Revealing Rhetoric in James Joyce’s “The Dead”

Posted: December 10, 2013 in Rhetorical Analysis
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Prezi Presenation


The mantra Ferris Bueller has in the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when he says, “Life goes by pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile you may miss it” applies, strangely enough, to grammar. Reading, writing, and speaking are things people do on a constant basis. Since these actions go by so fast, people fail to recognize how parts of speech work together to create memorable rhetoric. For the purposes of this rhetorical analysis, the rules of grammar do not matter: the effect of grammar on the rhetoric in James Joyce’s “The Dead” is the primary focus.

Plot Summary

“The Dead” describes a well-attended Christmas party that leads the main character, Gabriel Conroy, to reflect his relationship with his wife, himself, and his country. The reflection, written in a stream of consciousness form, shows a succession of ideas constantly moving in time without regard for logical sequences or syntactic structure. The internal thought process culminates with an epiphany, a sudden reversal marking a change in view sparked from a commonplace experience. In Gabriel’s case, this commonplace experience is watching his wife fall asleep in their bed and watching the snow fall outside his window.

From Plot to Style.

This scenario’s description causes Joyce to parse down the language until it becomes a minimal palette of words, images, and emotions.  The use of imagism creates a lack of subjective or objective words or phrases especially those that do not contribute to the presentation. In Dubliners, Joyce attempts to describe life as it is—au naturel—with personal, powerful stories that contain charged imagery and gripping descriptions. Doing so captures Ireland’s tumultuous time in the early 20th century through brief sketches. In “The Dead,” Joyce emphasizes a sense of unrest in the internal monologue that leads up to an intense catharsis through sentence structure and verb tense. The short story culminates with a push for Gabriel to journey westward to Galway, away from Dublin’s bustling, noisy urban dirtiness.

Rhetorical Analysis

Gabriel’s Self-talk

The sentence “Perhaps she had not told him all the story” continuing through the end of the paragraph with the words “Yes, yes: that would happen very soon” marks the boundaries of Gabriel’s internal monologue featuring future tense and simple sentences. A series of fragments connected by asyndeton (a purposeful lack of coordination) within this stream-of-consciousness summarizes everything that happened in the plot up to this point. Gabriel’s musings end with coordination showing the relation between the deaths of Michael Furey and Aunt Gloria. In both cases, Gabriel’s detached distance contrasts from the text surrounding this internal monologue.

Gabriel’s Relationship with his Wife

The rest of the selection is written in past tense, which shows Gabriel’s shift in his belief system: the memory of the former dead is seeping into the present, affecting his view on Dublin, and inspires a drive to leave the city. This belief system is represented through simple sentences except in two instances. The sentence with compound elements (in this case, contains “and”) describing Gabriel’s action towards his wife—“He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife”—lacks a sexually charged association because a previous passage with a compound-complex sentence structure describes Gabriel looking at his wife as someone else’s lover. The passage—“His curious eyes rested long upon her face and on her hair: and, as he thought of what she must have been then, in that time of her first girlish beauty, a strange, friendly pity for her entered his soul”—describes how Gabriel had never been (and could never be) intimately involved with his wife the same way as Michael Furey. These two examples feature parataxis (copious amounts of coordination) to show the relationship between two people.

Gabriel’s Relationship with Himself

The simple sentences used throughout the rest of the passage are not short, staccato ones. They are fattened with additional parts of speech. Joyce favors prepositions, adverbials, and direct objects as his sentence fillers. The details Joyce inserts contain concepts that jump from one to the next without transitions; however, subordination shows connections and relationships between thought processes. The result is a fluid style that mimics the falling snow and its oppressive nature on Gabriel, Ireland, and all the living and the dead. This effect is seen in two examples found at near the conclusion of the selected passage where repetition is used in conjunction with hyperbaton (inversion of the natural syntax).

The text reads: “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.” In addition to repetition of the word “falling” and hyperbaton used on the words “falling” and “softly,” parallelism is used for climactic emphasis. The ending repetition features a jarring faulty coordination with the words “farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves” that breaks up the rhythm of the sentence. Where the faulty coordination is placed seems appropriate however because Joyce uses the choppy style to describe “the dark mutinous Shannon waves.” The same repetition and inversion is also found in the short story’s final sentence: “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.” In this section, the prose is not formulaic: new information is not sequential and comes in random spurts and bursts. Previously “known” information would seem irrelevant if not for Joyce’s effective use of repetition.


Joyce’s use of stylized sentence structure, poignant prepositions, and rolling repetition in “The Dead” portrays a psychological bend in a belief statement. Gabriel’s moment of realization that we (as a collective humanity) are bound to a circle of life and death is the reader’s realization too. This notion creates a sense of catharsis through John Keats’ view on negative capability, which is a feeling of being comfortable with the unknown. Both the reader and Gabriel have to accept factors and happenstances in their lives that are beyond one’s control.

Gabriel’s stream of consciousness leads to a single epiphany: we’re all going to die, so we might as well make the most of it. Gabriel doesn’t have a “Hakuna Matata. It means no worries” reaction to this realization—he obsessively turns scenarios over into his mind until he becomes brooding and pensive. Only the concept of going westward snaps him out of his funk. Movement equates to freedom. Freedom equates to persistence. Persistence equates to “the descent of [the dead’s and the living’s] last end” in James Joyce’s “The Dead.” The descent, just like the falling snow, is universal no matter what direction humanity travels.


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