Miss Kate Morkan and Miss Julian Morkan, spinster sisters, are throwing their annual Misses Morkan's dance. It is the holiday season. Lily, the caretaker's daughter, struggles to keep up with her many tasks, which include looking after the arriving guests. The dance is always huge: family, former music pupils, and the members of Julia's choir fill the house with gaiety and laughter.
After the death of their brother Pate, Kate and Julia have lived in the old house on Usher's Island. Mary Jane, their only niece, lived on with them. Mary Jane still lives with them, earning money through her music.
The three women are tense. It is past ten pm, and Gabriel Conroy and his wife have not yet arrived. Freddy Malins might come drunk. Finally, Gabriel and his wife arrive. As Lily helps Gabriel with his things, he notices her slim body and pretty looks. He mentions that soon she must be getting ready to get married. She retorts bitterly about the predatory nature of men, which rattles Gabriel. He tips her, and though she resists she eventually accepts. He is a stout, tall young man. He begins nervously to rehearse the speech he will give at dinner. He fears that everyone will think he is flaunting his education, and that he'll fail with them as he failed to make himself pleasant to Lily.
Aunts Julia and Kate approach him, and dote on him. He's their favorite nephew. Tonight, after the party, he and his wife Gretta will stay at a hotel rather than take a cab all the way home. Everyone makes light talk. The mood is festive and friendly.
Freddy arrives. Aunt Kate asks Gabriel to check up on him, and to look after him if he's drunk. Guests come out of the dancing room. Under Kate's direction, Julia sees to Mr. Browne, Miss Furlong, Miss Daly, and Miss Power. Mr. Browne is old. He goes with the three young ladies into the back room for some drinks. Everyone compliments Miss Daly and the waltz she played. Quadrilles (a square dance popular at the time) start, and Aunt Kate and Mary Jane try to conscript folks for the dancing.
Julia watches Freddy and Gabriel with some concern. Freddy looks quite sloshed. Freddy greets the old aunts, and then goes over to Mr. Browne to share an anecdote. Aunt Kate signals to Mr. Browne that Freddy is not to drink anymore. Mr. Browne gives Freddy some lemonade.
Later, Gabriel has trouble listening to Mary Jane's rather professional-sounding piece. He thinks about his mother, the only sister who'd had no musical talent. He remembers how his mother opposed his marriage to Gretta; but later, when his mother was dying, Gretta was the one who tended to her.
After Mary Jane's piece ends, Gabriel ends up dancing with Miss Ivors. Gabriel writes a literary column for The Daily Express, a conservative paper with Unionist leanings. The column is published under his initials. Miss Ivors figured out that Gabriel was the author, so now she teases him as they dance. The paper's politics are detestable, but Gabriel was well-paid and loved the new books he received. He does not take her teasing well. She tries to smooth things over, inviting Gabriel and his wife out to the Aran Isles for a group vacation she's putting together. Gabriel says he cannot. He has already planned a cycling trip on the continent with some friends of his. She asks why he vacations in foreign countries before he's seen more of his own land; he speaks of keeping in touch with languages. She tells him he has his own language to keep up with: Irish (Gaelic, but called Irish by the Irish to emphasize its rightful place as the national tongue). He says it's not his language. Miss Ivors continues with her difficult questions, irritating him. He's nervous about how he answers; people are listening. They continue dancing, and Miss Ivors teasingly calls him a West Briton (an Anglo-Irishman who favors Ireland remaining a colony).
After the dance, Gabriel goes to chat with Mrs. Malins' mother. He tries to banish the incident with Miss Ivors from his mind. He feels she has tried to make him look like a fool.
His wife tells him that Aunt Kate has asked if he'll carve the goose. He confirms that he will. Mrs. Conroy asks what he was talking about with Miss Ivors, and he says that she invited them to vacation west of Ireland. Mrs. Conroy is delighted by the idea, but Gabriel tells her coldly that she can go alone if she likes. Mrs. Malins keeps talking to Gabriel, but he is busy thinking about his impending speech. The incident with Miss Ivors continues to nag at him.
Mr. Browne escorts Aunt Julia to the piano. Mary Jane plays and Aunt Julia sings Arrayed for the Bridal. Her voice is beautiful, surprisingly strong. Afterward, Freddy Malins accosts Aunt Julia to tell her that he has never heard her voice so beautiful. Mr. Browne comes forward too, praising the song lightly with jokes that no one laughs at as loudly as he himself.
Aunt Kate starts talking about how Julia's voice was wasted in the Church choir. Aunt Julia worked hard hours, rising early, to sing in the Church choir. Her work came to naught when Pope Pius X issued an order banning women from church choirs. Aunt Kate goes from saying that she doesn't question the pope, who must be right (since Aunt Kate is only a stupid old woman) to saying that there's such a thing as simple gratitude and decency (which, we can infer, the pope's order set aside). Mary Jane interrupts her diplomatically, saying that everyone is quarrelsome because they've had nothing to eat.
