By G. J. Israel
G.J. Israel’s literary analysis essay was written for English 4450 and nominated by Professor Laura Sims. Sims writes, “He used all the right ingredients: an intelligent, creative, and interesting thesis statement; a thorough examination of the evidence needed to support his main idea; and careful, yet fluid, organization overall. But his greatest skill lies in turning the English paper ‘formula’ into a work of art; I took note of his inclusion of the necessary elements, of course, but for the most part I was able to forget I was reading a student paper, and coast along with the compelling flow of thoughts and ideas of this accomplished and eloquent young scholar.”
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- Learn more about how Israel uses close reading to analyze his main texts
In the epiphanic moment with which James Joyce’s short story “The Dead” concludes, Gabriel Conroy is struck by the impact the deceased have on the living. Laura, of Kate Mansfield’s “The Garden Party,” comes to a different insight when she beholds the dead body of a peasant in the finale of that story. Each of these modernist texts center around (both as a narrative element and a primary trope) a social gathering: Gabriel’s dark dinner party at his sisters’ house, which becomes increasingly haunted and eventually evokes even the oldest of the guests’ ghosts, and Laura’s parents’ lavish garden party, which becomes a troubled portrait of social division as a funeral unfolds in the slums below their mansion. In each case, the characters mentioned seem to be the only ones who “experience” the dead in a conscious, almost supernatural, way. Laura’s youth and innocence lead her to constantly conjure the specter of death into an ostensible celebration of life, and eventually to be drawn from that “life” towards the “death” which signifies life; Gabriel’s inability to separate from the spirits which pervade his world leads him to a type of “living death” described by irrecoverable passions and unmatchable memories. While both characters thus view the dead as contained within the same orchestra as the living, Joyce’s protagonist hears a harmony, whereas Mansfield’s hears a counterpoint. That is to say, Gabriel experiences death as part of life; the dead exist concurrently and within the living in a “gray and impalpable world,” where Laura concludes that the dead provide contrast for life, a negation which highlights the transience and beauty of the positive (Joyce 160). While each of these assessments may be incomplete, an analysis of their ramifications within the texts may shed light on how the relationship between “life” and “death” can possibly be understood—or if that binary is even intelligible.
Gabriel’s party is informed and infused by death, an unspoken yet explicit “guest of honor.” The dinner guests discuss the passing of the “dead and gone great ones,” referring not only to the specific family members (Pat, Gabriel’s mother) whose presences still remain at the Morkan household, but the dying-out age of “old Ireland” to which Gabriel clings (Joyce 160). The act of repeating the family members’ names—of calling them to mind—indicates of course that they are not in every sense dead. Indeed, in some ways, these dead have achieved a more impressive life, a continuing and continuous presence whose desires are fulfilled in reverberations long after the desirer has been buried.
When Aunt Julia sings, it sparks a discussion on what could’ve been, the voice that she used to have, the “dead” voice. It is clear that once she dies, the weakened and timorous voice of her old age will be forgotten and the halls of the Morkan house will ring with the remembered brilliance of her youthful song, amplified and perfected by a collection of loving rewrites in the memories of her family and imagined extrapolations in the minds of all her later acquaintances. In a very real sense, her “live” voice is the one sentenced to death, while her “dead” voice is destined for years of the most eloquent life. This concept is echoed in the shortly following debate on “great tenors of the day”—which ends in the resolution that no living tenor could equal the dead ones in D’arcy’s memory—another subverting act against the life/death distinction (Joyce 163).
Laura’s party seems at first to reify this distinction, as it is thrown, in direct opposition to death, as a celebration of vitality and prosperity. The news of Mr. Scott’s accident reaches the party, but doesn’t affect it (of itself) at all. The two events exist in separate spheres, something that Laura has trouble with, at first. While the music and gaiety of the garden is all around her, Laura can’t keep her mind off the interior juxtaposition of the thought of the dead man lying in a house down the road from hers. Every act of revelry in the garden becomes recast against the backdrop of the corpse, like flowers and fungi erupting from a rotted trunk. However, as will be shown, this easy imagery is only presented in the first parts of the story in order to be inverted and rejected by the concluding volta.
