Gabriel’s Trouble with Women

Yasmin Jensen Giménez

An Analysis of the Struggle between Masculinity and Feminism in James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ and John Huston’s Film Adaptation


James Joyce’s short story The Dead[1], the final story in his Dubliners collection, has been regarded as a literary masterpiece and was, and still is by some, considered to be unfilmable. John Huston, the acclaimed director, took on the challenge, creating a remarkable work of art to end his career, paying homage both to an author who he considered to be one of his literary influences,[2] and to his beloved Ireland. Despite the fact that most of the film was not filmed in Ireland, the essential Irishness of Joyce’s tale was effectively transmitted through the use of Irish actors and traditional Irish poetry (Donal Og), music and instruments, such as the harp playing at the start of the film. Huston’s The Dead became a family collaboration with his son, Tony Huston, co-writing the screenplay and his daughter, Anjelica Huston, playing Gretta Conroy, the lead female role. The adaptation itself was considered to be largely faithful to the original - the most common form of adaptation - as it is essentially using an idea that has already proved successful in the past.[3] When considering Geoffrey Wagner’s three categories of adaptation, John Huston’s The Dead seems to be, at first glance, a transposition ‘in which a novel is given directly on the screen with a minimum of apparent interference.’[4]  When asked about his methods of adapting a text into a film in an interview with Gideon Bachmann, Huston stated the following:


I try to beware of literal transfers to film of what a writer has created initially for a different form. Instead I try to penetrate first to the basic idea of the book or the play, and then work with those ideas in cinematic terms[5]


In the case of The Dead, however, Huston translated Joyce’s story almost literally, ‘padding out’ rather than cutting down, such as his addition of the character Mr Grace, who recites ‘Donal Og’, an eighth century Irish poem translated by Augusta Gregory, which adds to the overall tone of the film.  Huston himself described The Dead[6] as a ‘story […] about a man being revealed to himself’[7], a statement which, though not inaccurate, casts a shadow over the role of women in the story and, it could be argued from a feminist perspective, the constant struggle between masculinity and feminism.

In her study of the interrelationship between focalization and description in both Huston and Joyce’s The Dead[8], literary academic Anelise Reich Corseuil affirms that the short story is reasonably fast paced, its description helping the narrative move forward. The film, on the other hand, moves at a relatively slow speed, lacking focalization of the descriptive passages by a given character. Instead, different characters who are detached from the development of the narrative provide these fragmented descriptions. This, Corseuil argues, creates an effect of separation between narrative development and description; in other words, it is as if the descriptions were outside of time, “frozen.” A number of theorists argue that ‘description introduces into the narrative time another time, a cosmic suspense which is not the time of mimesis of reproduction.[9]’ If change is brought by narrative, description is generally seen as a temporary suspension of time. The description in Joyce’s The Dead, however, helps the storyline move forward, since ‘most of the detailed descriptions are integrated with Gabriel’s acquiring consciousness of his life and affections.’[10] This lack of focalization is also the reason Gabriel is, arguably, presented as a more sympathetic character towards women in the film adaptation than in the original.

Joyce’s narrative begins in the centre of the action, the focus and perspective being placed on Lily the caretaker’s daughter being ‘literally run off her feet’ (p.199), whereas John Huston begins the narrative completely outside of the action, showing an image of Gabriel’s aunts’ house from the outside looking in. It could be argued that Huston used this as a method of providing the film with a setting and in order to specify the location and year where the events are taking place (Dublin 1904). Also, since most of the film was actually filmed in California, this short clip provides a glimpse of ‘true’ Dublin. This clarification of context is not present in Joyce’s short story, as the time and place of the events would be picked up through character conversations and political context. However, Huston spelt this out for his audience, preferring to concentrate on the central themes of the story. This minor modification is the first of many occasions in which Huston does not follow Joyce’s original point of perspective.

In both story and film, Gabriel Conroy is presented as an important character and his arrival is eagerly awaited by his aunts and niece. Gabriel’s wife, Gretta, on the other hand, remains in the background throughout most of the novella-length short story, her importance to the narrative not becoming apparent until the last few pages, adding an element of surprise to her final revelation. In Huston’s film, however, Gretta’s importance is evident through the casting of the elegant, statuesque and well-known actress Angelica Huston. The camera pans in her direction frequently, effectively capturing her facial expressions and allowing the viewer to feel curiosity towards this complex character. Her sexuality is subtly addressed quite early on in the film, through her dancing or the image of her legs when she puts on her shoes, and Gabriel watches her frequently. In what has come to be known as the “staircase scene”[11], Anjelica Huston is standing on the stairs listening to ‘The Lass of Aughrim’ in an image reminiscent of the Virgin Mary, a portrait aided by the shawl she is wearing around her head, the light creating a halo around her and the stained glass window she is standing in front of. Though overtly eroticised by Gabriel in Joyce’s text, this scene is not necessarily sexual in nature in Huston’s adaptation, though there is an element of contemplation of beauty and adoration caused by the pause of the narrative, a tool frequently used by film-makers to create this effect. The camera is focused on Anjelica Huston’s face and on her facial expressions. She becomes especially tearful when Mr D’Arcy sings the verse ‘“My babe lies cold within my arms,”’ seemingly supporting the hypothesis that Gretta may have lost a child as well as her childhood sweetheart.[12] Gretta’s tragic story of trying to accept the losses she suffered in her youth could be considered a muted story that occurs simultaneously to Gabriel’s narrative and is never overtly articulated, highlighting the distance present between husband and wife and, in a broader sense, between man and woman.

