Early yesterday morning, the phone rang. Too early. I saw my mother’s name in white letters on a black screen. My heart skipped a beat.
She was calling me at not quite the crack of dawn to tell me that she had a proposal, namely, that on my visit later this week, I read aloud to her James Joyce’s “The Dead,” followed by a critical essay on the story by Cleanth Brooks. She said I’d find the essay somewhere in the archives of The Southern Review.
I give her due credit for not saying into her phone, “I’m not dying, sweetheart, but I do want you to read me ‘The Dead.'”
“The Dead” is the concluding story in Dubliners, which appeared in June 1914. (Meanwhile, on June 28, in Sarajevo, Gavrilo Princip would assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Already in turn-of-the-century Dublin, as Joyce depicts it, the characters sense that an epoch is passing. Within days of his book’s publication, that world would be gone forever.)
The story has two parts. In the first, two elderly sisters and their middle-aged niece host their annual winter dance. In the second, at the conclusion of the party, we follow their beloved nephew and his wife to their hotel, where the wife breaks down in tears, and her husband learns something important about her life that he had not known before.
He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.
His wife’s distress, and what it provokes in him, what it makes him realize about himself, affect him deeply. He’s led out of himself. He’s made aware of his own limitations and inadequacies. He begins to see what in his egotism he had not allowed himself to see before: the immensity of it all.
His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.
And so he turns. This Dubliner turns — away from the Continent, away from his affectations, away from his ludicrous pretensions — and lets his mind travel westward, back across his own country.
Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. 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 dead.
You know what? There is no essay on “The Dead” by Cleanth Brooks in The Southern Review. In fact, as far as I’ve been able to discover, Brooks never wrote on “The Dead.” His friend Allen Tate did, however, for a collection of critical essays on Joyce, and earlier today I took the train to the Agnes Scott library to get a copy, so that I could read that to her instead.
When I see my mother later this week, I won’t tell her that I took time yesterday to read and think about Joyce’s story, which is really too long to read aloud in one sitting, so that I could come up with a plan to present it to her in a way that would not end in her nodding off before the end. I won’t tell her that I spent even more time looking for that nonexistent article by Cleanth Brooks. I won’t mention the trip to the college. I will tell her that I tracked down an online version of the director John Huston’s celebrated version of the story, the last film he ever made, in case she’d like to watch it with me.
These are the little things that we do as a matter of course for the people we love. For the living and sometimes for the dead, too.
May we all have the realization, sooner or later, that Gabriel Conroy has in that hotel room, as he sleepily watches “the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight.” May we all turn and look.