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A comfortable but not prosperous home of the elderly Morkan sisters and their niece, Mary Jane on the outskirts of Dublin. The author shows us a culturally rich family with strong emotional bonds, very different from the black backgrounds of most of the Dubliners in this volume. The occasion is an annual dinner and dance for the family and friends of the Morkans held during Christmas week every year.
LIST OF CHARACTERS
A youngish sensitive but rather complacent teacher of literature.
His wife; An intense woman, a devoted wife and mother, a popular person in Gabrielís family circle.
The ardent, idealistic lover, long-dead whose intensity threatens Gabrielís present peace of mind.
The Morkan sisters
Julia and Kate are two elderly sisters, both teachers of music. They represent the warmth and rich culture of Irelandís past. They provide a warm and loving background for Gabriel and their niece, Mary Jane.
There are a host of other minor characters at the party
A teacher with a narrow, rigid view of nationalism.
A younger, more frivolous edition of her two aunts.
The drunk cousin Freddie
He provides some nuisance value and a comic touch to the party.
The pompous professional singer who unwittingly triggers off Gabrielís agony with his inferior rendering of an old folk-song.
Gabriel Conroy, a youngish teacher of English at the University. Gabriel dabbles in criticism and poetry, and considers himself a happily married family man.
There is no antagonist in the story. However, his wifeís youthful love affair with the long-dead affair with the long-dead Michael Furey activates conflicting thoughts in Gabrielís mind.
The revelation about his wife Grettaís long ago love affair shatters Gabrielís complacency about his family and his career.
Gabriel is sensitive and loving enough to come out of his jealous brooding over Grettaís past and to regain his balance.
There is a far more cheerful and emotionally rich atmosphere in this story the last in the volume, than in any other before it. This also provides a reason why Gabriel has a positive and sympathetic outlook on life and can weather his own emotional crisis.
It is the day of the Morkan sistersí annual dance, a "great affair" looked forward to by relatives, friends and members of the sistersí choir, their old pupils, and the current pupils of their niece, Mary Jane. The two sisters, Julia and Kate are elderly and have never been married. They live with their niece, Mary Jane, since their brother's ( Mary Jane's father) death. Kate still gives music lessons and Mary Jane too, has a number of pupils learning the piano. Their parties were very popular, with "the best of everything." When the story begins they are anxiously awaiting the arrival of a favorite nephew, Gabriel Conroy, and his wife Gretta. They are also anxious about another guest Freddy, who "might turn up screwed." It is snowing when Gabriel and Gretta arrive. Gabriel enters with a greeting to the maid, Lily as she takes his coat. When he jokes about "going to her wedding one of these fine days", Lily answers with bitterness that "The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you." Gabriel, "a stout, tallish young man", kindly, but rather smug, is disturbed at her response. Giving her a coin "for Christmas", he hastily moves on. He usually makes a speech, acting as host for his aunts. Now he worries about it, whether he should use a quotation or it "would be above the heads of his hearers" as "their grade of culture differed from his." He spends some time chatting with his aunts and Gretta. The couple seems affectionate and jovial with each other, Gretta laughing at her husbandís excessive concern for her and the childrenís health. Aunt Julia who is obviously frail is passive, while Aunt Kate is lively.
Just then the troublesome Freddy enters and the aunts become tense and urge Gabriel to see to him. Freddy is settled with another friend Mr. Browne, who plies him with lemonade to sober him up.
Gabriel is bored. He doesnít enjoy the music Mary Jane is playing. Looking around he sees his motherís photograph. He remembers how she had seen to it that her sonís were given a higher education. But she had opposed his marriage, calling Gretta "country cute." Gabriel remembers angrily how Gretta has nursed her through her long final illness. While he is thinking, the music starts up and he finds his partner is Miss Ivors, a fellow teacher of his. She insists on talking of a literary column he writes for "The Daily Express." She charges him with being a "West Briton." Later, she asks him and his wife to join an excursion to the Aran isles in summer. Again, when he explains that he goes on a cycling tour with other friends to Europe, every summer, she questions him aggressively-"havenít you your own land to visit, that you know nothing of?" For the second time that evening, Gabriel feels cornered by a person he thought, he knew well. He broods, feeling very injured, and quarrels with his wife when she shows interest in the Aran trip.
