“Snow was general all over Ireland…” The last paragraph of Joyce’s The Dead

by DRM

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Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard 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
James Joyce

First, take away the adverbs:

  • softly
  • softly
  • thickly
  • slowly
  • faintly
  • faintly

Then the adjectives:

  • dark
  • mutinous
  • Shannon
  • lonely
  • crooked
  • little
  • barren
  • last

Now, read it again, without the adverbs and the adjectives:

Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, falling into the waves. It was falling too upon every part of the churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay drifted on the crosses and headstones, on the spears of the gate, on the thorns. His soul swooned as he heard the snow falling through the universe and falling, like the descent of their end, upon all the living and the dead.

What do the grace notes do to this passage, and to our experience of Gabriel’s quiet ending of hopelessness, divorced from true passion in his history, his life and his love? Through the entire novella, illumination is flickering and perceptions are shrouded in shadow and colored by the ritual of the holiday dinner. The gaslights can not hold their light. At this moment of the end, defied in the intimate soul of his wife, Gabriel has lost his place.

The unadorned writing in the paragraph provides a firm cadence and strong Anglo-Saxon words. The words selected to inform the actions — the adverbs — are like a mother’s gentle whispers to a child in the unsettled night. The words selected to inform the objects — the adjectives — are black and empty, diminished and weary… dark, lonely, barren, last.

At the end, as he’s lifted us into the dark poetry of Gabriel’s vision, separating our perception from the experience of the man and letting us glide unfettered in the gentle cushion of the winter night, Joyce brings us down firmly with his final phrase.

upon all the living and the dead.

A benediction granted not from the altar of faith but the altar of life, where a man’s accumulated experience and misbegotten acts become the trapdoor that he opens to look inward, only to find that within there is the same thing as without: nothing.

The dead are a class unto themselves, not requiring the qualification of “all.”

Joyce doesn’t take life away from Gabriel, just the protection of his self-delusions. After this night, Gabriel will have to live life knowingly in the shadow of the dead.

It’s such a beautiful piece of writing.

Literature homage, James Joyce,