“The Dead” by James Joyce chronicles the progression of the main character, Gabriel, as the reader is informed of his development, not through typical events or acknowledged epiphanies, but through the changes in narration style. This suggests that it is Gabriel’s ideas that are represented through the narrator despite its presentation as a third-person narration. There is no development of the other characters as they are portrayed statically and simply serve as people Gabriel interacts with. Gabriel begins as an outwardly pompous individual whose ideas center around himself. His narcissism is made apparent through his interactions with others and his view of these exchanges.
The story begins with a description of Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, but her true importance is found in her relation with Gabriel. Similarly, the subsequent paragraphs about Julia, Kate, and Mary Jane Morkan serve as a background to the atmosphere in which Gabriel is introduced. These characters are all secondary to Gabriel, both in his mind and in the narration.
The inconsistency of the narration points out its unreliability. What is read is what applies to Gabriel’s thought process at the moment. The statement “it’s such as relief, said Aunt Kate to Mrs. Conroy, that Gabriel is here,” (Joyce 5) exemplifies Gabriel’s confidence in that moment. He truly believes that his presence is not only welcome, but adds to the atmosphere of the party. According to Gabriel, he is one of the most important guests and by arriving late, he has caused some worry as to whether or not he will come; his arrival calms all fears and delights the hostesses. Not only does he consider himself a sought after party-goer, but he also serious contemplates his superiority to the other guests. His thought that “He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to [the other guests] which they could not understand” (3) further proves this egotism Gabriel has for much of the story. It is not until after he leaves the party and is in the hotel talking to his wife that his assumed supremacy comes crashing down.
Gabriel’s fall from his previous narcissism is brought about by his wife’s recollections of her past lover. After discovering this part of her past and the fact that he was not the center of her world, his realization of his wrongful assumptions and superiority complex are rapidly discovered. His admittance that “It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life” (34) are a far cry from his previous recollections of how he had made her life a dream, as shown by his reference to the “Moments of their secret life together [as they] burst like stars upon his memory” (27). In only a few pages, Gabriel’s entire outlook on himself and his marriage undergo drastic evolution.
The love his wife had felt for the boy who died forces Gabriel to quickly accept the harsh reality that “He had never felt like that towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love” (35). This not only shows his own realization that he is not the spectacular man and husband he had assumed, but also serves as a window to Joyce’s commentary on the role of egotistic people and the importance of showing them reality. Gabriel is awakened into the harsh reality that he is not the impressive being he had thought and is instead “the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror” (32). As stated in his letters to his editor, Joyce hopes that this story will serve as “a nicely polished looking-glass” for the Irish people who have similar faults as Gabriel. I believe Joyce’s intended message in this story is that being honest with ourselves, while difficult, is imperative if we are to understand our lives and live them to the fullest. Gabriel’s development is described through the narration and serves as a “looking-glass” for all of us who take ourselves too seriously.