Critique of Excessive Materialism in James Joyce’s “The Dead”

This article attempts to explore the critique of excessive materialism in James Joyce’s The Dead. In the story, Joyce pictures the gruesome life of Dubliners who do not want to go out of the immoral and secular type of life.

Humanity has lived with the preconceived notion that happiness is achieved by conditioning oneself to a life of security and conformity through materialistic possessions. In reality, however, materialism serves to provide a false sense of security and ideal life and bars a person from introspecting and forming deeper connections with those around them. Through the vivid use of symbols, the city is presented full of epitaphs and its dweller’s way of materialistic living and experiencing life as a living corpse.

People are living their life in the mood of new experiences and are very numb to the world. The Morkan’s party outlines the kind of deadening routines of Dubliners which make existence so lifeless. In the name of modernization, the city dwellers are forgetting their cultural norms, and values and are running behind the flapper culture. The way of practicing ‘waltz’ with jazz music and singing by the modern generation people in the story highlights the dichotomous theme of Ireland’s loss of cultural independence and cultural influences. Therefore, the researcher tries to show how modernity affects the Dubliners in losing cultural ground and leads to the graveyard.

The dance is organized yearly in order to pay due respect to Christ’s birth. On this ground, Kelman also states, “The occasion is the 6th January, the festival of the Epiphany. Traditionally this date commemorates the manifestation of Christ” (61). Dubliners with the changing scenario forget their way of commemorating the very day of Christ. They settle into an expected routine at the party. The events which they perform in the party repeat each year: Gabriel gives a speech, Freddy Malins arrives drunk, and everyone dances the same memorized steps. They are unable to break from activities that they know. Kelman further argues that; “The past had been brought in to the living present and celebrated” (76), but yet the participant forgets the reason for the festivity.

From the very beginning of the story, the writer presents the immoral and corrupted picture of Ireland. The first word of the story ‘Lily’, the name of “caretaker’s daughter” (181) carries with itself a concentrated image. The name Lily acts as a great irony for the writer in the sense that ‘Lily’ is a flower, white as snow and serves at the funeral as a symbol of death. And in the story the name is given to bad-tempered, sexually violated, lower-class servant ‘Lily’. In this respect, Munich argues;

“Lily’s unfortunate fall into sexuality, contrasting ironically with her name and with Gabriel’s cheerful matrimonial fantasy, provides the conflict of the first battleground” (177).

This story will examine the themes of repetitiveness in Joyce’s story, “The Dead” and aim to analyze its deeper message. Through the use of sociological theory and literary analysis, this author will prove that “The Dead” depicts the ritualistic lives of middle-class Irish men and women living in Dublin during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This essay looks at the works of many different authors including sociologists and literary critics in order to create a content analysis on Joyce’s “The Dead,” and how it relates to norms and repetition in daily life. Ultimately, this story will examine a number of themes and historical messages including but not limited to the ritual aspects of norms, a person’s desire to behave by these norms, how Joyce’s form illustrates these norms and un-relatable characters.

You might be interested in:  Critique of Bourgeois values in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice

Lily no longer remains the symbol of purity rather she shows that the Irish women of the lower class were the prostitute even in the eye of Britisher. Lily represents the Irish ill-culture, country and sexual violation in the then period. So, Parkes insists that; “The city lay mysteriously dead-immovable and mute . . .” (273). The livings are living their life as a corpse in the graveyard. Due to immorality and sexual violation of Irish city dwellers the city is also dying and losing its essence. Joyce continues to show us the monotony of the other characters’ lives through various stories and images including Lily, who is extremely obedient, her ability to obey ritual and honesty ability in her work. It shows how poor people are living under the enforcement of the bourgeois. We can find in the first paragraph of this story directly addressed Lily is a caretaker daughter it depicts the domination of Have Not People. Joyce is showing how ingrained norms are in our society. Not only is this story an illustration of ritual, but the repetition in the way of materialistic clear allusion to the power of norms and values of Irish culture.

The city dwellers are physically alive and spiritually dead in themselves. The girl ‘Lily’ initiated into womanhood and no longer remains the caste girl. Gretta is living a dead life ever since the death of her seventeen years old lover. So, Gana argues that; “. . . the living is struck dumb, frozen in their own death” (159). The Dubliners are dying bit by bit either by alienation or by cultural exhaustion. When Gabriel comes to know Gretta is in love with Michael Furey “a man had died for her sake” (215) he feels alienated and his relationship to Gretta becomes meaningless. His fascination towards the snow also signifies the possibilities of renewal or destruction for Gabriel. As Parkes says, “It is unclear, in other words, whether Gabriel has a future to look forward to, or is simply overwhelmed by the past” (274). He is in a dilemma about what to do and what not. It also shows the dilemma of modern people either to follow a Victorian concept or the modern concept in their lives.

