A more pleasant it would be there than at

A symbol is defined as an object, action or event that represents
something or creates a range of associations beyond itself. Throughout the
novella “The Dead,” Joyce uses snow, the dinner table, and the setting itself
as symbols to highlight the degenerative paralysis of the upper class, to
establish a relationship between Gabriel and death, and finally to keep the
characters contained within their set of falsified ideals.

            During the dinner
party, snow is falling outside the house, which highlights the superficial
nature and paralysis of the upper class. Joyce shows that the snow falls on
both the living and the dead, which essentially highlights the fact that many
Dubliners live such shallow, meaningless lives that that they are essentially dead
while still living. The Morkan sisters laugh at jokes even before understanding
their meanings, only in hopes of assimilating and seeming more educated. The
group of men that applaud the loudest after Mary Jane’s piano performance were
the ones that were absent throughout its duration. The culture shown is highly insincere
and only does what they see is correct in terms of how others view them:

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Aunt Kate nearly doubled herself, so heartily
did she enjoy the joke. The smile soon faded off of Aunt Julia’s face and her
mirthless eyes were directed towards her nephew’s face. After a pause, she
asked:

—And what are galoshes, Gabriel?

—Galoshes, Julia! exclaimed her sister.
Goodness me, don’t you know what galoshes are? You wear them over your…over your
boots, Gretta, isn’t it? (Joyce 180-181).

 

Aunt Kate is still somewhat unsure of the definition of galoshes,
despite buckling over from laughing; Aunt Julia likewise laughs only to fit in
to the crowd. The guests at the dinner party live such a shallow and routine
driven life that they have lost their sense of individualism. The conversations
throughout the party parallel the snow, as they too are dead and meaningless.
Gabriel notes the degenerate nature of the party and expresses that he would
rather be elsewhere, “How cool it must be outside! … The snow would be lying
on the branches of trees and forming a bright cap on the Wellington Monument.
How much more pleasant it would be there than at the supper-table!” (192). To
outsiders, the dinner party had an air of class and sophistication surrounding
it, but in reality, the partygoers were mostly uneducated, had inherited their
wealth, and did not even care to be present. The more educated guests, such as
Gabriel and even the caretaker’s daughter, Lily, were the only ones that
expressed dissatisfaction with their lifestyle. Though other Dubliners are
critical of Ireland, Gabriel is the first to express frustration with its
current state as a whole. He feels as though he would rather have a physical
death than continue to be caught up in the routine paralysis in which he
currently endures, which is symbolic of an emotional and moralistic demise.
Despite the fact that Lily will likely not continue her education, she is ironically
more aware of morals than the other guests, and is more socially intelligent. The
use of snow and cold in relation specifically to Gabriel’s body shows his
relationship with death. Gabriel feels it would be better for him to die young
and full of passion like his wife’s first love, Michael Furey, than to live a
long and hollow life, “Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all
over Ireland … It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard
on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried” (223). Some of the living, like
Gabriel, have never truly been alive, and some of the dead, like Michael, hold
equal significance to that of the living. Gabriel brushes the snow off of his
shoulders and wears his galoshes to shield himself from the snow (177), which is
a stark contrast to Michael, who willingly stood out in the snow and eventually
met his demise from it, as Gretta explains that she “thinks he died for me”
(220). The symbolism of the snow reminds readers that everyone ends with the
same fate, which is death, as the narrator explains that “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”
(224). Regardless of how rich or educated a person is, their fate remains equivalent.
Gabriel’s character is an allusion to the Biblical archangel Gabriel, who
conveys messages and revelations from God to humans. Through the use of this
allusion, Joyce is suggesting that his character has an important message to
deliver to society about the state of the nation.

            The dinner table at
which the carving and primary conversations occur is described as a
battleground. The ends of the table are described as “rival ends,” the dishes
are in “parallel lines,” (196) wine decanters are “sentries,” a yellow dish
“lay in waiting” as if for an ambush, and behind this dish were “three squads
of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn up according to the colours of
their uniforms” (197).  Battles and war
are explicitly related to death, and the colours used in the description of the
table further this image. Yellow and brown have been long associated with the
decay motif running through all of Joyce’s works; red is also prominent and
symbolizes violence and blood. Combined, this imagery is highly successive of
death and decay, relating directly back to the story’s title, “The Dead.” The dinner
party keeps the characters inside and contained in their falsified ideals, making
them die figuratively by staying in their decrepit and decaying surroundings.
The characters want to leave, but are contained by societal obligations and
ideals, as well as the physical frigid temperature that the snow brings with it.

The setting is symbolic since the
party takes place near Epiphany, which occurs immediately after new year and
signals rebirth and renewal. The date itself is significant because it
symbolizes the start of a new year, and Gabriel’s epiphany could lead to this
renewal in his life, however, it does the opposite. Gabriel experiences his own
epiphany surrounding Gretta when he realizes “how poor a part he, her husband,
had played in her life” (222). He decides to abandon his plans to travel the
continent and concludes that he will instead go Westwards with her (223), in
hopes of gaining her love by dying for her in a less literal sense, by putting
aside his desires. His epiphany leaves him with a sense of “vague terror” (220),
which is ironic because this is the exact opposite of rebirth and renewal:

His soul had approached that region
where dwell the vast hosts of the dead…His own identity was fading out into a
grey impalpable world: the world itself, which these dead had one time reared
and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling (223).

Ultimately, Gabriel is unable to truly escape Ireland and the paralysis
of everyday Irish life.

            Throughout the novella
“The Dead,” Joyce uses snow, the dinner table, and the setting itself as
symbols to highlight the degenerative paralysis of the upper class, to
establish a relationship between Gabriel and death, and finally to keep the
characters contained within their set of falsified ideals. Joyce clearly
establishes that all individuals are equal and should therefore be treated as
such. The reader too is reminded to treat others as equivalents, since the
message translates outside the novella and into the real world.