upon all the living and the dead" (The Dead.459).