Soon after arriving with his wife at his aunts’ annual celebration of Christmas, Gabriel Conroy, the protagonist of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” has an awkward encounter. Lily, “the caretaker’s daughter” (175), has gone with Gabriel into a pantry near the entrance to help him off with his coat. They exchange a few polite words before Gabriel broaches the topic of whether Lily might be engaged, eliciting from her a bitter remark about the nature of men, which in turn causes him to blush. After nervously adjusting his attire, Gabriel gives her a coin and rushes away to join the party. How readers interpret this initial scene, how they assess Gabriel’s handling of it, has much bearing on how they will experience the entire story. Many psychoanalytic critics, particularly followers of Jacques Lacan, read the encounter as evidence of Gabriel’s need to control others, especially women. According to this approach, the rest of the story consists of Gabriel’s further frustrations at the hands of women until he ultimately succumbs and adopts a more realistic understanding of himself. But the Lacanian reading is cast into severe doubt by an emerging field of narrative studies based on a more scientific view of human psychology. The theories put forth by these evolutionary critics, particularly the Social Monitoring and Volunteered Affect Theory formulated by William Flesch, highlight textual evidence that undermines readings by prominent Lacanians—evidence which has likely led generations of readers to a much more favorable view of Joyce’s protagonist.
At a glance, two disparate assessments of Gabriel seem equally plausible. Is he solicitous or overbearing? Fastidious or overweening? Self-conscious or narcissistic? While chatting with Lily, he smiles “at the three syllables she had given his surname” (177). He subsequently realizes that he “had known her when she was a child and used to sit on the lowest step nursing a rag doll” (177). Lacanian critic James Kelley asserts that these lines describe Gabriel “reveling in his position of superiority” (202). When Gabriel goes on to inquire about Lily’s schooling and, upon learning that she is no longer a student, whether he can expect to be attending her wedding sometime soon, she “glanced back at him over her shoulder and said with great bitterness: / —The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you” (177). Joyce leaves unanswered two questions in this scene: why does Lily respond “with great bitterness”? And why does Gabriel lose his composure over it? Kelley suggests that Lily is responding to Gabriel’s “attitude of superiority” (202). Gary Leonard, another Lacanian, sees the encounter similarly, charging Gabriel with the offense of “asking a real woman a question better asked of a little girl in a fairy tale (of course she is that unreal to him)” (458). But Leonard is holding Gabriel to a feminist standard that had not come into existence yet. And Gabriel’s smiling and reminiscing are just as likely reflective of a fatherly as they are of a patriarchal attitude.
One of the appeals of Flesch’s Social Monitoring and Volunteered Affect (SMVA) theory, which views the experience of fiction as a process of tracking characters for signals of altruism and favoring those who emit them, is that it relies on no notional story between the lines of the actual story. When encountering the scene in which Lily responds bitterly to Gabriel’s small talk, readers need not, for instance, be looking at a symbol of class conflict (Marxism) or gender oppression (Feminism) or one consciousness trying to wrest psychic unity from another (Lacanianism). Evidence can be culled from the scene to support the importance of these symbols and dynamics, along with countless others. But their importance rests solely in the mind of the critic serving as advocate for this or that theory. As Flesch’s fellow evolutionary critic Brian Boyd explains in his book On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, “Such critics assume that if they can ‘apply’ the theory, if they can read a work in its light, they thereby somehow ‘prove’ it, even if the criteria of application and evidence are loose” (387).Unfortunately, those trained in the application of one of these theories can become so preoccupied with the task of sifting between the lines that their experience—to say nothing of their enjoyment—of the lines themselves gets short shrift. And, as Boyd points out, “We learn more when evidence against a reading surfaces, since it forces us to account for a richer stock of information” (387, emphasis in original).
The distorting effect of theory can be seen in the Lacanian critics’ obliviousness toward several aspects of “The Dead” Joyce is trying to draw their attention to. Why, for instance, would Gabriel be embarrassed by Lily’s bitter response when there are no witnesses? She is just a lowly caretaker’s daughter; that he would be at all concerned with what she says or how she says it tells readers something about him. Joyce makes a point of suggesting that Gabriel’s blush is not borne of embarrassment, but rather of his shame at offending Lily, accidental though the offence may have been. He “coloured as if he felt he had made a mistake” (178), and that mistake was supposing Lily would be getting married soon. That Lily’s bitterness at this supposition has anything to do with Gabriel as opposed to the one or more men who have frustrated her in love is unlikely (unless she has a crush on him). Concerning her “three mistresses,” she knows, for instance, that “the only thing they would not stand was back answers” (176), implying that she has ventured some in the past and been chastised for them. Aunt Kate even complains later about Lily’s recent behavior: “I’m sure I don’t know what has come over her lately. She’s not the girl she was at all” (181). This may or may not be enough evidence to support the idea that Lily’s recent transformation resulted from a courtship with one of those men who is all palaver, but it certainly goes a long way toward undermining readings like Kelley’s and Leonard’s.
When Gabriel thrusts a coin into Lily’s hand, his purpose may be “to reestablish his superiority” (202), as Kelley argues, but that assumes both that he has a sense of his own superiority and that he is eager to maintain it. If Gabriel feels so superior, though, why would he respond charitably rather than getting angry? Why, when Aunt Kate references Lily’s recent change, does he make ready “to ask his aunt some questions on this point” (181) instead of making a complaint or insisting on a punishment? A simpler and much more obvious motivation for the thrusting of the coin is to make amends for the accidental offence. But, astonishingly, Leonard concludes solely from Joyce’s use of the word “thrusting” that Lily and Gabriel’s “social intercourse is terminated in a manner that mimics sexual intercourse” (458). Yet another Lacanian, Ivan Trujillo, takes this idea a step further: having equated Gabriel’s blush with an orgasm, he sees the coin as the culmination of an act of prostitution, as paying her back “for his orgasmic feeling of shame” (3).
From the perspective of SMVA theory, laid out in Flesch’s Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction, Gabriel’s blushing, which recurs later in the story in his encounter with Molly Ivors, suggests something quite distantly removed from sexual arousal. “Blushing is an honest signal of how one feels,” Flesch writes. “It is honest because we would suppress it if we could” (103). But what feeling might Gabriel be signaling? Flesch offers a clue when he explains
"Being known through hard-to-fake or costly or honest signaling to have the emotional propensity to act against our own rational interests helps those who receive our signals to solve the problem of whether they can trust us. Blushing, weeping, flushing with rage, going livid with shock: all these are reliable signals, not only of how we feel in a certain situation but of the fact that we generally emit reliable signals. It pays to be fathomable. People tend to trust those who blush" (106, emphasis in original).
The most obvious information readers of “The Dead” can glean from Gabriel’s blushing at Lily’s response to his questions is that he is genuinely concerned that he may have offended her. Lacanians might counter that his real concern is with the authentication of his own sense of superiority, but again if he really felt so superior why would he care about offending the lowly caretaker’s daughter in an exchange with no witnesses? In fact, Lily’s back is turned, so even she misses the blush. It can be read as a signal from Joyce to readers to let them know a little about what kind of character Gabriel is.