I read this morning in the Sunday New York Times that people (make that students who have taken leave of their senses) will actually pay over one hundred dollars for a really badly written essay on, say, James Joyce’s great short story The Dead. Well, I’m writing something about The Dead this afternoon, so how about it?
Trouble is, I can’t remember exactly how you go about writing one of those essays, it’s been that long since I’ve done it. In fact, before I arrived at college, I’d never actually written an essay over two pages. Faced with The Iliad, I decided to look up every passage about Odysseus and string them together and write little transitional sentences between them until I got to five pages and, hopefully, that would be considered an essay.
It was not. I got a B and was terribly sad, having never actually received a grade that low in English, a subject I’d been told I was good at. I couldn’t bring myself to look at the professor’s comments on this, or the next ten B papers I wrote using exactly the same method, because I was so horrified that I couldn’t do better. One of my regrets in life, and something I’m teaching my children not to do, is that I didn’t listen to his efforts to help me.
Two years later, an even longer string of bemused B’s behind me (these are apparently English sentences, but I have no idea what you’re saying, I can’t possibly read another one of these and, anyway, who let YOU in?), a frustrated T.A. (I still remember him, his name was Drew Clark and he was a dear. I hope he got a terrific job at some beautiful small New England college and has tenure and is treated really well by everyone) said to me after I’d asked for a six year extension on my paper about Twelfth Night: it would help if you begin by asking yourself a question like, Why is there so much sadness in this comedy? The essay is the answer to your question. There is a lot more to it than that, and not all essays are about explicating an inquiry, but this was the prodding I needed to turn an essay into an act of critical thinking rather than continue to simply retype the great writing of people other than myself.
I eventually began to get better grades, although I never did figure out how to talk about books in seminars. Entire 90 minute periods would go by and all I’d accomplish was a page of doodled made-up names and backstories for my classmates (Sartre was sleeping with Garbo: he ignored her when they were in public)– or a complex series of marks intended to tabulate my fellow students’ idiocy or sexiness or how many times they’d worn that shirt to the seminar before.
With that bit of background, which should dissuade you from buying an essay from me, I’d like to begin by saying that I don’t actually have any questions to ask about The Dead. Instead, I just want to talk a little bit about how much Joyce’s story reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s work, and how surprised I was by that because I thought she didn’t like Joyce very much. Still, she apparently liked him enough to imitate him. Come to think of it, this might be one of those compare and contrast essays, the kind people do shell out good money for. (I wouldn’t try to plagiarize it, because BikeProf will surely catch you and you will be in a lot of trouble which wouldn’t be worth it because it’s unlikely to get you much more than a B- and it will also not be the required five pages, and you’re not allowed to do the meta-essay thing at the beginning like I did.)
I begin with Woolf, who wrote in her diary (in August, 1922 to be exact) that she liked the first 200 pages of Ulysses. She describe herself as “amused, stimulated, charmed.” But, not long after that, she declares herself “puzzled, bored, irritated, disillusioned.” In the end, she decided that Joyce’s masterpiece was “an illiterate, underbred book . . . of a self taught working man.” Take that modernist master, you are UNDERBRED. (I’m sorry that won’t work here in the U.S. of A., where everyone is underbred.)
The Dead, which Joyce wrote when he was still in his twenties and had not yet struck out in quite the wild modernist direction he’d go in Ulysses, is a story that reminded me very much of To the Lighthouse, so much so that I had to keep reminding myself I was reading the illiterate underbred Joyce, rather than the elegant, upper class Woolf. It’s true that the social milieu of The Dead is quite different from that you find in Woolf: Joyce’s people being Irish and mainly Catholic, a mixed lot of genteel and not quite; Woolf’s being much more socially and intellectually aristocratic. But at the heart of both The Dead and To the Lighthouse are parties and then nature — and a meditation on one of the essential mysteries of being human which is that as much as we wish to be connected, we are separate, or maybe not.
In To the Lighthouse, there is the beautiful moment with the beef en daube, which follows an extended meditation on the many ways in which Mrs. Ramsey’s dinner guests are not at all connected. But then something happens:
“Everything seemed possible. Everything seemed right. Just now (but this cannot last, she thought, dissociating herself from the moment while they were all talking about boots) just now she had reached security; she hovered like a hawk suspended; like a flag floated in an element of joy which filled every nerve of her body fully and sweetly, not noisily, solemnly rather, for it arose, she thought, looking at them all eating there, from husband and children and friends; all of which rising in this profound stillness (she was helping William Bankes to one very small piece more, and peered into the depths of the earthenware pot) seemed now for no special reason to stay there like a smoke, like a fume rising upwards, holding them safe together. Nothing need be said; nothing could be said. There it was, all round them. It partook, she felt, carefully helping Mr Bankes to a specially tender piece, of eternity; as she had already felt about something different once before that afternoon; there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out (she glanced at the window with its ripple of reflected lights) in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby; so that again tonight she had the feeling she had had once today, already, of peace, of rest. Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures.”
“Yes,” she assured William Bankes, “there is plenty for everybody.”
Several pages later, Mrs. Ramsey, her daughter Prue, and her son Andrew all die in heartbreakingly casual asides. Time passes in that great second book of To The Lighthouse (the one so many people hate), and the forces of time (the wind, the rain, heat, small animals) begin to take apart Mrs. Ramsey’s world.
In The Dead, the party is seen mostly through the eyes of Gabriel, a professor, the favorite nephew of his two elderly, musical aunts who are the hostesses of the party. What I liked most about the party was how generous and amiable it is, just the party you’d expect would be given by two women who “though their life was modest they believed in eating well; the best of everything: diamond bone sirloins, three-shilling tea and the best bottled stout.” I don’t know what three-shilling tea is, but I liked the sound of it.
Despite how amiable the party is, Gabriel is seen as at odds with himself, uneasy with other people. As he prepares to give his toast, something he does every year at this party, Gabriel leans against the table, his fingers trembling (he’s a little nervous). “Meeting a row of upturned faces he raised his eyes to the chandelier. The piano was playing a waltz tune and he could hear the skirts sweeping against the drawing-room door. People, perhaps were standing in the snow on the quay outside, gazing up at the lighted windows and listening to the waltz music. The air was pure there. In the distance lay the park where the trees were weighted with snow. The Wellington Monument wore a gleaming cap of snow that flashed westward over the white field of Fifteen Acres. He began….” At this moment of connection, we see him moving away from the people in the room, something he’s been doing all night.
And then, later, as he readies himself to leave, Gabriel looks up the staircase and sees his wife. “She was leaning on the banisters, listening to something. Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also. . . . He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.”
The rest of the story then goes on to explore the gulf between Gabriel and his wife — the ordinary enough distance between all people — that we have loved others, that we do not always want the same thing.
But, in the end, there is a vision of what unifies all of us. It’s not beef en daube, or civilization. It’s death. The passage is so beautiful that I end with it. I’m not in college anymore, and I don’t have to say anything else, although I would like to say that if you compare and contrast James Joyce and Virginia Woolf you will discover that it’s quite likely, from how lovely the passages about eating and parties are, that both of them got to go to a lot of dinner parties where they actually had a pretty good time, and quite a few where they wished they could be outside, walking in the snow or looking out across the water at the lighthouse or, at least, writing about it.
And here is the end of The Dead, in case you’ve never read it:
“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. 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.”