THE THEME OF JAMES JOYCE'S "THE DEAD"
Literature can roughly be divided into two types. One category of literary work is plot-driven. The point of this type of work is to tell a story, as in mystery books or romances. The book exists on one plane only. Once the reader has completed reading, he or she has little reason to revisit the work because the book has been "solved." The murderer has been identified, the romance has resolved in one way or another. Most important, the book has no need of subtext, the characteristic of the other type of literature.
Books of the second type exist on two separate planes. The narrative plane tells a specific tale, involving the usual accouterments of literary endeavor: plot, character, theme. However, the work also exists on another level. The author, at the same time he or she is telling the story, may be trying to express a more profound condition of humanity. These works deal not only with the corporeal, but with the symbolic. In the first type of book, an apple is only an apple. In the second, the apple is not only an apple, but can also be a symbol of temptation.
Joyce was a master of the second type of narrative. He continually operates on several planes at once, using symbols, and double-meanings to express convictions he has about humanity. The stories he tells are not merely about the characters within them, but also, invariably, about himself, about humanity's past, and about the reader. This is particularly evident in his short story "The Dead," one of the most celebrated stories of one of the world's most celebrated storytellers.
On the surface, "The Dead" depicts a simple holiday party and a brief emotional interlude between two of the attendees afterwards. Within the narrative, however, Joyce is continually meditating on the nature of life, reinforcing the theme of disillusion, of life's inherently tragic nature, and he does so by using the device of irony. The question p...