Genesis of The Dead by James Joyce

For “The Dead” James Joyce drew upon an incident in Galway in 1903. There a young man named Michael (“Sonny”) Bodkin was courting Nora Barnacle (Joyce’s eventual wife), but he had tuberculosis and was soon bedridden. When Nora resolved to leave Galway for Dublin, the boy stole out of his sickbed and in the rain under an apple tree sang to Nora . Later, in Dublin, Nora learned that Bodkin was dead. When Nora first met Joyce, as she told her sister, what attracted her to him was his resemblance to “Sonny” Bodkin.

Apparently, Joyce was jealous of the dead suitor and grilled Nora ceaselessly about him. What bothered him was that her heart was still moved by the recollection of the boy’s love for her. This notion of a man in rivalry with a dead boy lying in a cemetery appears to be the genesis of Joyce’s most famous story.

Besides basing his story only on this incident, Joyce borrowed heavily from the ending of another book, one that is hardly read anymore, George Moore’s Vain Fortune. In that book a young bridal couple learn that a young woman whom the groom jilted has committed suicide. Both are tormented, and the bride asks her husband not to kiss her. She falls off to sleep, their marriage unconsummated, and the husband stares out the window at “the melancholy greyness of the dawn.” In that instant he realizes that his life is a failure and that his wife lacks the passion of the girl who killed herself. He does, however, achieve a sort of redemption through his agony: a resolution to try to make his wife happy. This is clearly the situation from which Joyce adroitly lifted: the dead lover who comes between the living lovers, the husband’s realization of his failure, his acceptance of mediocrity, the resolve to be at least sympathetic — it all came from this other book. Nonetheless, Joyce rarefies the story by having it arise not from the suicide of a former love but from the simple memory of the young love itself.

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