You might be interested in:  English language During the Renaissance

As Gabriel knows his wife’s sadness in the hotel and her secret of the past, he realizes his lustful love towards her and is unable to give spiritual or the devotional love, feelings, and emotions to Gretta like Michael Furey. The lines “Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love” (216). Suggests that Gabriel has the love and relation of a husband with Gretta only for sexual pleasure. Gana opines that,

“. . . Gabriel, though overwhelmed with grief at the imagined losses of priority and omnipotence, does not succumb to mourning” (169).

Gabriel does not mourn on his own alienation and the sadness of Gretta rather he feels that life is short and those who leave the word like Michael Furey, with great passion, in fact, live more fully than people like himself and wants “. . . to set out his journey westward”(216) A character that contrasts this behavior is one that has physically died, Michael Furey. Because of Gabriel’s role in the story, it is important to analyze his character in contrast to Michael. Gabriel shares his name with an angel whose duty is to guard heaven. He is also known as the angel of death and often appears in the Bible when important characters are about to die. Michael, however, is the name of an angel in Revelations. He drives the Anti-Christ out of the world. In Joyce’s story, Michael Furey is linked to the concept of revolt. Which symbolizes the materialistic death of his culture.

Gabriel being the representative of the city dweller of Ireland is also guided by metropolitan blasé attitude. He thinks that money is superior to all; it can buy and sell anything even the feelings and emotions of the person. In this ground, Simmel argues, “. . . psychological source of the metropolitan blasé attitude is joined by another source that flows from the money economy. The essence of the blasé attitude consists in the blunting of discrimination”. (186) the mind of a metropolitan man is always overwhelmed by money and it is also difficult for him to distinguish what is right and what is wrong. In the story, when Gabriel teases Lily about her wedding she gets hurt and Gabriel wants to win and cure her feelings by offering a coin. Joyce says;

“Then he took a coin rapidly from his pocket. O lily, he said, thrusting it into her hands, its Christmas time, isn’t it?”(184).

Here, money-minded Gabriel tries to console Lily about his mistreatment by giving her a coin as the Christmas tips.

You might be interested in:  My Papa's Waltz Summary and Analysis by Theodore Roethke

In the story, Joyce tries to show the fragmentation between the behavior and thought of Dubliners. He also represents that the city dwellers are more artificial and imaginative through the speech presented by Gabriel. His language is formal, made-up, artificial and forced. Gabriel insists that the modern generation is quite different and less spacious than the old generation people. He further says that;

“. . . this new generation, educated or hypereducated as it is, will lack those qualities of the humanity of hospitality, of kindly humor which belonged to an older day” (197).

Framing these qualities as an Irish strength, Gabriel laments the present age in which such hospitality is undervalued. So, Pecora also avers that, “. . . naturally, men in the past would have been honest and sincere in the same way that the qualities of “an older day” (238). Nevertheless, Gabriel further believes that people must not linger on the past and the dead, but live and rejoice in the present with the living.

To sum up, James Joyce’s way of exploiting juxtaposition and repetition of images, ideas and situations in the course of narrative transmute his experiences of Irish life in “The Dead”. He shows much light on the materialism that is living dead life but fails to live the disillusioned, self-destructive, blighted and wasted lives. Individualistic nature and disintegration between the family union, society, and life of modern people are vividly represented through the central character, Gabriel. Gabriel’s rejection of Miss Ivor’s proposal to visit Aran Isles and his sickness of Ireland depicts his individualistic self. Hence, materialism fascination toward drinking, smoking and accepting new trends in culture make their old culture exhaustive.

Works Cited

Gana, Nouri. “The Poetics of Mourning: The Tropologic of Prosopopoeia in Joyce’s “The Dead”. America: John Hopkins University Press. 60.2. 2003. 159-78.

Kelman, Edna. “Song, Snow, and Feasting: Dialogue and Carnival in The Dead”. Israel: Ben Gurion University. 1999. 60-78.

Munich, Adrienne Auslander. “Form and Subtext in Joyce’s “The Dead”. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 82.2. 1984. 173

Simmel, Georg. “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” Modernism. Ed. Michael H. Whitworth. Malden: Blackwell, 2007. 182-90. Print.

Knight, George Wilson. Ibsen. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1962. Print.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here