In the very last paragraph of “The Dead,” and hence the last paragraph of Dubliners, Gabriel gazes out of his hotel window, watching the falling snow and reflecting on his wife Gretta’s recent confession about her childhood love, Michael Furey. Previously in the story, Gabriel had been intoxicated and energized by Gretta’s preoccupied mood, which reminded him of their courtship, but her outburst of sobbing undermines his self-assurance. This quiet moment of contemplation portrays Gabriel’s muted, hushed acceptance that he was not Gretta’s first love, and that in fact he has never felt love at all. The blanket of snow suggests this sense of numbness in Gabriel’s character—he is literally frigid to emotion—but also the commonality of this trait. The snow does not fall only outside of Gabriel’s window, but, as he envisions it, across the country, from the Harbor of Dublin in the east, to the south in Shannon, and to the west. In other words, everyone, everywhere, is as numb as he is.
Restrictive routines and the repetitive, mundane details of everyday life mark the lives of Joyce’s Dubliners and trap them in circles of frustration, restraint, and violence. Routine affects characters who face difficult predicaments, but it also affects characters who have little open conflict in their lives. The young boy of “An Encounter” yearns for a respite from the rather innocent routine of school, only to find himself sitting in a field listening to a man recycle disturbing thoughts. In “Counterparts,” Farrington, who makes a living copying documents, demonstrates the dangerous potential of repetition. Farrington’s work mirrors his social and home life, causing his anger—and abusive behavior—to worsen. Farrington, with his explosive physical reactions, illustrates more than any other character the brutal ramifications of a repetitive existence.
Dubliners opens with “The Sisters,” which explores death and the process of remembering the dead, and closes with “The Dead,” which invokes the quiet calm of snow that covers both the dead and the living. These stories bookend the collection and emphasize its consistent focus on the meeting point between life and death. Encounters between the newly dead and the living, such as in “The Sisters” and “A Painful Case,” explicitly explore this meeting point, showing what kind of aftershocks a death can have for the living. Mr. Duffy, for example, reevaluates his life after learning about Mrs. Sinico’s death in “A Painful Case,” while the narrator of “The Sisters” doesn’t know what to feel upon the death of the priest. In other stories, including “Eveline,” “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” and “The Dead,” memories of the dead haunt the living and color every action. In “Ivy Day,” for example, Parnell hovers in the political talk.
The dead cast a shadow on the present, drawing attention to the mistakes and failures that people make generation after generation. Such overlap underscores Joyce’s interest in life cycles and their repetition, and also his concern about those “living dead” figures like Maria in “Clay” who move through life with little excitement or emotion except in reaction to everyday snags and delays. The monotony of Dublin life leads Dubliners to live in a suspended state between life and death, in which each person has a pulse but is incapable of profound, life-sustaining action.