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The Journey Westward

In response to:

Huston's Joyce from the March 3, 1988 issue

To the Editors:

I would like to make a comment on Denis Donoghue’s fine piece on John Huston’s The Dead [NYR, March 3]. It concerns the sentence, acknowledged by him to be difficult, in the original Joyce story: “The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward.” What I think it means is the journey to death, westward toward the setting sun.

There is no indication that Gabriel Conroy will travel to Galway; on the contrary, he indicates he will move in the opposite direction, eastward to England and the Continent, the journey Joyce himself made. Nevertheless, he, and everyone in the movie from our vantage point, moves to our common destination. Perhaps this is why the word “swooned” is so apt: “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.”

Reverend James Collignon

Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers

South Orange, New Jersey

Denis Donoghue replies:

Father Collignon’s suggestion is a good one, and, I should note, in keeping with a remark in the essay by John V. Kelleher to which I referred: “The context of the sentence is thoughts of death and of the dead, of a whole country swooning deathwards under the falling snow.” There is also a fine comment in Patrick Parrinder’s James Joyce (1984):

The passage describes a vision or hallucination which is nevertheless easily believable; the mind is drifting between waking and sleep. Gabriel’s deathly “swoon,” like Rubek’s last gesture in When We Dead Awaken, suggests both death as the end of everything (which is one meaning of “his journey westward”), and death as a release from the false animation around him into a genuine spiritual life.

The only point I would add is that, a few sentences earlier in the story, Gabriel imagined Michael Furey, “the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree,” and then imagined other forms nearby: “His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence.” Perhaps the famous difficult sentence marks Gabriel’s most expansive act, that of merging his own existence in that of the vast hosts of the dead, which otherwise he could not apprehend.

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