The Horror House at the Carnival

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From "The Dead" by James Joyce in Dubliners:

"His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the decent of their last end,  upon all the living and the dead" (225).

When I read this sentence for the first time, I was struck by the repetition and the alliteration.  The formalist/structuralist/general literary critic in me would comment, what function does this serve?  Why would Joyce choose his words so carefully?

I think a good place to start would be to see where this sentence appears.  It is the very last line in the story.  It is the wrap up really, the thing that gets to tie the loose ends together. 

 "Soul swooned slowly" is not easy to say.  Say it aloud.  You have to read these words with careful attention and slower than the rest of the text.  This, in itself, reflects the point of the alliteration.  As Gabriel's soul is slowly swooning, the reader must take a pause of his/her own in order to not get tongue tied.  I would argue that all the alliteration together just draws attention to the sentence itself because it is the unifying sentence in the work.  The snow falls "through the universe" showing that everyone will encounter the struggle with death.  Those that are alive and dead both have snow falling on them.  The issue of life and death is universal and cannot be escaped.

The snow that is "falling faintly" could also be interpreted as a metaphor for humanity.  There are so many lives and everyone will eventually take the fall and die, but in a cosmic view, their death will not be felt so much, it is faint.  It seems like a sort of encoded message to do as Michael Furey did which is to not fall faintly. He is not forgotten and still lives on through Gretta's memory, and now Gabriel's.

  • What do you think about the sentence in general? 
  • What about the alliteration? 
  • Do you agree with me or do you think that I am totally off?

To read more on Joyce's The Dead, click here for Derek's kick off of the discussion or here for Greta's wrap-up!


Derek Tickle said:

I referred the snow to how it has offered Ireland a new starting point in history. It symbolizes how it is making Ireland pure and trying to stop the dividing culture and the land disputes.

I found your blog to be very interesting and relatable to my blog carnival entry called, The House of Shoes - The Beginning or End of A Soul...

Greta Carroll said:

Angela, I don’t disagree with your reading, I thought it was very perceptive actually. I would add a few things to what you already said though. I think the alliteration does cause one to slow down and think, but I also think it mimics the snow itself. When I say “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow,” I feel like the words themselves are like the snow slowly falling to the ground. All the s sounds also make me feel like I am sighing as I pronounce the s sounds and let out breathe. And this sighing sensation almost makes me feel sadly reflective, just like Gabriel is. I am also intrigued by the inverted order of “falling faintly” to “faintly falling.” Perhaps he just did this to further stress these words, but I feel like there is more to it than this. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

Or, Greta, the "s" sound could be the noise you make when you're cold. The "sa sa sa sa sa" noise you make. Maybe I'm looking into it too far though.

Derek Tickle said:

I had never thought about the snow and how it relates to how the words are said, but it does make sense. I, too, found it interesting at how the words were written. They give the reader an oppurtunity to focus on these words. I think that Gabriel's life is "falling faintly," but the snow that he sees through the window is "faintly falling."

Greta Carroll said:

That’s quite possible Angela, and I don’t you’re reading too much into it. After all that’s the point in literature after all, reading it in different ways and considering its possible meanings. What we’re coming up with are two different reader-responses to the s-alliteration. However, I don’t think either of the feelings created in our minds by the alliteration drastically changes the meaning of the story. It just adds another layer of connection between the reader and the work.

Derek, I appreciate your clarification of the falling faintly, and faintly falling, that make sense to me.

Now, I’m going to bring up two other particular word choices from the quote you picked, Angela. After all, that is what formalists do, pick apart all the parts of the text and examine them.

First, Joyce chooses the word, “universe,” he doesn’t just say that the snow is falling through the sky or falling towards Ireland (although he does descriptively describe how the snow is falling all over Ireland before this sentence). What do you think of this word “universe”? Is Joyce trying to make the work more universal, so that the story will apply more readily to other people besides the Irish?

The second word choice I’m wondering about is “the decent of their last end.” Why is it only decent? Decent implies that one is not necessarily going to a nice place after they die…What do you think this says about Joyce? Does he use “decent” simply to bring back to the reader’s mind the fact that the snow is falling? Do you think he is portraying life-after death negatively? Really, we could even relate this back to Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Is one’s life better paralyzed as Gabriel’s was before his epiphany and as the lovers on Keats’s Urn are or is it better to be mortal? Do you guys see any other relations between Keats’s poem and Joyce’s “The Dead”? We know that Yeats (another Irish writer) was aware of Keats; Yeats alluded to him in his poem “Sailing to Byzantium.” Do you think Joyce could have been influenced by Keats as well, after all life on the urn is a sort of paralysis?

