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Reading James Joyce Amidst Winter Snow, ‘Where Dwell the Vast Hosts of the Dead’

· 9 min read
Reading James Joyce Amidst Winter Snow, ‘Where Dwell the Vast Hosts of the Dead’
Monastery Graveyard in the Snow, by Caspar David Friedrich, 1819, oil on canvas.

Many people no doubt roll their eyes in scoffing dismissal when they hear the commonly expressed—and almost as commonly crooned—wish for a White Christmas. But there are sound spiritual reasons for longing to see one’s environs blanketed with snow.

Silent in its approach and accumulation, snow can catch us unawares by its sudden physical presence. You look out the window and observe this element of delightful sabotage. For those of us with a religious inclination, it alerts us to other apprehensions of divinity, and even eternity. Snow somehow primes the mind for unexpected revelations, reminding me that there are larger games afoot in our universe than those that ordinarily monopolize our attention.

Of course, celestial meditations are typically far from mind if you’re scraping off a car window or salting a sidewalk. But whenever I’m out shovelling our driveway, even on a seriously socked-in day that calls me back for a second or third shift, I try to take a moment to straighten my back, set hands atop shovel, and marvel at the supernatural beauty of a taken-for-granted world that has been so magically renewed.

Snowy landscapes are likely not your first visual association with the work of Irish fiction writer and poet James Joyce (1882–1941). But his words are the ones that resonate deepest with me when I contemplate the season.

James Joyce, photographed in 1915.

The entire trajectory of Joyce’s career was played out in what I believe to be a largely unsuccessful attempt to shake off what he felt was the claustrophobic pressures of nation and church. But once he fled his Emerald-Isle roots to hunker down in various European locales to compose his three increasingly eccentric and abstruse novels of Christ-haunted Irish life, it became apparent that the only place this most restless of Catholic exiles ever really resided was deep inside the memory-soaked folds of his own brain.

While I bailed (along with so many others) on his final novel, Finnegan’s Wake, and can’t even claim not to have skimmed a few sections of the frequently exasperating Ulysses, I attended to every word of his first novel, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In doing so, I came to detest its unsavory egoism, even while admiring Joyce’s visionary powers.

The only one of his books I return to for pleasure is the volume of short stories he wrote before fleeing Ireland, Dubliners, and especially its masterpiece entry, The Dead. Clocking in at 50 pages, this story is described by some scholars as more of a novella. Director John Huston struggled for decades to scrape the funding together to film it, finally getting the go-ahead in the last months of his life 35 years ago. It was fitting that this should be Huston’s final film and it was made under heroic conditions, with the director confined to a wheelchair and trailing a tank of oxygen, speaking through a respirator mask as he set up shots; and counseling his cast of actors, which included his daughter, Anjelica, in the only movie they ever worked on together. Otherwise, the extraordinary cast he’d assembled was comprised of veteran stage actors with minimal name or face recognition outside of Ireland.

If the film was ever screened at a cinema in my hometown of London, Ontario, I didn’t notice. And I didn’t catch up with it until Boxing Day, 1995 when I saw it on TV. Commercials and all, it was shatteringly good; the kind of movie that takes up permanent residence in your subconscious, from where it spontaneously emits indelible images or expressions on characters’ faces whenever some chiming echo is rung by an encounter or event in your own real life. My regard for the story wildly revived, I reread The Dead the next day, and was soon cornering friends over the holidays, making them listen to the elegiac music of its concluding pages.

It didn’t work its magic on everyone, however. Some friends found it to be nothing more than depressing. And when I describe the plot, you may understand why.

The Christmas of 1995 had been dispiritingly green in London, and the small city remained snowless until noon on the Eve of the Epiphany, at which time a grand 18-hour deluge got underway. My brother Ted and his family used to host “Pudding Parties” (as they called them) on the Twelfth Night, and our journey across the bridge to their home that evening was a considerable slog. I was standing around in the kitchen with several other guests at 1am waiting for the coffee to perk when a composer friend of my brother’s pushed aside a curtain on the back window to peer out into Ted’s yard. “I think we could say that snow is general all over Western Ontario,” he pronounced, echoing the final paragraph of The Dead, which also happens to be set on the Eve of the Epiphany. I laughed in delight and he was chuffed that I caught his reference.

Joyce’s tale is told in the third person, but everything is seen over the shoulder, as it were, of Gabriel Conroy, a provincial college teacher and book reviewer back in Dublin for the holidays. And, spoiler alert, this is how it runs from beginning to end.

