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The Long Awaited Return Of Professor C. In Which We Discuss James Joyce And John Huston’s The Dead.

My very distinguished father, Professor C., on The Dead as written by James Joyce, and then written again and filmed by John Huston and his son, Tony. If you find you would like more of these pieces, please look to the sidebar and click on “Professor C.” Thanks Dad, for all sorts of things.

“The Dead”


James Joyce’s “The Dead” is one of the best short stories ever. John Huston’s film adaptation of “The Dead” may be the best translation ever of fiction into film.  At least I think so. As do many others. So what to make of this outlier from “Rotten Tomatoes”: “Disappointing adaptation of the last story in Joyce’s Dubliners. It has dullness written all over it. It makes Merchant Ivory seem like Rambo.” This nonsense in fact undermines itself and helps explain why, and how, Huston’s film, about as far as it could be from Merchant Ivory’s glossy stuff, is a masterpiece. In the story and the film, nothing to speak of happens. Or, make that, “nothing” happens. There’s a Christmas-time party in 1904 at the house of two old spinsters and their niece. There is music and formal dancing. The guests are friends and relatives, among them the spinsters’ nephew Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) and his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston). Snow is falling. When the party is over, Gabriel and Gretta go back to their room in the Gresham hotel, where Gretta is overcome by the memory of the boy Michael Furey, with whom she went out walking in their youth and who died, she thinks, for love of her.  And that’s it. Behind it all stands the ghost of Chekhov, master of domestic dramas in which nothing happens and everything depends on networks of implication and desire.

Photography By Brian Hamill

What is “The Dead” about?  Almost everything: the falling snow and the Irish landscape; Ireland and England in the person of Conroy, an imitation “West Briton” who takes vacations on the continent; the Irish rebellion that is soon to break out; the two Irelands, east and, in the west,Gretta’s birthplace beyond the English pale  — Miss Ivor invites the Conroys to come with her to Aran in the summer, and Gretta, born in Galway, longs to return; the two languages of Ireland, English and Gaelic – “beannacht libh,” cries Miss Ivor, “good-bye to you,” when she leaves rudely and early for a meeting of Irish nationalists; Ireland and its Scottish diaspora – old Mrs. Malins, mother of the drunken, charming, puppyish Freddy, has moved to Glasgow to be with her daughter; women and the Catholic church; the music of melancholy and memory  – “Arrayed for the Bridal,” “The Lass of Aughrim,” the song that Michael Furey used to sing; Catholic drunks and Protestant drunks; social class; love; loss; desire; age; death. What more do you need?  Film and story overflow with something that is everything more than nothingness.  John Huston was dying as he made the film, in a wheelchair, hooked to an oxygen line. Dying, he knew that “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “The African Queen,” good films all, were froth on life’s emotional seas, the comings and goings of every day.

In the script, by Huston’s son Tony, much of the dialogue is Joyce’s own; changes here and there are for emphasis. A new character reads (beautifully) the ending of an eighth-century Irish poem, translated by Lady Gregory, about immeasurable loss: “You have taken the east from me, you have taken the west from me;/
you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;/
you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me/
and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!” Otherwise, Huston transplants from mid-story to nearer the end the emblematic tale of a family mill-horse, used to circling the mill, who starts circling a statue of the despised English King, William of Orange, when harnessed to a carriage for a day’s outing, an image of Irish life both political and domestic. In a bow to modern usage, Freddy Malins arrives at the party not “screwed” but “stewed.” The “jolly gay fellows” (“which nobody can deny”) of the traditional song become “jolly fine fellows.”  But the fabric of the original is intact.

The Dead Dinner Party


A final challenge, however, eludes the reach of acting and film-making, however adroit: the tumult of Gabriel’s feelings on his way to the hotel and the greater tumult after he learns of Michael Furey. As they go back to the Gresham, in Joyce’s telling, Gabriel is filled with quiet longing: the “touch of her body, musical and strange and perfumed, sent through him a keen pang of lust.” Years slip away: “as they stood at the hotel door, he felt that they had escaped from home and friends and run away together with wild and radiant hearts to a new adventure.” In the film, while in the cab to the hotel, Gabriel has taken Gretta’s hand, but nothing more. And all goes dead when Gretta, overcome by memories of Michael Furey and “The Lass of Aughrim,” cannot respond to Gabriel’s desires, which resist not only being spoken but, being silent, resist the power of film to capture them.


The snow is falling again. In the story but not the film, Gabriel lies “cautiously” down beside Gretta, understanding his feelings now not as lust but love, and speaks a silent requiem: “The time had come to set out on his journey westward” — to the country where Gretta comes from, where Michael Furey is buried, and where spirits dwell. “Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland,” the weather report as a human condition. The final lines of “The Dead” are surpassingly beautiful. In the film, Donal McCann as Gabriel assembles their threads in a soliloquy, the best film can do with interior monologue.  It would be ungrateful to protest that film cannot do more. What it can do, and does in Huston’s “The Dead,” is enough.

Photo credits (affiliate links may generate commissions)
James Joyce via The Independent.
John Huston via Brian Hamill Photography
Anjelica Huston via iMDB
Dinner party via Slant Magazine

25 Responses

  1. I have never read Joyce (shamefully) and I didn’t do my homework of watching the film, but if it is anything as wonderful as this post makes it sound then I am sure I will thoroughly enjoy it.

