The One Who Left and Returned

“Gabriel took his seat boldly at the head of the table and, having looked to the edge of the carver, plunged his fork firmly into the goose. He felt quite at ease now for he was an expert carver and liked nothing better than to find himself at the head of a well-laden table”

“Dubliners.” The Project Gutenberg EBook of Dubliners, by James Joyce,

This interaction is significant in that it’s the first time we see Gabriel appear self-assured in this short story. Without being told explicitly, it appears Gabriel moved away from Ireland, and has assimilated more or less to an English lifestyle. He’s well aware of how different he is from his ‘home,’ and consistently struggles to find his footing in interacting with the partygoers. This moment of carving the goose appears to be one aspect of his upbringing that he has been able to retain, it’s a skill that allows Gabriel to touch base with his culture, and in this moment, he isn’t a fish out of water. In a social sense, culture is what brings together and alienates these individuals, and it is most apparent with Gabriel’s experience as the one who left and has returned.

Culture Irony; Gabriel & Miss Ivors’ Interaction

One interaction I found ironic and significant from “The Dead” regarding the culture was between Gabriel and Miss Ivors when Gabriel awkwardly claims “Well we usually go to France or Belgium or perhaps Germany” (Joyce 234) to which Miss Ivors asks “And why do you go to France and Belgium…instead of visiting your own land?” (Joyce 234). Gabriel then responds that he goes there to keep in touch with languages, which then prompts Miss Ivory to ask again “…haven’t you got your own language to keep touch with..?” (Joyce 234). I found this dialogue ironic because Dubliners was published in June of 1914 and two months later, in August of 1914, Germany invaded Luxembourg and Belgium. It is ironic because James Joyce wrote Miss Ivory to foreshadow something he couldn’t have known, but only merely had an opinion on; an opinion on culture appropriation or invasion perhaps. The country Gabriel likes to go for a cycling tour in, got invaded by another he also usually visits for the tour. 

Language and Shared Cultural Knowledge

“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. The indelicate clacking of the men’s heels and the shuffling of their sloes 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. They would think that he was airing his superior education…He had take up a wrong tone. His whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure.”

Joyce, James. Dubliners, ed. Jeri Johnson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 141.

Culture provides a shared knowledge bank/narrative that can be tapped to unite individuals through common understanding (and culture itself depends on common understanding and shared memory). Culture parallels class or educational lines; art and language are subjectively evaluated through the lens of culture.


“Listening to-night to the names of all those great singers of the past it seemed to me, I must confess, that we were living in a less spacious age.”

Joyce, James, and Jeri Johnson. “The Dead.” Dubliners, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2000, pg.261

It’s not that their time is less spacious, but that they are too afraid to do anything else and this yearly tradition, and the past, is just an excuse.

Culture in the Form of Nationalism

“- And why do you go to France and Belgium, said Miss Ivors, instead of visiting your own land?
– Well, said Gabriel, it’s partly to keep in touch with the languages and partly for a change.
– And haven’t you your own language to keep in touch with–Irish? asked Miss Ivors.
– Well, said Gabriel, if it comes to that, you know, Irish is not my language.”

Joyce, James, and Jeri Johnson. “The Dead” Dubliners, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2000, pg 149.

In the conflict between these two characters, Joyce makes each of their stances very clear: Miss Ivors is a nationalist, loyal to her country, while Gabriel does not feel that connection to his fellow Irishmen and lacks the Irish loyalty that Miss Ivors so proudly displays. Miss Ivors is proud of her culture to a degree in which she berates Gabriel for not feeling the same way, and goes as far as to call him a West Briton, basically a cultural traitor. Culture is an important theme throughout this story, and this argument shows that the function of culture in the form of nationalism reveals the ideals and values of these characters, and is likely a way for Joyce to include some of his own criticisms about Ireland and Irish culture with his uniquely ironic way of writing.

The Function of Music in Culture

“-O, I am thinking about that song, The Lass of Aughrim.
She broke loose from him and ran to the bed and, throwing her arms across the bed-rail, hid her face. Gabriel stood stock-still for a moment in astonishment and then followed her. As he passed in the way of the cheval-glass he caught sight of himself in full length, his broad, well-filled shirt-front, the face whose expression always puzzled him when he saw it in a mirror and his glimmering gilt-rimmed eye-glasses. He halted a few paces from her and said:
-What about the song? Why does that make you cry?
She raised her head from her arms and dried her eyes with the back of her hand like a child. A kinder note than he had intended went into his voice.
-Why, Gretta? he asked.
I am thinking about a person long ago who used to sing that song.”

Joyce, James, and Jeri Johnson. “The Dead.” Dubliners, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2000, p. 172.

This passage shows Gretta’s emotional response to a traditional Irish song, The Lass of Aughrim. This song reminded Gretta of a boy from her younger years in Galway who died for her, and this reminder brought up feelings for her. This reveals that a function of culture in music is to create and hold memories. The music linked to culture will bring about memories for people, such as from their first time hearing the music or a specific memory they have related to it.

Separation of Literature and Politics— Is that even possible?

“He wanted to say that literature was above politics. But they were friends of many years’ standing and their careers had been parallel, first at the University and then as teachers: he could not risk a grandiose phrase with her. He continued blinking his eyes and trying to smile and murmured lamely that he saw nothing political in writing reviews of books” (Joyce 148). 

Joyce, James, and Jeri Johnson. Dubliners (Oxford World’s Classics). Annotated, Oxford UP, 2008.

I feel as though Joyce is critiquing Gabriel’s claim of how he is able to separate his work/writing from politics. Gabriel’s stance may have stemmed from the political turmoil in Ireland during that time, and thus leading to the culture of silence or avoidance of such difficult topics. Since Joyce is known for realism and “scrupulous meanness”, I think he would have disagreed with this attitude, as the ugliness of politics is tied in with every day life. I think for him, “literature was above politics” would not be real literature. He also emphasizes Gabriel’s own uncertainty and insecurity about his claim with words such as “murmured lamely”.

Distant Music: Function of Art in Culture

“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 a 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 and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.” (Joyce, 165)

Joyce, James, and Jeri Johnson. “The Dead.” Dubliners, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2000, p. 165.

Gabriel views his wife like art; he is so captivated and intrigued by the sight of her that by picturing her as artwork, he is attempting to understand what is going on in her head. This reveals that the function of art in culture is communicate without words; to describe what is going on based on symbols; to describe something in the real world so intricate that language is not strong enough. Art captures the beauty of a moment and freezes it forever so that the story of an unspoken moment can be passed down through generations.