The protagonist has taken his wife Gretta to the dance and feast that is held every Twelfth Night by his two aging aunts and their younger assistant who are music teachers. Gabriel is feeling thoroughly middle-aged and mediocre, and is troubled by the failure and pettiness written on the faces of his fellow guests; nearly all of whom he knows a little too well. He is also haunted by the absence of a few great souls who’ve recently passed on and whose presence could’ve done much to elevate the tone of this year’s soiree. When he stands up to give his annual toast to his hosts— “the Three Graces of Dublin,” he calls them—he’s appalled at what a fatuous old smoothie he’s become, and is further saddened to see that his hollow words have brought grateful tears to the eyes of his aunts.

When the party starts to break up, Gabriel scoots on ahead to the cloakroom to fetch his coat and boots, and then looks up and sees his wife transfixed at the top of the stairs by the song of a shy student who couldn’t summon the courage to sing his ballad until the guests had filed out of the main room. Watching his wife poised on that staircase, one hand gripping the banister as her ears hungrily drink in every melancholy note, Gabriel desires her in a way he hasn’t known in years. They hail a horse-drawn cab, which takes them along the river in the falling snow back to their hotel, where Gretta tells him why she found the performance so moving: It reminded her of a frail young suitor who’d loved her when she was 17 and used to sing that very same song. Gabriel is about to express his jealousy when Gretta precludes any such indulgence by telling him that the suitor is long dead.

Illustration of Gabriel and Gretta, by Robert Berry, contained in a handmade 2014 edition of The Dead produced by Stoney Road Press and the James Joyce Centre.

The boy, Michael Furey, was already ill when Gretta was preparing to leave for convent school, but he braved harsh weather to come see her one last time. “I implored of him to go home at once and told him he would get his death in the rain. But he said he did not want to live. I can see his eyes as well as well! He was standing at the end of the wall where there was a tree.”

This utterly scotches Gabriel’s amorous mood and his wife then falls asleep in inconsolable tears, confirming his sense of himself as a half-alive soul even when compared to the ghost of the once-passionate Michael Furey:

He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades … He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live. Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself toward any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes, and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world; the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

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.

When he’d finished writing the stories gathered together in Dubliners, Joyce seems to have believed for a while that he’d kissed off Ireland for good. But of course, he never was able to do that. And over that Christmas 26 years ago, I was in the grip of my own sort of inner struggle, which my viewing and rereading of The Dead had stirred up.

Just a few years before, in 1992, I’d lost three key figures in my life, each of whom had died far too early; my father-in-law, William Jarvis, who’d become almost as important to me as a benevolent elder as my own father; Fraser Boa, a wildly inspiring teacher of English, theatre, and film who became my analyst and helped me sort out my callings as both a husband and a writer; and the artist Greg Curnoe, whom I didn’t know so intimately as the others but who had greatly influenced my understanding of the opportunities given and the challenges posed to anyone trying to eke out an existence as any kind of artist in London.

The Joycean paradox I was wrestling with that Christmas was that, yes, I’d helped to bury all three of these men, and yet in so many powerfully consoling ways, they were not gone from my life. I was still having something very much like conversations with all of them. Indeed, I don’t think I’d ever learned so much from Greg as in the months immediately following his death.

After we got home from Ted’s party, I took Ben, our fearless border collie, out for his evening ablutions in the half-frozen Thames River. The snow was still falling as larking students across the way in Harris Park tobogganed down one of the steepest hills in London on requisitioned cafeteria trays, unknowingly acting out one of my own favourite stunts from half a lifetime before. On this particular night, that too felt like a kind of ghostly apparition, even though, as far as I could determine, that was not me in spectral form on the other side of the river.

I decided it was the presence or absence of a sacramental view of life that tended to make people either alive to the spiritual wonder that drenches Joyce’s story, or focused on the death and decay that emerges from a strictly scientific reading of their own condition. The great Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton laid out the dynamic here quite well, pointing out that if you want to be fruitfully haunted by the dead, then you must invite them into your life by paying them some sort of homage or regard by upholding what they stood for: “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead … Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”

It is fashionable to express resentment of what is blandly called “the dead hand of history” in our ongoing human affairs, perhaps even more so now than in 1995. But traditionalists of every stripe know better than this. It is a group that includes such Catholics as this humble author, who pray for the dead every day, in their conviction that it is all of the saints of every age who make up the living membership of the Church.

Despite his famously conflicted relationship with Catholicism, Joyce’s finest story does as much to communicate this Catholic view as any liturgy. Properly perceived, the hand of history is always at work in our world as a force of wisdom and guidance, if only we will meet its grip. And when this happens, more often than not, it just so happens to be snowing.

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