Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Dissonant Music

Music—the literal music of singers and instruments—but also the music of words as conveyed through Joyce’s writing itself, plays a key role in his long story, “The Dead.” Music is referenced throughout the story, beginning in the first paragraph where the “wheezy doorbell” clangs, a harsh and already dissonant note foreshadowing dissonance to come. A page and a paragraph later we learn that Mary Jane had “had an organ in Hadington Road” and that she gives concerts every year. Aunt Julia is a soprano, and her older and more feeble sister, Kate, gives music lessons “to beginners on the old square piano in the back room.” The event in preparation is billed as an annual dance, but clearly music lies at its core.

Metaphorically, on page two, Joyce sounds two more dissonant notes (if one counts the clanging doorbell as the first). These are expressed by the aunts’ distress over the tardiness of two of their guests, Gabriel Conroy and his wife, Gretta, and over the possibility that another guest, Freddy Malins, will turn up “screwed.” The first fear is quickly put to rest as the Conroy’s arrive, with Gabriel “scraping snow from his galoshes.” The first mention of snow arrives with its own special dissonance. That, like music, snow is to play a key metaphorical role in the story is made clear by Lily’s stating portentously, “I think we’re in for a night of it”—words that could be applied with equal accuracy to the snow, to music, or to other, darker things. No sooner does Lily speak these words than Gabriel, fresh out of his overcoat, looks up at the ceiling shaking with the stampings and shuffles of other guests’ feet, and hears the muted piano notes drifting down (like the snowflakes later), and casts the first of many glances at his wife, who already seems distanced from him—a glance that sounds it own dissonant note here, however muted like the piano notes from above.

In describing Gabriel, Joyce notes that his eyeglass lenses and frames “scintillated” restlessly on his hairless face: another musical reference. Having rather condescendingly tipped Lily, and been subtly rebuked by him, he makes his way to the threshold of the drawing room, where while waiting for the waltz to end he listens to the music of the dancers’ swishing skirts. As he waits, he muddles over a quote for his speech, concerned (again condescendingly) that he may choose something over his listeners’ heads, that he “would fail with them just as he had with the girl in the pantry.” Now the dissonance is borne of the clash of classes. Gabriel feels superior, but his superiority renders him insecure. Presently the two aunts arrive, with Aunt Julia, the elder, drawn and gray and her younger sister “all pucker and creases,” a “shriveling red apple.” It’s hard not to see the sisters as variations on a theme of living death, with Gabriel “their favorite nephew.”

On the next page, discussing his wife, Gabriel says, “she’ll walk home in the snow if she were let.” The foreshadowing here is clear when we reach the story’s end, by which time the falling snow and Greta’s dead and buried lover have been thoroughly linked—and she does indeed “walk home” with him—in fact she will go to bed with him, at least in Gabriel mind. But for now Greta lets out a “peal” of laughter, and all join her, and the talk turns to galoshes.

The story’s next movement sees Freddy Malin’s arrival, delivering its promised comical dissonance. A break follows in the wake of his “bronchitic” laughter, and then we have Gabriel unable to listen to Mary Jane’s academic playing which has “no melody for him.” Mr. Conroy has little tolerance for dissonance, whether in music or in his own marriage. As he listens, or tries not to, his eyes wander to a picture of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, with the perfect harmony of their death-united love contrasting sharply and ironically with events to follow later in the story.

The next note of dissonance is struck on page 188 (Penguin edition) when Gabriel is taken to task by Miss Ivors for having written a book review for The Daily Express, “a rag,” as she calls it. Gabriel, unwilling to risk a highbrow or haughty response, tries to smile and murmur his way out of it. But he is clearly caught off guard and disarmed and made to feel ill at ease. Miss Ivors then takes his hand and changes the subject, inviting him and his wife on an excursion of the Aran Isles, which offer he fends off, betraying his lack of patriotism—in fact, he is above such sentiments, and even admits to being “sick of my own country”—a confession that sounds a dissonant note indeed, and leaves its speaker hot with emotion. To sublimate his agitation, Gabriel joins a dance in progress, avoiding Miss Ivor’s eyes and the sour look on her face. But he can’t escape her when she boldly calls him a “West Briton.” If this hasn’t spoiled the party for him, what could?