Gabriel feels restless he worries about his approaching speech. Looking out at the snow, he longs to be out there, rather than at the supper table. He applauds Aunt Juliaís song at the piano along with everyone else. While singing, her voice is pure and strong not showing the frailty obvious in her appearance. A heated discussion on religion breaks out, which is interrupted by Mary Jane suggesting dinner.
Everyone is delighted at the traditional food, lavishly spread on the table. Gabriel takes on his first duty as host-to carve the goose. There is a lot of jovial good humor around the table, Gabriel is urged to eat. The talk moves on to opera, as a singer, Mr. Bartell DíArcy, is one of the guests. Freddyís mother talks about the monastery at Mount Melleray, where guests are put up absolutely free by the monks, who "never spoke, rose at two every morning, and slept in their coffins." The sweet is served, and then it is time for Gabrielís speech. He pays tribute to "the hospitality of certain good ladies," linking this with "those qualities of humanity of hospitality of kindly humor which belonged to an older day." He compares his own "thought- tormented" age, its "misdirected enthusiasm" unfavorably with the past.
Gabriel goes out to see to the guests. He tells a funny story about their grandfather and the antics of his horse. He is comfortable in his position as favorite nephew. While the hostesses chat on the step, he re-enters the house. He sees a woman standing near the stairs, completely absorbed in listening to a song, badly rendered in a manís voice. He realizes it is Gretta, his wife. Something about her absorption, her attitude gives her "grace and mystery...as if she were a symbol of something." His aunts join him, and Mary Jane is indignant that Bartell DíArcy, who had been singing, had refused to oblige her earlier. DíArcy rebuffs her, saying he was "as hoarse as a crow." Gretta turns and Gabriel sees her looking excited, but with traces of tears on her cheeks. Her appearance in turn excites Gabriel and he longs to be alone with her. He remembers tender moments in their life together. He feels sure that "Their children, his writing, her household cares had not quenched all their soulsí tender fire."
He bids a cheerful farewell to the remaining guests insist on paying for the cab himself. He looks with pride and joy on Gretta, and feels a "keen pang of lust." Grettaís head is bowed and she walks ahead of him to their hotel room. He is happy the children are at home and are not with them.
He looks at Gretta and calls to her. She seems sad and aloof so he makes small talk. She kisses him still in an abstracted way until he is forced to ask what she is thinking of. In a tearful outburst, she says she is thinking of the song they had heard: The Lass of Aughrim; that the song reminded her of a young boy who had loved her, years ago, when she was a young girl in Galway. To Gabrielís jealous queries she answers openly that he had died when he was just seventeen.
Gabriel is stunned and humiliated. He thinks back to the party, when he had been acting "a penny boy for his aunts, a nervous well-meaning sentimentalist...idealizing his own clownish lusts." He is torn between anger and jealousy on his own account and sadness for the young boy. Gretta confides in him unreservedly, saying they had met when she was living at her grandmotherís. She was soon to leave for Dublin. The boy, Michael Furey, had been very ill. Yet he had secretly come out in the freezing chill to meet her that night. He had died soon after and Gretta feels Michael had died because he had loved her so much as to risk his life thus.
She is intent on confiding her memories, and oblivious to Gabrielís feeling of alienation from her, and his distress and frustration. Exhausted by her feelings, she falls asleep and Gabriel is left, looking at her face-feeling "a strange, friendly pity for her." He feels she has had a great romance in her life, while he, her husband had played a "poor part in her life." He is aware that she has lost the beauty, which had captivated Michael Furey, but his mixed feelings make him melancholy and aware of the nearness of death. He has held her hand all along, to comfort her. Now he lies down beside her, on this night, which he had anticipated so differently.
He thinks of frail Aunt Julia-perhaps she too would die soon. He thinks of Michael, whose image was still fresh, years after his death in Grettaís heart. Generous tears filled his eyes and as he slept he looked at "the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."