James Joyce / "The Dead"
James Joyce's "The Dead"
Gabriel as the Dead Man in "The Dead": A Take on Narcissism
James Joyce's "The Dead" is a story about individuals and their relationships with others. Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta share an interesting relationship that is best understood by approaching it from a psychological critical approach. Gabriel is constantly judging his wife, watching her behavior as if she were a specimen under a microscope and then making assumptions because of it. He adores her, in theory, but is unable to see her as she really is, without the colors and textures that he puts upon her. Their relationship is fascinating because it evolves throughout the story; eventually, Gabriel is able to see Gretta for how she is and he can empathize with her. For example, when the two are riding to the hotel, he feels lustful while at the same time she is talking about her dead love from the past (a reminder from the song "The Lass of Aughrim"); Gabriel, however, doesn't pay attention to her as he is too taken and immersed with his own contemplations. By the end of the story, Gabriel has changed the way he feels about Gretta and Gabriel experiences a major revelation. However, it's Gabriel's problem with life and living -- in general -- that make his narcissistic. There is such a preoccupation with his own self, which is what drives him to not only act -- but also think -- the way he does. Based on his thoughts and actions, Gabriel can best be described as a narcissist.
Joyce emphasizes the idea of Gabriel's narcissism by starting the story with hardly a word of mention about Gretta; in fact, she is never even referred to by her name -- rather she is called "Gabriel's wife" (201) or simply "his wife" (200). Gabriel views Gretta as little more than a decoration. He is somewhat happy with his wife and family -- and marriage, in general, but the annual Epiphany shows that there is a major gap -- especially when it comes to communication -- between the two of them. When Molly Ivers invites the two of them to Galway, he says he's going to be off cycling in Europe. Gretta is excited by the idea of going to Galway, but Gabriel rebuffs her and simply states -- rather coldly -- that she should go alone if she wants to go. The reader can only imagine that it is because of Molly's teasing that he rejects the invitation.
Alexander Lowen notes in his book, Narcissism: Denial of the True Self, that narcissists do not suffer from a "strict, severe superego" (10) like many people believe. Conversely, Lowen states that narcissists lack what would be considered a normal superego, which provides some moral limits to sexual and other types of behavior (11). What Lowen means is that there is a lack of self-restraint when it comes to people and situations -- and they do not feel bound to customs. Narcissists feel completely free to create the kind of life that they wish -- without societal norms (11).
Gabriel is a forty-something teacher and journalist and quite well regarded, which is why his aunt deems him her favorite nephew and asks him to give the dinner speech at the Morkan's. It becomes very clear that Gabriel is overly concerned not only with what people think of him, but also the effect that he has on other people. He seems to be bemused with the idea of what others do, in fact, think of him.
Narcissism has long been considered a male issue and -- for the most part -- it is a male problem (Simpson 4), Gabriel, according to William Tucker, a psychiatrist with a master's degree in comparative literature and author of "How People Change," states that
Like Gabriel, such men are unaware of their insensitivity to emotional issues and find themselves genuinely bewildered by the intensely negative responses they continually evoke. Like him, they tend to be overly sensitive to slights and to indulge in constant monitoring of how they are perceived, with what we might incautiously compare to a teenager's degree of self-consciousness. Gabriel is warmly regarded, but he does not feel connected to any of the guests (Tucker 39).
The notion that Gabriel is a narcissist doesn't take away the fact that he is also an extremely insightful and intelligent character. James has created a character in Gabriel that is detailed and mature, yet a bit neurotic when it comes to his own inner life. Gabriel exhibits some very strange behavior -- from a psychological perspective, like the fact that he arrives late to the Morkan's and then blames Gretta; he doesn't know Lily's age, nor does he seem to care; he simply wants to make conversation -- but, for what reason? So she will think highly of him? He tries to make the awkward situation with Lily better by giving her a coin.
Gabriel is very shameful about everything from his family and his social class to his country. This all comes back to Gabriel's narcissism and his inability to simply surrender to the fact that he can't control what others think about him and how he reflects on their thoughts and behavior. Lowen states that narcissists are completely out of their element in the real world of feeling and emotions and they don't know how to relate to other people in a real human way (18) because they are so obsessed with how the other people are visualizing them. On that same note, Gabriel is a character with many different faces -- such as the loving family guy as seen from his aunts' perspective, awkward man with women in general, and fondness and gentle man that he is with Gretta. From a psychological perspective and in terms of narcissism, in general, Gabriel seems to change his personality for different people, which seem to hint that he is a person who doesn't really know himself outside of trying to manipulate what others think of him.
Mark Simpson, author of the book, Male Impersonators: Men Performing Masculinity, believes that narcissism is a 'new type' of masculinity (14). Indeed, Gabriel's behavior often seems to be coming from a masculine place as well as a more modern idea of what narcissism means. The behavior Gabriel exhibits in the presence of Lily, Molly Ivers and even his wife appears to be a magnification of his true self, rather, it feels like he is putting on airs, making himself appear to be more masculine and insensitive than he really is -- because, the bottom line is that Gabriel is not and insensitive man, but he acts as one at certain times when he sees it as necessary (and mainly in the company of women -- whether it be his aunts, Lilly or Gretta).
When Gabriel realizes that Gretta was remembering her past love, Michael Furey, he feels very alone and more human than he has perhaps ever felt before. He misunderstood Gretta and what she was feeling -- yet, this is also the moment that Gabriel is the most connected to his inner emotional life as well as connected to his wife. The tile, "The Dead," is referring to who Gabriel was before his revelation and his connection to his inner emotional life and Gretta. He was dead inside, so preoccupied with what others thought of him as well as his effect on others. When Gabriel has this revelation, it is the beginning of his life, metaphorically speaking. It is in the hotel room that Gabriel is forced to consider the devotion of Michael Fury to Gretta and the shallowness of his own devotion to her -- as well as the hold the "dead man" has over her (Fargnoli & Gillespie 53). Here, Joyce is using the symbol of a real dead man to bring the figurative dead man back to life.
Gabriel's insight into the situation and reality of Michael Fury's legacy is both humbling for Gabriel as well as enlightening. It serves not just as a critique of his emotions but also as "a revelation of the possible depth of human emotion" (53). While it is unclear if Gabriel will be ever able to feel as much as Michael Fury did for Gretta, what is clear is that Gabriel has realized that he has been shallow; whether or not he will be able to make a change in his life is up to him. Gabriel may very well be incapable of change -- as much as he may have the desire to.
Gabriel struggles with what all humans struggle with: the need to find a purpose for our lives and ourselves. His swelling feeling of purposelessness appears when he looks out the window: "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…