HOLIDAY PARTIES AND THE DEAD
Every year, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, my wife Liz and I read Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol aloud to our kids. We start shortly after Thanksgiving and read a scene here and a scene there and usually finish shortly before Christmas day.
The kids like it. We watch the movies, too—the Mickey Mouse version and the Muppets version and the musical. We go to the Dickens Fair in San Francisco, where, this year, Tom (our 5-year-old) stopped Jacob Marley to confirm, from the horse’s mouth, our assurance that Marley wasn’t a bad guy and wasn’t anything to be afraid of.
But this year I also read (just to myself) another Christmas (or Christmas-time-y) story that I may likewise make a habit of re-reading each year: James Joyce’s “The Dead.”
“The Dead” is the last story in Joyce’s collection Dubliners, first published in 1914. Like A Christmas Carol, “The Dead” is a novella-ish story in length from a writer who otherwise writes brick-like novels. But other than length and the setting’s season, A Christmas Carol and “The Dead” are very different stories, just as “The Dead,” and all of the stories in Dubliners, are very different, other than their Dublin setting, from the Joyce novels that followed them.
Dubliners, “The Dead” included, was my introduction to Joyce, in college, such that, at twenty-nothing, I thought I “knew about” Joyce’s fiction, a perceived knowledge I carried around for six or seven years before struggling through A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and, a few years after that, Ulysses.
Years later, I had read Ulysses three times (getting better at it each time) and, at nearly forty, again thought I “knew about” Joyce’s fiction when I cracked open Finnegans Wake and once again dispelled that notion.
A few days ago, I read (don’t ask me why) a thread on Twitter in which a tweeter noted that Joyce was a master stylist but not a master storyteller. I found the comment annoying, but decided simply that said tweeter was tossing a blanket statement over an author that he (it was a guy) didn’t like (or hadn’t read, or found too difficult [the difficulty of Joyce’s novels, by the way and in my opinion, is worthwhile]).
But the guy had a point: in Joyce’s novels, the acrobatics of style and language take center stage.
But: as Dubliners demonstrates, these acrobatics are not a mask for deficiency in craft. In his Paris Review interview, Truman Capote noted that Joyce “was a superb craftsman; he could write Ulysses because he could write Dubliners.”
“The Dead” is written with economy and clarity that (by choice) are absent from Joyce’s novels. The story is set at a holiday party. Nothing much happens, or at least nothing all that dramatic, but Joyce (through light touches) creates a tension that permeates the party’s banality and culminates in a final (post-party) scene in which, again, not all that much happens even though the scene is teeming with conflict.
In that final scene (in which Joyce shifts from the external, observable universe to the interior universe of the mind, which, in the novels to follow, he never leaves) the protagonist’s marriage is invaded, and intimacy thwarted, by the memory of his wife’s now-deceased childhood love.
The scene (and story, and book) ends with the image of “snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like a descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead” (Joyce 152).
The falling snow unites everyone—living and dead—and the “dead” of the story’s title refers not only to the invading ghost but to all of the warm and happy party-goers: the living who only differ from the dead due to the coincidence of chronology.
A few paragraphs before the above-quoted final sentence, Gabriel (The Dead’s protagonist) imagines a subsequent gathering of those living party-goers at the inevitable wake of one of the two aunts who had hosted the holiday party. Last year, the week of Christmas, Liz and I hosted three holiday parties: a caroling party for friends and family on the 23rd, brunch and dinner with my family on Christmas Eve, and Christmas morning with her family (followed by dinner at their house). Three warm and happy parties full of warm and happy people.
Liz and I have been together for eight Christmases. We’ve participated in (and thereby helped carry on) her family’s Christmas traditions as well as my family’s Christmas traditions, and we’ve established new traditions for our own nuclear family, which has now doubled in size. Over these eight years, we’ve been to a lot of warm and happy holiday parties full of warm and happy living people. But we’ve lost some of those living along the way—some on my side of the family, some on hers.
One year they were there. The next year they were not.
Christmas is a unique holiday because we often spend it the same way year after year (I suppose this is true of other holidays, too, but perhaps not to the same degree, or with the same amount of pageantry). It therefore becomes an annual marker of what has changed (in a life, in a family, in the world).
But holidays also unite the living and the dead. This year, like the three years preceding, Liz and I will spend Christmas morning with our two young sons. It will be a version of a party that we’ve been going to for years, since we were their age. But not that long ago, there were people at this party who aren’t here anymore and whom our sons have never met (even though they are closely connected to those people).
And someday our sons will have a version of this same party. And we won’t be there. But other people will be there whom we’ve never met (though we are closely connected to those people).
All of which is rather uplifting. Or perhaps comforting. Christmas is a perpetual ghost story that connects (as Dickens has personified) the past, the present, and the future—falling upon all of the living and the dead.
“The Dead.” Dubliners, by James Joyce, Dover, 1991, pp. 119–152.