I've just recently completed a short essay on the use of symbolism in 'The Dead' and 'A Wet Day,' and out of interest spent some time googling the two. There seems to be an unfortunate lack of interest in these stories, at least in terms of blog posts, so I thought I'd share some of my thoughts. Please note that these stories are full of symbolism, and I've only focused very briefly on a few examples. If you have any specific requests, questions or suggestions, feel free to contact us.
Joyce uses symbolism throughout his short story ‘The Dead’ to highlight the dichotomous themes of Ireland’s loss of cultural influence and her loss of cultural independence. Joyce uses music to symbolise a state of cultural paralysis that exists as a result of a combination of the oppression of the individual at the hands of Western civilisation, the Irish Catholic Church and Ireland’s own inflexibility. The discussion of Julia’s losing her place on the choir highlights these separate yet interlinked concerns by introducing the idea that Julia is being silenced or stifled by Irish society and the Irish Catholic religion.
Gabriel has a clear superiority complex; he sees himself as more intelligent than everyone else and can’t handle being made fun of. Part of his superiority is his belief in his ‘higher culture.’ This is evident in his condescending manner at the party, his obsession with galoshes (which are worn by “everyone… on the continent”) and his attempt to distance his wife Gretta from her background when asked if she was from Connacht (“her people are”). Most interesting to me here is the treatment of galoshes. The galoshes can be seen as symbolic of the dichotomy of continent versus/against Ireland; we learn that Gabriel wears galoshes and attempts to get his wife to do so. His argument that “…everyone wears them on the continent” is significant in that it highlights his own motivations and his abandonment of the Irish identity (probably as a result of his belief in its inferior nature). That Gretta refuses to wear them at the start of the story reveals that Joyce has used characterisation to further explore this dichotomy; Gabriel represents the position of the continent in many respects, whereas Gretta represents Ireland. Gretta makes a joke to the others about Gabriel’s insistence upon wearing galoshes; he responds with a retort designed to remind her of her ignorance and thus put her in her place. The intention is to place Gabriel back in a position of power and affirm his sense of superiority. Gabriel sees himself (and apparently Western culture outside of Ireland) as superior, yet somehow feels as though he needs to defend his place among the inferior partygoers by belittling his wife. There is one evident flaw on both sides of this dichotomy: inflexibility and the inability to really engage and interact in an authentic way. Gabriel’s interaction with his wife symbolises the disconnect between Ireland and the continent, and the alienation that was taking place as a result of the refusal to allow the cultures to interact unhindered (i.e. without argument as to who was superior).
Similarly, Mary Lavin uses symbolism in her characterisation of the narrator, her aunt and the priest in ‘A Wet Day’ to draw the reader to consider the oppressive, stifling nature of Irish Catholic religion in Irish society. The narrator is educated, but unlike Joyce’s Gabriel she is motivated by a belief in reason rather than a false sense of superiority. She does not appear to be bigoted against the church, as her aunt blindly believes (“cheap anticlericalism”), but rather respects men based on their personal worth: (“in my estimate of a man’s worth I did not allow credit for round collars and tussore. I had met some fine men who were in clerical clothes but my respect for them had nothing to do with their dress”). Her aunt, on the other hand, trusts and respects the priest unquestioningly, no matter how critical or miserable he is. The contrast in beliefs could be seen as symbolic of the two separate yet co-existent mentalities present in Ireland at the time; that of ‘old’ Ireland in its unquestioning submission to the oppression of the Church (symbolised in the character of the aunt and the priest) and that of ‘new’ Ireland, represented as being more liberating, which were indicative of the views of many in the literary circles (represented by the character of the niece).
Like Gretta in ‘The Dead,’ the priest also symbolises an inability to let go of the past. He is “always” telling stories of his “healthy youth,” and these images are clearly juxtaposed with his present infirmities. His dwelling on his past makes him less tolerant of his present condition, and this influences his ungenerous behaviour and false sense of entitlement. In this way, the character of the priest represents the idea that a refusal to change and adapt in a new world is a force for evil for both individuals and Ireland as a larger social, cultural and political body.
Along with his personality and attitude towards his parishioners, the priest’s walking stick also symbolises the oppressive role of the Irish Catholic Church in the lives of individuals and Irish society. As he is walking through their garden, the priest “shook the bush with… his walking stick.” This presents an act of domination and symbolises the priest’s perceived right to control the lives and property of his parishioners. Pairing this action with the preceding description of the bushes as “unpretentious” increases the symbolic meaning of this act; the bush is honest, fulfilling its natural role with beauty and integrity, whereas the priest is seen to manipulate his surroundings and his parishioners for his own personal benefit (to get vegetables and sympathy). Similarly, “the perfect machinery of his sentences” that “ran smoothly in the tracks they had cut out for themselves through dogma and doctrine” symbolises the lack of integrity and spirituality in Irish Catholic religion and this, combined with the priest’s attitude in general, symbolises the repressive nature of religion in Irish society. The priest is “careful” rather than “spiritual,” and this causes the narrator to view him with a level of distrust.
That the narrator’s distrust of the clergyman proved reasonable is designed to raise questions about society’s blind, unquestioning faith and trust in the oppressive Irish Catholic Church and its members. The priest in this story is portrayed as uncharitable and utterly selfish, to the extent that he is willing to allow a man to die, believing the man’s condition to be “worse than she thought it was,” because he didn’t want the trouble of having to care for a sick man overnight or longer. The aunt’s disillusionment provides a hopeful symbol of the coming of a new age for Ireland – one free of the oppression and repression that Lavin saw as being a destructive, stifling force in Ireland.
 Western influences external to Ireland.
 It was the decision of the Church to replace the women
 Symbolic of the individual in society and, particularly, Irish women
 Joyce lived away from Ireland for a number of years and seemed to have a respect for both Ireland and England. He seemed to be happy with the idea of two cultures blending (or at least sharing aspects of each others’ cultures). Gabriel and his wife are unable to properly engage and interact with one another authentically as a result of his refusal to give up his sense of superiority and a failure on Gretta’s part to move on from the past and live fully in the present. This is symbolic, perhaps, of Ireland’s refusal to give up their past and deal with their present situation within the modern Western world in which interaction and negotiation with England and other Western countries would be necessary (and perhaps also symbolic of the role that either or each country’s false or unhelpful beliefs/attitudes/sense of superiority played in this state of political (and cultural) paralysis.
Our primary contributor is Elissa, who is a qualified high school teacher and Irlen Screener.