The Dead, John Huston’s last film, is a work of love, a statement of last respects not only to James Joyce, who wrote the story as the culmination of Dubliners (1914), but to the West of Ireland, where Huston lived for some years. Joyce’s general intention in Dubliners was, as he said, “to write a chapter of the moral history of my country.” He chose Dublin for its scene “because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis.”
I have tried to present it to the indifferent public under four of its aspects: childhood, adolescence, maturity, and public life. The stories are arranged in this order.
But there is some evidence that in “The Dead” Joyce wanted to acknowledge an element in Dublin life hardly compatible with moral paralysis: the hospitality of its social life, especially on its high occasions, Christmas, the New Year. In Recollections of James Joyce (1950), his brother Stanislaus writes of “The Dead”:
The last story, which serves as the final chorus of the book, presents holiday life, the celebration of Christmas. In England and Ireland ghost stories are still told about the fire at Christmas time…. The story “The Dead” is also, in its way, a story of ghosts, of the dead who return in envy of the living.
But Stanislaus’s reference to envy is misleading: in his brother’s fiction, ghosts rarely have reason to envy the living. In “The Dead,” the ghost of Gretta Conroy’s lover, Michael Furey, is far more tellingly alive than any character in the story, except for Gretta, who holds him secure in her heart and memory.
Joyce completed the story in September 1907. Huston sets it in the Dublin of 1904. There is textual justification for his choice, although two or three details here and there suggest that Joyce has been recalling events in Dublin a few months later than the first days of 1904. Huston may also be alluding to June 16, 1904, the day of the events of Joyce’s Ulysses. In any case, the setting is richly implied—the streets, the quays, the Liffey, the house at 15 Usher’s Island where the three Misses Morkan hold their annual Christmas dance, the O’Connell Monument, and the Gresham Hotel, where Gabriel Conroy and his wife spend the night and she tells him about Michael Furey.
The form of Joyce’s story is simple: from a web of domestic or social custom, a revelation arises. It need not be a great revelation, but it is enough to cause an “epiphany,” to rend the veil of a minor temple. In “The Dead” the web is composed of the dance, the hospitality, the food and drink—Freddy Malins arrives late and if he is not drunk he has drink taken. The dinner talk turns upon Dublin’s musical and operatic life; there is mild disagreement about a performance of Mignon, and great singers of a gone time—Tietjens, Ilma de Murzka, Campanini, Zelia …