The Dead, by James Joyce
A Christmas feast lies at the heart of “The Dead,” the closing work in James Joyce’s inimitable collection called Dubliners:
A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a meat paper frill around its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these two rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blanc-mange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry. On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn up according to the colors of their uniforms, the first two black, with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with transverse green sashes.
If you find yourself, in these days leading up to Christmas, assembling a legion of food and drink for your own guests, you will well relate to this description of a laden holiday table. The Misses Morkan’s annual holiday party is always a predictable, but lavish affair with dancing, music, and plentiful food. For one guest, their nephew Gabriel Conroy, this year’s party will prove far more bitter than sweet. We watch him as he spends the whole evening trying to live up to a certain vision he has of himself, but failing time and again. As the party draws to a close, the story narrows its focus to Gabriel’s relationship with his wife, Gretta. Already a little shattered by the events of the night, he wants to take comfort in their marriage, even hoping to rekindle some romantic excitement from their early days. But he senses something keeping them apart. When they return to their hotel after the party, she reveals a fact from long ago that will forever change him and his outlook on the world. “. . . how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life. He watched her while she slept as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife.”
Like all the stories in Dubliners, “The Dead” depicts a character undergoing an epiphany, a transformative awakening to a new sense of self. So, how fitting that the story’s Christmastime party actually occurs in the early days of January, around the time of the Christian Epiphany. For all of us, Christmas can be a time of renewal. For Gabriel Conroy, it may need to be a complete overhaul.
It’s happening all around us. Just a few short days ago, they had faces as smooth and creamy as young Percy Bysshe Shelley. But, now, as we make our way into No-Shave November, many men are earnestly supporting this annual cancer-awareness event by sprouting some whiskers of their own. In honor of No-Shave November, The Snail is offering a visual tour of some of the most famous beards in literary history. We’ll go around the world in 30 days—yes, a bristly Jules Verne will indeed make an appearance—and we’ll travel across centuries to witness the progression of a beard, from peach fuzz to full-out thickets. It’s a month’s worth of great authors and even greater beards. Make sure to check in periodically to see how hairy things get around here.