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"The Dead" in Dubliners
By James Joyce
336 pages; Penguin Classics

Maybe the greatest short story ever written, "The Dead"—which appears in the 1914 collection Dubliners by James Joyce—focuses on an evening in the life of Gabriel Conroy, teacher and book critic, who goes to a party with his wife of many years, Gretta. Toward the end of the story, as the two of them are getting ready to leave, Gabriel catches sight of Gretta on the stairs, listening to some "distant music" that he can't hear. The sight of her like that, graceful as the figure in a painting, kindles in him a litany of memories from when they were young and in love, before their life together was dulled by routine. He realizes that "their children, his writing, her household cares had not quenched all their soul's tender fire." Less lyrically, he wants to get her into the sack as soon as he can. Joyce perfectly captures the way an unexpected context—a party, a hike in the woods, a strange moment on the stairs—can re-mystify your spouse and cut through the dailiness of married life. But then Gabriel and Gretta return to their hotel room, and Joyce delivers the kicker: The mystery Gabriel read in his wife's face wasn't what he (or we) had in mind at all. She'd been thinking about an old lover, Michael Furey, who died of illness at the age of 17, possibly because he risked his life to visit her in the rain. She'd been dreaming about someone else. And Gabriel, though seething with "rage and desire," consoles Gretta tenderly and caresses her hand, facing one of the hardest truths about marriage: You will never, ever truly know what your spouse is thinking. Personally, I find this both terrifying (my wife will always be a stranger to me) and comforting (my wife will always be a stranger to me, and therefore of inexhaustible interest).