The dissonance is this confrontation with Miss Ivors is born again in the scene between Gabriel and his wife later, when Gretta urges him to take the trip, and he responds, coldly, “You can go, if you like,” adding yet more distance between himself and the person supposedly closest to him. Things are getting very cold around Gabriel. Now begins his steady withdrawal, which will deepen and darken. He retires to the window to prepare for his speech, thinking “how cool it must be outside,” and wishing, in a paragraph that will be recalled almost verbatim at the story’s close, that he were “out there” alone in the falling snow and not at the dance party: he will be.

He is called out of his musings when Aunt Julia takes her place at the piano to play Arrayed for the Bridal, another set-up toward the story’s climax. In the wake of her singing Gabriel applauds loudly, but only to achieve the excitement and escape of “swift and secure flight.” He doesn’t want to be there. By now his very presence sounds a harsh, dissonant note within himself and in the story as a whole. Meanwhile others—including the drunken Freddy Malins—agree that Aunt Julia’s voice has improved greatly as memories of her youthful promise are rekindled, and the refrain of distant or lost music (grace) is heard not for the first time, or the last: the refrain will haunt the rest of the story.

Miss Ivor’s exits laughing—a laugh that Gabriel can’t help feeling is somehow at his expense. To break free of its implications, he applies himself boldly to the task of carving the goose, plunging the carving knife firmly into its fatty flesh (need we guess where the laughing Miss Ivor’s has gone?). With Miss Ivors symbolically slices to pieces Gabriel’s mood improves considerably, to where he is even fit to make jokes about stuffing. Gabriel resists both literal sweets and those of small talk; he sits at the head of the table literally and figuratively, placing himself above others. The divide reasserts itself as the theme of death rises to the fore, with the monks sleeping in coffins so as to remind themselves “of their last end.” The association between bedrooms and death will, too, have its pay-off in the final episode. Death has sounded its first dithering, dissonant chord. With it still resonating Gabriel, his fingers trembling on the tablecloth, looks up to the chandelier, hearing a waltz played again on the piano, drifting once again mentally outdoors to where the air is “pure” and the snow continues to fall. Here, too, the final paragraph is telegraphed (at the top of page 202), with a mention of the park and the trees “weighted with snow.” The music Gabriel hears is no longer simply that of the waltz, but the haunting music of the falling snow, the waltz of death.

It’s time for Gabriel’s speech. It’s a haughty, reactionary speech, one that harks back to the old days and summonses the memories of the dead, the “gone great ones whose fame the world will not willingly let die,” words that will certainly ring true for him later, if they don’t as he speaks them. Joyce pays careful attention to the cadences and intonation of the speaker, whose voice is described as “falling into a softer inflection”—using the words “falling” and “softer” that will echo in the final paragraph. Gabriel promises not to “linger in the past”—a promise soon to be broken. The speech concludes with a volley of stentorian acclamations and requisite toastmaster puffery, with Freddy Malins the fool with fork. His speech—however unctuous— has served its purpose, gluing Gabriel back to “his people.” He tells the story of the mill owner, Johnny, and his horse, arousing laughter, ending the evening, as far as the dance party goes, in good form. Now all he needs to do is get his wife back to their room. Before leaving he catches a glimpse of Gretta listening to Mr. D’Arcy sing The Lass of Aughrim, and a “sudden tide of joy” leaps out of his heart, a joy to be crushed later when he learns about the boy whom she first heard sing that same song, and a pleasing melody turns again to dissonance. From there everyone knows where the story goes, falling faintly and faintly falling, toward its final, deadly glissando.

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