Yes, that James Joyce, I know. I hate the modernists, too. But this short novel (or a long short story) doesn’t have any of the linguistic experimentation and confusing, long sentences we normally associate with Joyce. Everything is very realist, very understated, and very clear.
The story is – to me, that is. To other people it’s about something else entirely – about marriages between people of very different levels of emotional development. If you’ve never had to live with a person who’s kind of emotionally stunted compared to you, you won’t feel the story. You know, the people who can never notice what anybody around them is feeling, who are all “me, me, me,” who kill the mood for everybody without realizing it, and act as a dead weight on everybody else’s emotional state.
Gabriel, the main character of The Dead is a reader, a book reviewer, and a person who feels things intensely. His wife Gretta, whom he loves dearly, is none of these things. Gabriel never wanted to accept that Gretta’s lower social class meant anything but it does. She’s incapable of existing in a more complex emotional universe that is Gabriel’s. She’s one of those people who are going to crap all over your excitement, happiness, and joy not out of spite but because she’s not equipped to notice that you are feeling them. The only emotion accessible to them is feeling sorry for themselves.
None of this is spelled out in those words in the short novel. As I said, it’s very understated, which is the only modernist thing about it. Make of it what you will but it’s a great book. And the subject of emotional compatibility is fascinating. Forget marriages. Imagine being a more emotionally complex child with an emotionally stunted mother. There are some people who feel things more intensely, who are touched deeply by art, who feel nature, etc. And there are those with the emotional range of a piece of wood. Like N and his mother. She just doesn’t understand what the big deal is in saying the insensitive, horrid things she says. Emotionally, she’s a primitive organism. Joyce’s Gretta isn’t as bad as that but she’s definitely one of those less complicated human beings, so to speak.