17 February 2012
Mistaking Awkwardness for Arrogance: A Reexamination of Gabriel in James Joyce’s “The Dead”
A figure as complex and multifaceted as the rich narrative from which he is taken, Gabriel Conroy has long interested readers seeking meaning in James Joyce’s “The Dead.” Initially regarded as “a painfully ordinary man” by Melissa Free, subsequent critics have more harshly accused Gabriel of arrogance and classism, based on his “Three Encounters” with the characters Lily, Molly Ivors, and Gretta (280, 283). However, though many sound arguments can be made in support of Gabriel’s arrogance, one might see this position as a failure to ...view middle of the document...
His attempt to smooth over the interaction by offering money illustrates what is often misinterpreted when condemning Gabriel’s “arrogance”: Namely, his painful self-consciousness made worse by his subsequent social faux pas. It is because of his embarrassment that Gabriel fails with Lily, much for the same reason that he fails with Molly Ivors later in the story.
The generous amount of criticism leveled at Gabriel for his behavior with Molly has mostly overlooked his feelings of self-consciousness, and more importantly, the fact that he never acts on his condescending thoughts. Critics tend to focus on his outburst, ignoring the fact that he first “coulored and was about to knit his brows, as if he did not understand” Molly’s unprovoked badgering (Free 289, Joyce 303). Indeed, when Gabriel finally snaps, it is only after numerous public jabs to which he first responds in meek defense of himself (Joyce 303). Free makes note of this fact, stating that Gabriel is “disarmed by Molly’s ambivalence towards him, her rapid fluctuation between conviviality and aggression” (Free 280). This is important, for one should remember that the two were friends and colleagues for years prior to the party (Joyce 303). Gabriel’s dismissal of Molly as “a girl, or woman, or whatever she was,” and his decision to attack her in his dinner speech, surface only after he feels he has been made foolish in front of other guests (Joyce 305). Here one should also make note of Gabriel’s temperance, the fact that his “revenge” speech is well received, complimenting both his aunts and the merits of Irish hospitality (Joyce 311-312). Once more a victim of his social ineptitude – too forward with Lily, too stuffy with Molly – Gabriel is certainly a klutz, but proves to be a principled klutz nonetheless. He illustrates a similar display of ethics later in the story, when alone with his wife at the hotel.
While many have chosen to interpret Gabriel’s third encounter negatively, as an example of his selfish lust, redeemed only by his sympathy for Michael Furrey, the final scene in “The Dead” is in fact the most poignant display of both his temperance and self-criticism (Free 295). Gabriel’s lustful thoughts of Gretta, his arms “trembling with desire to seize her,” ultimately amount to...