Outside the drawing room Gabriel comes across his wife and Mary Jane trying to convince Miss Ivors to stay for dinner. Gabriel also tries to convince her, but she insists that she must go. She departs in good spirits, though Gabriel cannot help but wonder if she has left because he was so unpleasant. Aunt Kate comes in out of the supper-room, asking Gabriel to carve the goose. Gabriel gets to work with great gusto; he is a skilled carver. Folks at the table talk about the current opera company at the Theatre Royal. Mr. Bartell D'Arcy, a tenor, is among those discussing the current singers. Freddy makes some rather strange conversation (still drunk). When some of the guests disparage the current singers in favor of the singers of yesteryear, Mr. Bartell D'Arcy says that the singers now are as good as ever. It's just that all talent goes to the continent, and there are foreign singers who at least equal the Irish singers from back in the day. Mr. Browne, somewhat ridiculously, says he doubts it. Aunt Kate mentions her favorite tenor of all time, whom no one has heard of. Her memory might be skewed, but one of the men confirms the name. Still, he may have done so to make Aunt Kate feel better. They also talk about a monastery on Mount Melleray where monks allow parishioners to stay. The monks sleep in coffins, assert the guests; Mary Jane explains that it is to remind them of their mortality.
After dessert and more drinks all around, it is at last time for Gabriel's speech. It is earnest and sentimental, and brings many tears to his aunts' eyes, even though poor Aunt Kate can barely hear a word. All sing "For they are jolly gay fellows" for their beloved hostesses.
Later, the last of the guests are trying to get home. As the front door opens and closes, frigid early morning winter air comes into the house. Somehow someone brings up an old family joke about Old Johnny, the horse of Gabriel's grandfather. He begins to tell a skillfully exaggerated version of the tale to Mr. Browne. One day Gabriel's grandfather was in the center of Dublin, with his carriage hitched up to Old Johnny, and the old horse kept circling the statue of King William II. The story is interrupted by Freddy Malins coming back in from the cold, announcing he only found one cab. Freddy Malins, Mrs. Malins, and Mr. Browne take it.
Gabriel sees his wife standing near the top of the first flight of stairs, in shadows. She seems to be the symbol of something, but he cannot tell what. When Gretta comes down, she asks Mr. D'Arcy the name of the song he was singing. The song is "The Lass of Aughrim." Gabriel and Gretta eventually get out the door, along with Mr. Bartell D'Arcy and a young woman named Miss O'Callaghan, saying their goodbyes to Mary Jane and Aunt Julia and Aunt Kate. As they walk to a place where they can find a cab, Gabriel looks at his wife, who is walking up ahead of him with Mr. Bartell D'Arcy. Gabriel remembers their many happy times together, and tender feelings flood through him. In the cab, he continues to look at his wife with great feeling. When they cross O'Donnell bridge, Miss O'Callaghan repeats the saying that one can never cross the bridge without seeing a white horse. Gabriel says that instead he sees a white man, referring to a statue covered in snow. At the hotel, Gabriel pays the whole fare and sees off Miss O'Callaghan and Mr. D'Arcy.
The porter brings them to their room. The electric lights are not working, so the porter leads them by candlelight. Gabriel says to take the candle away with him; they have enough light from the windows. Gabriel is still full of amorous feelings for her, but she seems upset about something. He tries to make conversation with her, but her mind is clearly elsewhere. Finally, she breaks down and weeps. She cannot stop thinking of the "The Lass of Aughrim." A boy she once knew used to sing that song.
Gabriel is angry, but tries to hide it. He asks if she was in love with him, and she admits that they courted. Gabriel asks if that's why she was keen on accepting Miss Ivors invitation to go to Galway, so that she might see him. Gretta says that the boy is dead. His name was Michael Furey, and he worked in the gasworks, though he was delicate.
Gabriel is quite upset. While he was remembering their life together, she was comparing him in her mind to a teenage boy. Gabriel sees himself as a "ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians, and idealizing his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror" (221). He asks how the boy died, and she tells the story after getting control of herself. It was winter; she was going to leave her grandmother's and go to the convent for schooling. The boy's health was bad, and he wasn't being let out or allowed to see visitors. She wrote him a letter saying that she would be back in the summer and hoped to see him then. The rainy night before she left, she heard gravel against her window. He was there, in her garden in the cold, shivering. She told him to go home, fearful for his health, but the boy said he did not want to live. He did go back home, but a week after Gretta went to the convent the boy died. As Gretta finishes her story, she breaks down into uncontrollable sobs.
