Gabriel’s unease culminates in his tense night with Gretta, and his final encounter with her ultimately forces him to confront his stony view of the world. When he sees Gretta transfixed by the music at the end of the party, Gabriel yearns intensely to have control of her strange feelings. Though Gabriel remembers their romantic courtship and is overcome with attraction for Gretta, this attraction is rooted not in love but in his desire to control her. At the hotel, when Gretta confesses to Gabriel that she was thinking of her first love, he becomes furious at her and himself, realizing that he has no claim on her and will never be “master.” After Gretta falls asleep, Gabriel softens. Now that he knows that another man preceded him in Gretta’s life, he feels not jealousy, but sadness that Michael Furey once felt an aching love that he himself has never known. Reflecting on his own controlled, passionless life, he realizes that life is short, and those who leave the world like Michael Furey, with great passion, in fact live more fully than people like himself.
The holiday setting of Epiphany emphasizes the profoundness of Gabriel’s difficult awakening that concludes the story and the collection. Gabriel experiences an inward change that makes him examine his own life and human life in general. While many characters in Dubliners suddenly stop pursuing what they desire without explanation, this story offers more specific articulation for Gabriel’s actions. Gabriel sees himself as a shadow of a person, flickering in a world in which the living and the dead meet. Though in his speech at the dinner he insisted on the division between the past of the dead and the present of the living, Gabriel now recognizes, after hearing that Michael Furey’s memory lives on, that such division is false. As he looks out of his hotel window, he sees the falling snow, and he imagines it covering Michael Furey’s grave just as it covers those people still living, as well as the entire country of Ireland. The story leaves open the possibility that Gabriel might change his attitude and embrace life, even though his somber dwelling on the darkness of Ireland closes Dubliners with morose acceptance. He will eventually join the dead and will not be remembered.
The Morkans’ party consists of the kind of deadening routines that make existence so lifeless in Dubliners. The events of the party repeat each year: Gabriel gives a speech, Freddy Malins arrives drunk, everyone dances the same memorized steps, everyone eats. Like the horse that circles around and around the mill in Gabriel’s anecdote, these Dubliners settle into an expected routine at this party. Such tedium fixes the characters in a state of paralysis. They are unable to break from the activities that they know, so they live life without new experiences, numb to the world. Even the food on the table evokes death. The life-giving substance appears at “rival ends” of the table that is lined with parallel rows of various dishes, divided in the middle by “sentries” of fruit and watched from afar by “three squads of bottles.” The military language transforms a table set for a communal feast into a battlefield, reeking with danger and death.
“The Dead” encapsulates the themes developed in the entire collection and serves as a balance to the first story, “The Sisters.” Both stories piercingly explore the intersection of life and death and cast a shadow over the other stories. More than any other story, however, “The Dead” squarely addresses the state of Ireland in this respect. In his speech, Gabriel claims to lament the present age in which hospitality like that of the Morkan family is undervalued, but at the same time he insists that people must not linger on the past, but embrace the present. Gabriel’s words betray him, and he ultimately encourages a tribute to the past, the past of hospitality, that lives on in the present party. His later thoughts reveal this attachment to the past when he envisions snow as “general all over Ireland.” In every corner of the country, snow touches both the dead and the living, uniting them in frozen paralysis. However, Gabriel’s thoughts in the final lines of Dubliners suggest that the living might in fact be able to free themselves and live unfettered by deadening routines and the past. Even in January, snow is unusual in Ireland and cannot last forever.