I do think that Joyce is attempting to make his story more universal. I guess that he's trying to show the universalness of death. It is his attempt, in my opinion, to make his work applicable to everyone although he has already done that through Gabriel's struggles. He makes him relatably human so we can all feel bad for him. What does eveyone else think?

Derek Tickle said:

Wow! What a pick, Greta!

I think that the word choice of "universe" is not directly applying to the snow, but more so to the reader's across the world, as you mentioned. I think that Joyce is trying to make this story be relatable to future generations and literary scholars, like ourselves!

Angela: I think that Joyce is showing how humans all encounter struggles, but we may not see them until it is too late. Take Gabriel, for example, and how his wife expressed former lover feelings at the end of the story. I do not believe that Gebriel relized this until it was too late and he was not able to turn the situation around.

Another rather different question for everyone:

Is the use of "souls" from Joyce implying that Gabriel is unsure of his afterlife?

Katie Vann said:

Angela, I liked you original comment, especially how you commented how lives, such as Gabriel, fall faintly like the snow and are quickly forgotten. To address Greta's comment on the comparison of Joyce and Keats, I think Joyce didn't see death and the after life as positively as what Keats did. I think Keats saw death and the life afterwards as being better than the earthly life he was living at the time. The impression I got from this passage was that Joyce sees life as limited opportunities, that if not acted upon one ends up not necessarily living a life but as Dr. Cusick mentioned, only going through the motions of living. Along with this, I don't believe Joyce saw the afterlife as being much better or more of a relief as what Keats made it out to be in his poem. Instead, because of the depressing image Joyce gives of life and death with the snow, I think as Angela said, that Joyce wants to make his readers realize that what they do while they are living is what is important. He doesn't really make the life after death look promising and hopeful, instead just emphasizes that you must do what you can while living to make sure that you are remembered and missed by someone when you are gone.
Derek, in response to your last question, I don't know that Joyce was implying that Gabriel was unsure of his after life. I wasn't completely clear on Joyce's depiction of the after life, although I will say that I believe it wasn't all postive. However, I think he wanted us to look more at how Gabriel's life had very little meaning to it. How close my interpretation is to something that is useful, I have no idea. What does everyone else think about this?

Greta Carroll said:

Hmm, I don’t know whether Gabriel was unsure of his afterlife or not. I think if he was that would help bring “The Dead” into a relation with “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” I also think that is a good intertextual observation. But, I’m not sure that I think Gabriel is questioning. After all he has an epiphany, and don’t epiphanies cause some sort of realization and not cause more questions?

Also, Katie, I think I kind of agree with you on Joyce having a more negative view on life after death, as I think the word “decent” as I pointed out early kind of implies. And I think you’re probably right, we can’t really be clear on what Joyce think about the afterlife because it’s not his main focus. Instead, I think he wants to wake people up so that they use the time they have on earth in a good way.

Derek Tickle said:

I think that Gabriel has a negative view on life after his wife admits her former love and feelings. He seemed very shocked and taken back from this and we do not know where his life will take him.

Is Joyce placing himself in Gabriel's shoes in order to show us that life is unexpected like how Ireland has experienced many unexpected events?

Katie Vann said:

I think he places himself in Gabriel's shoes more to show not the unexpected events, but the paralysis and the regret that can come from this paralysis. I see this story as more of a warning rather than a recounting/retelling. Does this make sense?

I saw it as a warning too, Katie. Of course, I may be a bit biased because I remember when I was younger, my soccer coach told me a story of how he was in a bad car crash and after that, he decided he needed to live every day like it was his last. This, of course, he related to soccer and going all out because he may never have the chance to play again.

As for the whole Keats interpretation thing, I'm not so sure that Keats' depiction of the afterlife was totally positive. The text is very ambiguous and I think he may also be hinting at the fact that his future is uncertain. (I guess, though, it doesn't take much to get more positive than Joyce.) I know that I read that Keats frequently questioned the afterlife somewhere in my literary criticism journey.

Did you catch that Gabriel is also the name of one of the few angels that are given names in the Bible? He delivers the messages about the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus, and he's sometimes known as the angel of death.

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