“There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something.”
The great question mark that Joyce’s “The Dead” creates is precisely who is this or who are these “dead” mentioned in the title. There is a lot of ambiguity in this noun because its singular and plural form are exactly the same, so Joyce could be alluding to one, two, three or a thousand dead and there would be no grammatical way of knowing how many are alluded in the title.
The easiest way to go would be to state that “the dead” is none other than the “main dead” of the story: Michael Furey, Gretta’s young and innocent dead lover. But it would be too easy and, partially knowing Joyce, one should know that he usually puts easy solutions to misguide the reader from the real meaning of what he is trying to say. And it is not I who say it: it was the story the one that cleared this point for me; Joyce mocks the reader putting his main character in the reader’s same position and misguiding him the same way that Gabriel is misguided by his instincts.
Which could be called the breaking point of the story? Probably it would be the moment when Gabriel has an epiphany and realizes that he did not know anything about his wife and that he misunderstood completely what she was feeling in the moment she heard the distant music coming from the drawing-room. He thought about life, about happiness, about all of the beautiful moments they have had together and all the beautiful moments there were to come; he thought he was alive and he thought that she was too; he thought that the link between them was stronger than anything that had existed or could ever exist in the entire universe. But he was wrong: “the woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music” wasn’t a symbol of life; she was a symbol of death, one of all the symbols of living-death that roll around the story.
From the beginning, the reader tries to find what could be dead in the story; what could contrast with the living people that seem to be everywhere. And, because apart from Michael Furey, who doesn’t appear till the last pages, there are no highlighted dead, the reader tends to grab this one as the main nucleus of the story: he is “the dead” because he is the one that gives the most opposition with the living people, simply because he is dead. But death does not represent in this story a “physically lifeless person”; on the contrary, it stands for that stubborn state of mind that pulls living people into keeping their heads tied to a long gone past and how that past possesses even more life than the people that try to resurrect it every second of their existence.
All the characters are “The Dead” of the story, all of them are tied to the power of past and death: they do not talk about nothing else but how nice was the past generation; how good were the old opera singers; how encouraging were the great men of the past; and how the never returning old love will keep on burning inside while the living one disperses thanks to its mere reality. The grass will always be greener in the gardens of Eden; man will always be blind to the life passing in front of him because he does not have eyes on his face, he has them stuck in the back of his head looking at an old and dark world that will always be stronger than any present that could ever be. Living people will never be as highly seen as the ones that exist no more, so “Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age”, this is, better to die young and be remembered as a living person, than live till old age and be forgotten while still alive.