Among professors and literary critics, one of the most hotly and heavily debated symbols in Dubliners is one of the coldest lightest, fluffiest and happiest things you can imagine: snow. It's the key symbol of "The Dead," and it's worth letting it snow on us for a while so we can figure out what the big storm is all about.
Most of the snow in Dubliners falls really, really suddenly in the very last paragraph of the whole book. It's almost like there's so much snow that the whole book gets whited out and can't go on. Take a look at that paragraph:
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again […] Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. 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. (The Dead.459).
That's a lot of snow, man. And a lot of emphasis on where it's falling. What makes snow so symbolic here is that we aren't told exactly why Gabriel's so stinkin' into the stuff. We have to do some thinking about how it's used here to figure out why snow suddenly blows across the pages of "The Dead." And one way to do that is to focus on that phrase, "snow is general."
When Joyce uses the word this way, he means that snow is spread out everywhere, the same way that a general anesthetic spreads out all over your body and puts you to sleep. "Snow is general" tells us that, just like the weatherman said, it's snowing all over the entire country. Snow is the one thing that can bind together everything that's happened to Gabriel in the preceding night. It connects the west of Ireland, where Miss Ivors wanted him to go on vacation, with the graveyard where his wife's old lover lies buried, with the mopey hotel room in which they're spending the night.
Snow surprises him—he stays watching it for a long time at the window—because it shows him that this failure of a night actually means something. It's connected. It has something to tell him. The dead and the living aren't so far apart. Sure, Michael Furey is far away in his grave, and the statues with snow on their heads aren't actually alive, but how different can they be if snow makes them all look the same? If the universe gives them all a light dusting of frozen stuff?
It's a little bit like what Joyce thinks of the people of Dublin. Sure, they're in Dublin, and most of them are so much in Dublin that they can't get out. But on the other hand, these people are everywhere. These stories are everyone's stories. The way these stories connect a whole lot of very different characters and places within Dublin tells us that Dubliners is like that universe with a whole lot of snow falling through it; it ought to affect all of us.