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Analysis of John Huston’s the Dead

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James Joyce’s “The Dead” is one of the most famous and revered short stories in the English language. It is also one of the least eventful. The majority of the action takes place inside the head of Gabriel Conroy; the events of the evening and a revelation about his wife’s former lover trigger a lengthy (and beautifully written) interior monologue, which eventually culminates in an epiphany.

It’s through partaking in Gabriel’s thoughts by the use of free indirect discourse that Joyce unfolds the story of Gabriel’s epiphany and the great themes he wishes to convey: recognition of the passage of time, inevitable death, and what happens to the living.

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In a film, however, the narrative cannot include thoughts (at least not without the mechanical use of voice-overs), which presents an obvious challenge for John Huston. How does one show the audience the nuances of Gabriel’s character essential to understanding his epiphany, avoid using his thoughts, and still remain faithful to the text?

The answer lies in the fact that film and writing are fundamentally different mediums, with vastly different methods of expression.

Through ingenious usage of the camera, and subtle changes to the narrative, Huston reveals Gabriel’s superiority complex and lack of emotional intelligence, which allows the audience to understand the epiphany at the conclusion of the film. In the scene in which Aunt Julia sings “Arrayed for the Bridal,” Huston conveys much of the spirit of Joyce’s writing, yet at the same time uses the visual nature of film to create a scene that stands on its own merits.

In Joyce’s story, Aunt Julia’s performance is preceded by Gabriel’s obsession over his speech. He devises a way to snub Miss Ivors by praising his aunts, whom he smugly dismisses, however, as “two ignorant old women” (192). Joyce purposefully contrasts Gabriel’s shallow view of his aunts with Freddy Malins’s sincere, albeit intoxicated, reaction to the song. Instead of simply juxtaposing Gabriel and Freddy’s differing views of Aunt Julia, Huston takes advantage of the visual opportunities presented by the medium of film to create and juxtapose two differing concepts of Julia within the viewer.

To achieve this, he must change several elements of the story. Joyce describes Julia’s voice as “strong and clear in tone” (193), and states that “though she sang very rapidly she did not miss even the smallest of grace notes” (193). In other words, she may have looked frail and spent, but she still sang well. In the film, however, her voice is as decrepit as her body. Her notes are flat, her singing is off-key, and her expression is wooden. At this point, Huston has led the audience to share Gabriel’s view of Julia as a sad little old woman.

Many members of the audience are waiting for the song to finish, some perhaps even angry at being subjected to such inferior singing. Then suddenly, just like the bored young men during Mary Jane’s performance, the camera slips away. Like a curious guest, it climbs the staircase, and proceeds to cast its eye over a range of objects, which include, among other things: a sampler quilt, sepia photographs, evening shoes, and rosary beads on top of a Bible.

Huston uses these seemingly unrelated items to remind the audience of Julia’s rich past, that she has not always been the old lady with the cracked voice. When the song ends and the camera cuts back to the music room once again, the audience has effectively been chastised, and is likely to share Freddy’s spluttering indignation in reaction to Mr. Browne’s patronizing hailing of Julia as “my latest discovery” (193). Additionally, the audience now realizes that Gabriel’s view of Aunt Julia is stunted and arrogant, and that there is more to her than he perceives.

This knowledge is crucial to an understanding of Joyce’s story because Gabriel’s belief that he is superior to others contributes to his eventual emotional downfall and epiphany. James Joyce could use the subtleties of the written word to insinuate this trait of Gabriel through passages such as, “He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers” (179), and “Gabriel strove to restrain himself from breaking out into brutal language about the sottish Malins and his pound” (217). Huston, however, did not have this luxury.

Recognizing that the singing scene held great potential for expressiveness, John Huston conveys Gabriel’s conceit to the audience by first coaxing them into sharing his impression of Aunt Julia, and then using the shots of her belongings to show how unfounded and contemptible his views really are. Huston alters several details in the staircase and cab ride scenes to underline Gabriel’s lack of emotional and social intelligence. In the text, when Gabriel is imagining Gretta as the muse for his painting, “Distant Music,” she is “in the shadow” (209).

Unable to see her face (and therefore her emotions), Gabriel sees only “the grace and mystery in her attitude” (210). Additionally, when she comes down the staircase, Gabriel notices, “the colour on her cheeks and that her eyes were shining” (212). In the film, however, Gretta’s face is not only illuminated, but also emphasized, due to the double framing by her shawl and the stained glass window. Eyes glimmering with tears, Anjelica Huston leaves no doubt in the audience’s mind that Gretta is experiencing sadness.

Additionally, in Joyce’s text, during the journey back to the hotel, Bartell D’Arcy and Ms. O’Callaghan are in the cab with Gabriel and Gretta, which prohibits meaningful conversation of any kind. Huston, on the other hand, makes the decision to have Gabriel and Gretta ride back alone, creating a more intimate and romantic atmosphere than in the story. Attempting to set the stage for an amorous encounter, Gabriel makes a joke, kisses his wife’s hand, and tells her a story, but is met with quiet indifference and averted eyes.

At this point the viewers understand that Gretta is feeling blue and is clearly not in the mood for sex. Therefore, Gabriel’s attempt to make things physical in the hotel room is all the more surprising to the audience, because they know that his wife is sad and distracted. Highlighting Gabriel’s inability to connect with his wife is critical to an understanding of “The Dead” because Gabriel’s lack of emotional intelligence, insensitivity to the cues around him, and disinclination to search for the truth behind appearances eventually punish him and cause (at least in part) his epiphany.

Joyce hints at these faults of Gabriel, in passages such as Gabriel’s awkward interaction with Lily. However, the nuances of such moments (for example, Gabriel’s shame at Lily’s retort) are often difficult to translate into film. John Huston wanted the audience to understand Gabriel’s inability to connect with and understand other people, so he explicitly depicted Gabriel’s knowledge of Gretta’s grief, and how he still attempted to make love to her.

In his 1987 film adaptation of “The Dead,” John Huston harnesses the visual power of the camera to show the audience Gabriel’s unfounded feeling of superiority, and makes subtle changes to the narrative to illustrate Gabriel’s inability to connect emotionally with his wife. Adapting Joyce’s nuanced novella to the silver screen was a daunting task, but it’s safe to say that Huston succeeded. The loose relationship between life and art parallels the relationship between an original work and its adaptation: something is always lost in translation. But in the end, what we receive may be worth what we give up.

Cite this Analysis of John Huston’s the Dead

Analysis of John Huston’s the Dead. (2016, Oct 07). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/analysis-of-john-hustons-the-dead/

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