We are given something of this “other side” when the specific dead individuals who spark the two revelations are given voice. The situations here are different for Gabriel and Laura in that Gabriel has experienced much more death (and life) than Laura has—she is experiencing death for essentially the first time when she views Mr. Scott’s corpse—and that Laura is viewing a silent body whereas Gabriel is hearing a recitation. When Mrs. Conroy details her dead love, Michael Furey, she is speaking of a part of herself more so than another individual. Furey represented something for her, a sort of “furious” love that she never attained subsequently. In this way, Furey did not cease to exist but instead incorporated himself into Gretta Conroy. She dies a death, of course, as well. Gabriel notes that she had “no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death,” further blurring the line between what it means to be “alive” and “dead” (Joyce 175). In many ways, Furey remains more alive than Gretta.
The spokesman for Mr. Scott’s corpse is, of course, Laura. She places her reaction to the body into its mouth, and has it tell her that death is “happy,” that it is “content” to have lived (Mansfield 13). In large part, this has to do with the novelty of death for Laura. Having never seen a body before, she likens it to sleep, to a happy dream that continues forever. The beauty she sees in the corpse is in direct contrast to the supposed “beauty” of the garden party, which becomes a macabre ugliness of “baskets and lace frocks,” oddly denotative of life (Mansfield 8). Laura asks the body to forgive her hat, recognizing the presence of an incongruity between her hat’s description of the world and the sleeping testament to the opposite laying in front of her. Laura’s experience makes her acutely aware of the “something” of life—its inexplicable, headlong momentum. The garden party is an offense not against death, therefore, but against life, just as the dead man is a testament to the power of life, not the inevitability of mortality.
Each way of viewing death is at once comforting and disconcerting. Gabriel’s revelation—that life and death coexist under the snowy blanket of human experience—is reassuring in a metaphysical way: lives and deaths become relatively immaterial, occasions for the stopping of one set of experiential determination and the start of another. Humankind is one organism, composed of innumerable independent but interrelated parts. Where this becomes scary, obviously, is in the relative meaninglessness individual lives and deaths obtain: Furey is remarkable more for his death than his life, and Gabriel’s mediocre life seems to be leading to an unremarkable death. The pressure of the marvelous dead who writhe among us becomes unbearable.
Laura’s idea that death gives meaning to life is, at first glance, easier to swallow. Each death becomes a celebration of the life that exists around it, an outline in relief of the red rose of vivacity. The disturbing part of this mentality is that it relies completely on abstraction. Are soldiers lying dead in a field of battle “wonderful” and “beautiful”? Is a murdered daughter or a mangled prostitute? And if they are, which is very likely, what interpretation of “life” are they describing? When the outline becomes darker and bigger than the life it details, Laura’s innocent notion is thrown for a loop.
The truth is that there are no abstract ways to codify and describe the meaning and impact of the dead on the living, or vice versa. The discoveries that Laura and Gabriel make are both valid, and apply for different moments, but each is ultimately unsatisfactory. As people grow and change and experience, their perception and reaction to death, in all its lovely and hideous forms, develops and morphs as well. At times, the weight of living with the dead becomes intolerable. At other times, the absence of that weight becomes equally difficult. We are reminded of our own life when we look upon a corpse, but also of our mortality. Thus life and death are not monolithic entities comprised of distinct and inviolate differences. To what degree can any of us validate (or invalidate) the “life-status” or “death-status” of anyone else? What becomes more and more important, as Laura and Gabriel would each attest, is the way in which we interact with, construct, and care for the lives and deaths with which we are engaged.
Joyce, James. Dubliners. New York: Prestwick House, Inc., 2006.
Mansfield, Katherine. The Garden Party, and Other Stories. London: Penguin Books, 1997.
Published February 7, 2010