Comparing Dubliners and To the Lighthouse
In Dubliners and To the Lighthouse, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf explore the depressing results of lives devoid of growth or meaning versus those who dare to live their lives in spite of all strife and adversity. Joyce and Woolf are both concerned with the meaninglessness of stagnant lives, the first operating in pre-WWI Ireland, the second in England during and after the war. "The Dead" and To the Lighthouse both reveal the despair of lives that occupy but do not fill the short span of time between birth and inevitable death.
With "The Dead", Joyce brings his lament for Ireland's plight to its depressing yet strangely peaceful conclusion. Like all the previous stories in Dubliners, "The Dead" gives the reader a heavy dose of the social depravity of an Ireland torn by internal war. Everyone in the story seems so caught up in remembering the faded glory of the past that the living have become even more stagnant and perished than the dead themselves. Aunt Julia appears first as a faded flower: "her hair...was grey; and grey also, with darker shadows, was her large flaccid face. ...[She had] the appearance of a woman who did not know where she was or where she was going" (187-188). Even this initial description seems to be of one near or even past death. Even while singing more beautifully than she ever had (202-203), she seems more prepared for her funeral than "Arrayed for the Bridal". She has both authored and, for every Christmas party she has ever thrown, performed this song about a wedding, and yet has never herself married or produced children. Her life, though intermittently beautiful while it has lasted, will soon end in obscurity, fruitless, childless, "wasted", as her own sister Kate admits.
Julia is only one of the many figures Joyce includes who seems to portray a sort of futility about life, and the decay of Irish culture and society. At the dinner table, the party begins to discuss the greatest "legitimate opera" (209) singers of the past and present. Soon the reader must realize that all these celebrated figures are either long since dead, or living singers who are so obscure that only a single person has ever heard of them. It seems that the present society is totally devoid of all beauty, for the glory of the past is lost, and the buds and timid blooms of the present are fatally obscured.
Yet still these people gather yearly around the massive banquet table to engage again and again in the same sort of conversation, as Gabriel himself notes:
"But yet," continued Gabriel, his voice falling into a softer inflection, "there are always in gatherings such as this sadder thoughts that will recur to our minds: thoughts of the past, of youth, of changes, of absent faces that we miss here to-night. Our path through life is strewn with many such sad memories: and were we to brood upon them always we could not find the heart to go on bravely with our work among the living. We...