Cross-posted at A Curious Singularity
I've been enjoying everyone's comments on this story, and plink-plink, here are my two cents:
The Dead is simply a superb short story, one of the best in the English language. Joyce realizes near perfection (though never strained) in integrating character, imagery, plot and theme. When the ending comes, so eloquently, these elements fuse together with the language for one of the most satisfying and poignant epiphanies ever written. This is what all short stories aim (or should aim) to achieve. I thought I would share insights from a critical text I have on Joyce’s The Dubliners, A Reader’s Guide to James Joyce, William York Tindall. This passage also addresses, I think, Kate’s question: Who are the dead of the story?:
…The theme involves the sins of pride, envy, lust, wrath, and the virtue of charity. From conflicts of death and life, lust and love, taking and giving, past and present, self and selflessness knowledge emerges at last and with it the triumph of love. The dead and the living dead lie uncovered for our inspection, but promises renewal. (Gabriel's) New Year may be new indeed. Fixing this moral theme and its implications is important since character, structure, image, and the other elements work together in its service, and to know the many we must know the one. All the parts (even pictures on the wall or Mr. d’Arcy’s cold in the head) seem as functional as the parts of something by Mozart. Wholeness, harmony, and radiance, Stephen’s requirements for any work of art (from Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man), were never more evident. Like music, but not music, this radiant harmony is both absolute and referential. The Dead is a structure of references or meanings, which, like those of all great literature, are human—not all superhuman like those of Mozart.
He goes on to describe Gabriel's situation at the end of the story:
...His self destroyed, his identity gone, he becomes one with all the living and the dead. This dramatic extinction of personality could be another hopeful sign (of Gabriel's ability to change). No longer Gabriel alone but one with everyone, he may be redy to accept, give, and participate.
The essay goes on in length, and is quite illuminating. I recommend the book for James Joyce readers.