    Beautiful writing Professor C.

  2. I love reading Professor’s articles. They lead me to read classics that somehow I’ve missed. Can’t wait to start reading The Dead, after which I will try to get my hands on the film. Thank you so much for enhancing my education!

    1. @Carole, Glad you like them! I suspect that writing like his is not common on the Internet, so it feels like a real privilege to be able to publish him here.

  3. Judging by this, I think the Professor and my husband would enjoy talking about film together! I’ve not seen the Dead, which seems a significant hole in my cinematic experience (and neglectful on my husband’s part) – I’ll make sure to correct that.

  4. What a beautiful piece. Thank you, and thanks to your dad.

    I’ve read Dubliners, and its final story, The Dead, many times because I was enchanted by it the first time I read it in the late 1970s, just post-college, when someone I knew at my first job at SRI gave me a copy to read. I find it reveals more at each rereading. I think it is a story that speaks more to us as we age, and possibly carry more loss and a greater understanding of times we try to connect but do not manage to do so, and of times we are weighted with memories that affect our current feelings, actions, relationships.

    Since it came out in 1987, I have seen the film many times as well. It was, and it remains, a rare pleasure to have three extraordinary Hustons create a visually and intellectually beautiful film from a story by one of my favorite writers. Though I think the film manages to suggest what Gabriel is feeling, I agree with Professor C that there is a place the page can take us that the film cannot.

    The beauty of the film can never be separated from the knowledge that John Huston was dying as he made a film about a boy who died young and is remembered by a woman and a man who are growing older and can never be remembered in a past-perfected-by-memory moment.

    When I was a literature major in college at Berkeley, I took a number of film criticism classes made possible by Cal’s connection to the Pacific Film Archive. I was then, and remain, fascinated by the comparison of the book and film forms, and what each offers to the reader and the viewer. I agree with Professor C that the film is more than enough on its own. I find the story and the film both transport me in a distinctive way.

    The last paragraph, and in particular the last line, of the short story The Dead contains some of the most beautiful and poetic words in literature. Each time I read them I feel more deeply what Joyce is expressing. And, because I have read the words, I appreciate the visual beauty Huston supplies as a place for me to enter and experience the story, including the feelings expressed by and shown on the faces of Angelica Huston and Donal McCann, as I remember Joyce’s words.

    And over it all “the snow falling faintly through the universe,” first in my mind’s eye as I read the story, and then as recreated by Huston on film.

  5. Beautiful – on so many levels. The analysis, the rendering, the relationship of father and oldest daughter. Thank you.

  6. Thank you for this thoughtful analysis. I love the story and film and have revisited both many times over the years. And I agree, there’s no better translation of fiction into to film.

  7. I so enjoyed reading this…with my morning cup of tea….and the sound of the doves and very distant traffic outside my window. Must dig out my copy of The Dubliners and reread….especially in light of our trip to Ireland in 2011.
    Thanks to you, your dad and also to Katherine C James for her comment. I love a good conversation about books and film.

  8. Interesting post. I’ve never read the short story (I prefer to read my classics on PBS), but I have seen the movie. I have to admit I didn’t care for it much. I’m a fan of the Huston clan, which is why I watched it. I’m also a fan of stories about everything and nothing. But this movie just didn’t do it for me. I can’t really say why either.

    This post makes me think I should rewatch the movie and perhaps actually read the story and give it another try. Sometimes movies are better the second time around.

    1. @Emmaleigh504, I’ve read the story and seen the movie – I remember liking the movie and not the book. So I think I’ll do the same as you, but for different reasons.

  9. And, to everyone, Professor C. says thanks from him, much appreciated, and are there other book-to-films that you’d like to hear about? Only constraint so far, no Dickens please:).

  10. I don’t recall how I discovered your blog and have secretly felt as if I were in the “wrong pew” from time to time. But oh how wrong I was. A few years ago I recorded ‘The Dead” and saved it to watch more than a few times . When the DVR crashed it was lost for good. What an absolute gift it has been to read The Professor’s remarks. At 59 years old, I don ‘t know of a single person who has ever heard of the movie and to my delight you have led me to others who know and love it.
    And to think that there are still more gifts to open——-I have loved Edith Wharton for years and continue to reread her stories, always finding something I missed before.
    Discovering your father’s writings waiting to be read is Christmas in July!
    I think I have stumbled into exactly the correct pew.
    Thank you.

    1. So happy to have you here. I think there are many in your pew, and I am perhaps the somewhat overloud soloist in the choir;). Are there any other movies/books you’d like to have reviewed? Twitter has suggested Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow. I do not know if Austen is in the Professor C. canon, but I will check.

  11. I had an extremely busy week so was unable to read and see The Dead as intended for Prof C’s Master Class. I stopped reading his commentary above at the 2nd sentence since with such high praise, I want to experience it first without someone else’s background music humming in my ear. however beautiful that melody may be. After I read and watch movie, I’ll stop back by to see the Professor’s take and other comments. Thank you Prof C and Lisa for bringing this to my attention!

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