Later, Gabriel watches her sleep. He feels insignificant in her life; a man died for her love. He knows also that they have aged. The face she has now is not "the face for which Michael Furey had braved death" (223). He thinks about mortality, and his two lovely old aunts. Soon, he'll return to that house for their funerals. He feels the power of Furey's passion; he has never felt something like that for a woman. He feels the shadow of mortality on all of them. Outside, it snows. As it blankets all things without discrimination, it reminds Gabriel of mortality: "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" (225).
"The Dead" is the most famous story in Dubliners, and is widely recognized as one of the finest short stories in the English language. Joyce conferred on it the honor of the final position, and made it three times as long as the average Dubliners tale. His fine range, acute psychological insights, and perfect control of his art are all on display here.
Many of the main themes are touched on. We see glimpses of poverty, in the character of Lily, whose family is achingly poor. We see the political divisions in Ireland in the conversation between Miss Ivors and Gabriel. We also have criticism of the church, as Aunt Kate speaks bitterly of the decision of Pope Pius X to exclude women from all church choirs; Aunt Julia had dedicated a great deal of her life to working in the choir, and her thanks for it is the Pope's appallingly sexist decision. Aunt Kate says repeatedly that of course the Pope must be right about everything, but she cannot help but think it was ungrateful. We see in her the inability to reconcile what she knows to be wrong with the indoctrinated Catholic conviction that the Pope cannot be wrong.
Central themes are mortality and isolation. But "The Dead" is a story with much joy in it. The scene here is far from bleak; poverty has little place in this story, and many financially comfortable characters are celebrating in the midst of the holiday season. As is appropriate for this time of year, we see loving interaction between friends and family, and people of different generations.
Mortality is a key part of the story, beginning with its title. The tale is set in winter, which is both holiday season and the season of death. The two old aunts in their old house become symbols for the onslaught of time; Aunt Kate can't even hear Gabriel's speech. Gabriel knows that one day, in the not-too-distant future, he will return to the house for his aunts' funerals. And of course, there is the dead boy Gretta remembers because of a song. Much has been made of the fact that Dubliners is framed by two stories dealing with death. The two stories, in fact, could easily switch their titles. But while "The Sisters" maintains one note and holds it well, "The Dead" is a far richer tale, mixing the joy of the occasion with somber reflection and several small but significant incidents, the importance of which is recognized gradually by the reader.
Joyce's ability to write a party scene is at full strength in this tale. Most of the conversation in the story is small talk, or short moments of family drama (Aunt Kate and Julia worried about Freddy making a scene in his drunkenness, for example). There are also key moments of heartfelt emotion and connection between loved ones, such as Gabriel's moving speech, which brings his dear old aunties to tears.
But the evening is punctuated by small disturbances that linger in the reader's mind. The first is Gabriel's talk with Lily. Without meaning to, he condescends to the young girl, saying with sweetness that she'll be having her own wedding soon. Lily's response: "The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you" (178). Her words are scathing, all the more so because we know that Gabriel did, in fact, notice the girl's physical beauty. The incident disturbs Gabriel deeply, and it is the first failure of communication in the story. What should have been pleasant became quickly unpleasant, and Gabriel begins to worry that his speech will sound too lofty to his audience's ears: "They would think that he was airing his superior education. He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry" (179).
The miscommunication continues. When he chats with Miss Ivors, he takes her light chiding very personally. Irish politics come up yet again: she accuses him lightly of being less than loyal to Ireland. Although such sentiments often come from unsavory characters in Joyce's works, Miss Ivors is actually quite appealing, apparently intelligent, well-educated, and without malice. Their conversation emphasizes that an Irish party would not be Irish without reference to Irish politics: note that Gabriel looks around with concern, lest anyone should hear his opinions. At the end of the conversation, he feels that Miss Ivors has made a fool of him, but her lightness and good spirit would seem to suggest that her intentions were innocent.
But the theme of isolation and miscommunication really comes out in full force after the party. Gabriel spends the journey home thinking of his wife and their many happy moments together. But he soon learns that she has been thinking of a love she had in her girlhood. Though married, they spent the ride home in completely different worlds. Gabriel's thoughts were only his own, and he and his wife could not have been farther apart. He had hoped for a tender night, but their evening ends with Gretta sleeping and Gabriel admitting that he has never felt so strongly for a woman that he would die for her, as Michael Furey did.
The separation of death becomes a metaphor for the separation between the living. Joyce joins the themes of isolation and mortality. Gabriel feels himself becoming one of the deceased: "His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead" (224). The snow, falling upon "all the living and the dead" becomes a metaphor for isolation, the inability to know others, even those with whom we are intimate. Ironically, the snow also functions as a symbol for the death that comes indiscriminately. Opaque where it lies "thickly drifted" over objects in cities and distant graveyards, it masks all behind a shield of white, isolating each thing, while also reminding Gabriel that the same mortality awaits all beings.