In “The Dead,” James Joyce portrays a myriad of different emotions through his characters. One of the main characters, Gabriel, appears confident to others when in fact, he is the exact opposite. There are many instances where Gabriel is inwardly filled with anger or self-consciousness, however he conceals these feelings and conveys a calm demeanor to the public. This is ironic considering Gabriel considers himself to be an excellent judge of others, despite the fact that his assessments are often incorrect. Joyce portrays Gabriel as a self-conscious character by making him the main narrator of the story thus granting the reader access to Gabriel’s inward thoughts.
Gabriel’s discomfort can be observed through his fidgety attempts to remain calm. Very early in the story, Gabriel solicits a bitter comment from Lily when he asks if she will soon marry now that she is done with school. He quickly makes his way out of the room, yet he is “still discomposed by the girl’s bitter and sudden retort. It had cast a gloom over him which he tried to dispel by arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie” (3). The sense of gloom to which Gabriel refers creates a feeling of sadness and discomfort because of his mistaken assessment of Lily. Furthermore, his attempts to fix his ensemble are a result of discomfort he feels over the incident as well. He does this as a distraction in order to suppress the memory of the awkward encounter. He eventually turns to evaluating his speech, which does not make him any more confident in himself. Gabriel reflects on the fact that
“the indelicate clacking of the men’s heels and the shuffling of their soles
reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his. He would only
make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not
understand…he had taken up a wrong tone. His whole speech was a mistake
from first to last, an utter failure” (3).
The use of words such as shuffling and clacking create a sense of nervousness. Also, his use of short sentences toward the end conveys a sense of panic and self-consciousness over the quality of his speech. Unfortunately, these feelings extend to aspects of his personal life as well.
Gabriel’s discussion with his wife at the end brings out all of Gabriel’s insecurities. While on the subject of Gretta’s former love, Gabriel asks a few questions to hide his displeasure. Gretta answers his questions honestly and “Gabriel [feels] humiliated by the failure of his irony…instinctively he [turns] his back more to the light lest she might see the shame that burned upon his forehead” (33). Gabriel feels embarrassed because his tactic of ironically questioning Gretta does not render the results he anticipated. He does not like failing at judging others because he considers this one of his better skills. After Gretta falls asleep, Gabriel woefully reflects on their conversation. He now completely realizes that “she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake. It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life” (34). There is a tone of hopelessness in this statement because, even though Gabriel is Gretta’s husband, Gretta has had a more intense and loving romance in her life with someone other than Gabriel. Gabriel feels insecure and self-conscious because he does not know how he could possibly compete with this great love.
Confidence is a strange quality that is often superficial at best. Frequently, the people who appear to be the most confident are actually concealing feelings of self-doubt. The reader’s ability to be inside Gabriel’s mind as he narrates exposes his true feelings of discomfort and self-consciousness in situations where he appears to be strong and in control.