Editor’s Note: The following is a guest contribution. Kurt Hochenauer is professor of English at the University of Central Oklahoma where he teaches modern British and postcolonial literature. He is the author of the political blog Okie Funk.
One of the livelier intellectual debates in the James Joyce scholarly community situates itself along a spectrum between what I will call the aesthetes and the politicos.
To put it in the most simplistic dichotomy, the aesthetes believe the lasting value of Joyce’s work is in the author’s brilliant use of language and symbolism. The politicos believe Joyce’s political and sociocultural statements are as much central to his work as artistic wordplay or the creation of modern and new literary structures and forms.
Obviously, the binary isn’t so tidy, and aesthetics inform the politics and vice versa, but it’s worth noting as a prelude to any academic discussion of “The Dead,” which appears in Dubliners, or any particular segments of that story, which is the perfect stew of astute political commentary and brilliant literary aesthetics but surely is not Joyce’s last major “political” work of fiction.
Gabriel’s political epiphany to fully embrace his country’s quest for independence and its heritage on a “journey westward” in his hotel room only comes after his cab crosses the O’Connell Bridge, named after one of Ireland’s most famous leaders and agitators for emancipation, Daniel O’Connell. The bridge and its political implications are heavily tied to the theme of the story, and serve as the gateway to Gabriel’s political enlightenment after his encounter with Molly Ivors at his aunts’ home.
In the story, Gabriel and his wife Gretta share a cab with Mr. Bartell D’Arcy and Miss O’Callaghan as the couple go back to their hotel room after the party. Here’s the relevant segment:
“As the cab drove across O’Connell Bridge Miss O’Callaghan said:
–They say you never cross O’Connell Bridge without seeing a white horse.
–I see a white man this time, said Gabriel.
–Where? asked Mr. Bartell D’Arcy.
Gabriel pointed to the statue, on which lay patches of snow. Then he nodded familiarly to it and waved his hand.
–Good-night, Dan, he said gaily.” (214)
The Carlisle Bridge was built to go over the River Liffey in Dublin. It was first constructed from 1794-1798 by James Gandon and named after Frederick Howard, 5th Earl of Carlisle, known as Lord Carlisle. It was later widened in 1880, and was renamed O’Connell Bridge in 1882 when the O’Connell statue was erected in Dublin. There’s an old legend that one always sees a white horse on the bridge, which could be a reference to the white horse owned by British King William III, or “King Billy,” who reigned from 1672 to 1702 and was widely hated by Irish Catholics. By the time the party crosses the bridge, incidentally, Gabriel has only an hour before told the story of his grandfather’s horse Johnny who walked circles around King Billy’s statue because he apparently “fell in love with the horse King Billy sits on” (208).
The bridge’s basic political implications seem almost too obvious to note, but in “The Dead” it becomes a symbolic blending of a basic Dublin iconic place name not only with Gabriel’s later catharsis but also with the numerous ironies and overlaps in the story.
When Gabriel happily and playfully says “Good-night, Dan,” referring to the O’Connell statue, he doesn’t know yet his wife will cry herself to sleep after thinking about a young man who once loved her and who she thinks maybe even died for her. Gabriel remains awake after Gretta’s emotional outburst in the hotel room with “generous tears” in his eyes and makes a connection with “vast hosts of the dead,” which would obviously include O’Connell.
First, Gabriel must lose his old, stifling West Briton identity, the source of his anxiety:
“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.” (223)
With his self-conscious and self-fawning identity now eradicated, Gabriel can finally embrace the struggle. “The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward,” or, to put it another way, the time has come for Gabriel to become politically realized. The snow that covers the O’Connell statue, which Gabriel noted earlier, continues to fall general across Ireland, uniting him with his historical past and propelling him westward to awakening.
The O’Connell Bridge is a symbolic gateway to Gabriel’s political epiphany and, by extension, Joyce’s political awakening, which the author deployed in both bold and subversive ways in his writing in and after “The Dead.”