Lily, the caretaker's daughter, opens the door to admit the guests to Kate and Julia Morkan's annual Christmas dance. She looks after the men while the ladies go upstairs to the dressing room. The guests are made up of family members, friends and music students. The flat, which is shared by the sisters and their niece Mary Jane is filled with music and good cheer. The aunts await their nephew Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta, and soon they arrive followed shortly after by Freddy Malins, another nephew who drinks too much. Lily helps Gabriel, who is covered in snow, and he notices that she is no longer a little girl, but when he mentions that soon she will marry, she snaps at him bitterly: "the men that is now is all palaver and what they can get out of you" (151). Gabriel is taken aback and gives her a coin for Christmas. A stout young man, Gabriel nervously glances at his speech and feels like a failure. He should have chosen another poet besides Robert Browning, he thinks, because no one will understand his selection and will think he is flaunting his education: "he will fail them" (152). His aunts, very happy to see their favorite nephew, welcome him and Gretta and they make fun of Gabriel's overzealous concern for his wife's health. The couple will stay at the Gresham hotel instead of taking a cab home.
Kate asks Gabriel to see to Freddy as the elderly Mr. Browne, and the young Miss Furlong, Miss Daly, and Miss Power come out from dancing into the drawing room for or refreshments. Quadrilles start. It is apparent that Freddy is "screwed," or drunk, as he greets his aunts and talks to Mr. Browne who, after a signal from Kate, gives Freddy lemonade.
After Mary Jane's piano piece ends, Gabriel, who writes a column for a conservative newspaper, dances with Miss Ivors who favors unions. She teases him for working for such a paper but Gabriel likes the fifteen shillings per column he earns and he's insulted. To make things better, Miss Ivors invites Gabriel and his wife to the Aran Isles on a holiday. Gabriel refuses because he is going to the continent on a cycling trip and she asks why he doesn't see his own country first. When he says he likes to "keep in touch with languages," she bitingly suggests he should learn Irish and calls him a "West Briton" (161-2). After the dance Gretta asks about Miss Ivors and he tells her of the holiday suggestion. Gretta is happy because she is from the West but Gabriel snaps at her saying she can go alone.
As Mary Jane plays the piano, Julia sings "Arrayed for the Bridal," and Freddy later on obsequiously tells her that he has "never heard her voice so good as it is tonight" (165). Meanwhile, in another room, Gabriel hears Gretta and Mary Jane attempting to convince Miss Ivors to stay but she leaves before dinner and Gabriel wonders if her leaving is his fault. Gabriel carves the goose as the table talk centers on Dublin's music scene. The tenor Bartell D'Arcy talks about opera singers and the guests insist that the singers of years gone by were far better. D'Arcy says otherwise and explains that all the talent has left Ireland for the Continent. Kate remembers her favorite tenor but no one has ever heard of him. Next they discuss Mount Melleray, a monastery where the monks sleep in their coffins to remember their own mortality and finally Gabriel gives his sentimental speech in praise of his aunts and everyone is moved to sing "For they are jolly gay fellows."
After most of the guests have left, Freddy returns into the house from the freezing cold to say he has a cab for himself, his mother and Mr. Browne. At the same time, D'Arcy can be heard upstairs singing "The Lass of Aughrim" as Gabriel spies Gretta standing transfixed on the staircase landing. They leave shortly afterwards. Feelings of love for Gretta wash over him in the cab they take to the hotel where they are shown to their room by candlelight. Gabriel is feeling romantic but Gretta is so upset that she starts to cry. D'Arcy's song has reminded her of a sickly boy named Michael Furey, who worked at the gasworks in Galway when she was a girl and who died very young. Gabriel is jealous and once again feels like a failure. As she continues to cry, he asks how the boy died and she emotionally says "I think he died for me." She explains that when he found out she was leaving for convent school, Michael Furey came out in the rain to see her even though his health was very precarious and told her he didn't want to live. He stood shivering in her backyard and she made him go home. To her complete dismay, he died a week after she left. Gretta breaks down, sobs and shortly after falls asleep.
As Gabriel watches Gretta's sleeping face, "the face for which Michael Furey had braved death," he begins to feel insignificant (191). He realizes that he too will one day die although not as soon as his aunts to whose house he will soon have to return for funerals: "one by one they were all becoming shades" (191). Gabriel is overwhelmed by Michael Furey's passion and feels that he has missed something because he has never felt so strongly for a woman. Outside, the snow falls and it covers all of Ireland: "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" (192).
"The Dead" which is three times longer than the other Dubliners stories, has been classified as one of the finest, if not the finest, short story in English literature. In it, Joyce recaps the themes of poverty, isolation, a country divided, the Catholic Church and class differences he presented in his earlier stories, but mortality, as evidenced by the title, is the major theme.
Poverty is certainly once more brought to light in the character of Lily, whose accent places her on the poor rung of society. Is she the "slavey" whom Corley in "Two Gallants," uses to attain sex and money? Is the coin given Corley the same coin Gabriel gives to Lily? Also, the theme of isolation is particularly apparent. Indeed, Gabriel is shocked to learn his wife has contained within her heart the most powerful event of her life, her undying love for Michael Furey. He feels abjectly left out and isolated, and also deeply concerned that he has never felt as strongly about, or as connected, to another human being. In addition, Joyce succinctly illustrates Ireland as a divided country with one half supporting the British occupation and the other half desiring to make Ireland an independent nation. Miss Ivors, who desires to return to her Irish "roots," by going to the West, where Gaelic is still spoken and traditional ways are kept up argues with Gabriel and calls him a "West Briton," or an Anglo Irish. Joyce also criticizes the Catholic Church once more by showing how his Aunt Julia supported the Church her whole life only to be hurt by Pope Pius X when he excluded women from singing in choirs. He demonstrates the blindness and passiveness of the Irish, however, through Kate who agrees the Pope must be right. Class differences can be recognized by Gabriel's snobbishness. He is worried that his audience will not be bright enough to understand his speech.
However, mortality remains the primary theme. It is as if everything and everyone is either dead or dying. Indeed, the title covers every living thing in Ireland. Either the people are in their graves, or they soon will be. Set in winter, ironically at the time of Christ's birth, Kate and Julia represent time's ticking clock. Kate is hard of hearing, and Julia
looks old and haggard. Gabriel thinks perhaps he will come next to their home for a funeral. Also, Michael Furey, Gretta's dead lover remains central to the plot. Gabriel feels himself becoming a shade, a shadow or one of the deceased: "His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead" (224). Also, the final story acts as a bracketing device in conjunction with the first story "The Sisters," which echoes the two Morkin sisters and also takes death as its subject. Death ultimately supports the whole book.