He then took from his waistcoat pocket a little paper and glanced at the headings he had made for his speech. He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they would recognize from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better.
Gabriel Conroy must, as always, make a speech at his aunts’ annual dance. Well-educated and employed as a teacher, as well as their closest male relative, Gabriel seems the natural choice for the task. Here, the narrator explains how Gabriel feels concerned that his speech will make him appear ridiculous by seeming to show off his superior education. Gabriel worries about the opinions of others and even potential or unsaid criticism.
She broke into a peal of laughter and glanced at her husband, whose admiring and happy eyes had been wandering from her dress to her face and hair. The two aunts laughed heartily too, for Gabriel’s solicitude was a standing joke with them. “Galoshes!” said Mrs. Conroy. “That’s the latest. Whenever it’s wet underfoot I must put on my galoshes. To-night even, he wanted me to put them on, but I wouldn’t. The next thing he’ll buy me will be a diving suit.”
Gabriel’s wife pokes fun of him to his aunts, but he doesn’t mind. She talks about the things he does to protect her, which everyone in the conversation recognizes as tokens of love. Meanwhile, Gabriel takes the opportunity to admire his wife. Her physical appearance combined with her good humor make her particularly attractive, and he feels proud to have such a beautiful wife.
It was strange that his mother had had no musical talent though Aunt Kate used to call her the brains carrier of the Morkan family. Both she and Julia had always seemed a little proud of their serious and matronly sister . . . Thanks to her, Constantine was now senior curate in Balbriggan and, thanks to her, Gabriel himself had taken his degree in the Royal University.
While looking at a picture of his late mother, Gabriel reflects on his family’s genetic traits. While the family largely has musical abilities, his mother had none. Instead, the family credits her with passing on intelligence, which comforts Gabriel. With his literary bent, he usually feels at odds with the rest of the family, and his gratitude for his better education expresses his assurance of his worth.
A look of perplexity appeared on Gabriel’s face. It was true that he wrote a literary column every Wednesday in The Daily Express, for which he was paid fifteen shillings. But that did not make him a West Briton surely. The books he received for review were almost more welcome than the paltry cheque. He loved to feel the covers and turn over the pages of newly printed books . . . He wanted to say that literature was above politics.
After Miss Ivors calls Gabriel a West Briton—a British-loving Irishman—because of the newspaper he writes for, Gabriel feels confused. He doesn’t see how reviewing books intersects with politics. However, unlike her, he considers English, not Irish, his language. Learning Irish had only recently made a comeback among educated Irish people, who studied the language either as fashion or a political statement. Gabriel, however, loves literature, which to him simply means English literature.
An idea come into his mind and gave him courage. He would say, alluding to Aunt Kate and Aunt Julia: “Ladies and Gentlemen, the generation which is now on the wane among us may have had its faults but for my part I think it had certain qualities of hospitality, of humour, of humanity, which the new and very serious and hypereducated generation that is growing up around us seems me to lack.” Very good: that was one for Miss Ivors. What did he care that his aunts were only two ignorant old women?
In “The Dead,” Gabriel decides to alter the speech he will give at his aunts’ dance to make a point at Miss Ivors’ expense. Miss Ivors, an Irish patriot, has been criticizing him for being insufficiently interested in his own country. Gabriel doesn’t feel very patriotic; in fact, he feels “sick of” Ireland. He does not disrespect his aunts, but he knows that both he and Miss Ivors are far better educated and that she should know better.
“I feel more strongly with every recurring year that our country had no tradition which does it so much honour and which it should guard so jealously as that of its hospitality. It is a tradition that is unique as far as my experience goes (and I have visited not a few places abroad) among the modern nations. Some would say, perhaps, that with us it is rather a failing than anything to be boasted of. But granted even that, it is a princely failing, and one that I trust will long be cultivated among us.”
Gabriel makes a speech at his aunts’ party, a longstanding tradition which includes much food and drink as well as musical performances and dancing. Gabriel actually feels fairly ambivalent about Ireland. He prefers places that seem more in the center of world affairs. Ireland’s hospitality may be the only thing he admires about the country, and as he acknowledges that some regard it as a failing with its copious alcohol consumption, he defends Irish conviviality as worthy of honor.
There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness . . . Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.
The narrator describes Gabriel admiring the view of his wife listening to music. Interestingly, though he views her appearance as mysterious, he does not think to wonder what she is doing or thinking. His mind, educated in literature, immediately sees her not as herself but as a symbol. Looking at her becomes an aesthetic experience, a way of thinking that Gabriel enjoys.
A wave of yet more tender joy escaped from his heart and went coursing in warm flood along his arteries. Like the tender fire of stars moments of their life together, that no one knew of or would ever know of, broke upon and illumined his memory. He longed to recall to her those moments, to make her forget the years of their dull existence together and remember only their moments of ecstasy.
The narrator reveals that after Gabriel catches a glimpse of his wife with shining eyes and color in her cheeks, he feels excited and begins to think about what they might do when they get back to their hotel room. Only later does he realize that the emotions on display in her appearance come from a very different place than his own.
While he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another. A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist . . . the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror.
After Gabriel learns that his wife was just thinking of her first love, he becomes upset for two reasons. First, he had just been thinking about her with lust and he feels hurt that, at the same time, she was thinking about someone else. Second, he assumes he looks bad by comparison—that she sees him the same way he sees himself. He views both his appearance and personality with harsh criticism.
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. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead.
Here, Gabriel reflects on the fact that his wife’s first love died, possibly out of love for her. He feels pity for the man, and, by extension, reflects on all of the dead. He confronts the fact that he and the rest of the living are surrounded by the dead—as memories, as continuing influences. The living and the dead, barely separated, at times seem to pass into each other’s worlds.