Joyce’s Gretta is contemplated by Gabriel only after the staircase scene, and only as a being of beauty rather than as a person with ideas. She becomes an object to be painted in Gabriel’s fantasy painting, ‘Distant Music’ (p.240). On the stairwell, Gabriel does not immediately recognise her and can only see the lower half of her body, implying that he has never known her completely and foreshadowing the fact that he will want to ‘overmaster’ (p.248) his wife later on. Even when his expectations of sex are dashed by Gretta’s indifference, Gabriel’s first reaction is not concern for his spouse; instead, he ‘longs to be master of her strange mood’, concluding that ‘[t]o take her as she was would be brutal’ (p.248), leaving the reader pondering how dangerously close he was to raping his wife.

This carnal and primitive facet of Gabriel’s character is further exposed in his encounters with politically-minded Molly Ivors, who he resents for being his intellectual equal and not conforming to a traditional female role[13] by, for example, wearing a ‘low cut bodice’ (p.213) like the other women, and also in his encounter with Lily the caretaker’s daughter, who he notices is ‘a slim, growing girl’ (p.201), implying that he may have a “wandering eye.” Lily leaves him ‘coloured’ (p.202) and feeling ‘discomposed’ (p.203) after her quick and cold reply to his all too personal question concerning her private life, ‘”The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you”’ (p.202). In Joyce’s original, Gabriel “fixes” the awkward situation with Lily by taking a coin and ‘thrusting it into her hands’ (p.203). This act could be interpreted as Gabriel making a final statement to assert his masculinity to Lily. His attempt to playfully flirt with her has failed, so Gabriel uses his class and social standing to assert his dominance over her. Despite the fact that the same dialogue and actions take place in Huston’s adaptation than in Joyce’s original, Gabriel’s insecurities are not made apparent and therefore his actions do not appear to be a manifestation of his desire for power, an interpretation all too possible in Joyce’s story.

Gabriel’s self-centredness and his somewhat perverse thoughts are completely omitted in Huston’s The Dead because, as mentioned above, Huston’s lack of focalization on Gabriel means that the audience does not get a chance to delve into the character’s mind, as in Joyce’s original. In order to do this, Huston would have had to include flashbacks or provide a constant voiceover, a fact which supports the argument that Joyce’s The Dead is ‘so rich in [its] own medium that [it] def[ies] translation into film without severe reductions and simplifications.’[14] Due to the fact that, bar his epiphany, Gabriel’s interior monologue is excluded from the film, it could be argued that Gabriel is portrayed as a more female-friendly character in Huston’s The Dead than in Joyce’s short story. Aside from his sexual thoughts, the short story also includes judgements and reflections which leave the reader feeling like Gabriel might be insincere and self-centred. Before his speech, for example, he adds


Ladies and Gentlemen, the generation which is now on the wane among us may have had its faults, but for my part I think it had certain qualities of hospitality, of humour, of humanity, which the new and very serious and hyper-educated generation that is growing up around us seems to me to lack. Very good: that was one for Miss Ivors. (p.219)


This, to him, was a way of effectively silencing Miss Ivors for humiliating him previously. This does not appear in the film and Miss Ivors becomes the only woman who does not get silenced by her fellow peers. In fact, in Huston’s film, when told that she’ll ‘“be the only woman there”’, Miss Ivors retorts confidently that ‘“it wouldn’t be the first time.”’ In Joyce’s The Dead, Gabriel also refers to his aunts as ‘two ignorant old women’ (p.219) in his mind and then showers them with compliments during the speech, depicting him as hypocritical and supporting the argument that he has apparent dislike for women unless they are sexually objectified.

It could also be argued that Gabriel himself is not presented as a likeable character in film because of the lack of focalization on his character.[15] He is most often shown going over his speech in isolation rather than mingling with the rest of the guests, and his final epiphany seems to lack continuity with the rest of the events that have taken place throughout the night, because the audience has not been able to follow Gabriel’s train of thought which leads him to his final epiphany. In Joyce’s novella, however, the reader witnesses the extent of Gabriel’s insecurities through his train of thought and can, to an extent, understand the process that leads to his opinions and to his eventual epiphany.

What Huston does adapt to film effectively is the silencing of the women throughout the narrative. Lily is not only muted because of her gender, but also because of her class, as shown in the film when Mary Jane’s insistence that she do more than she is physically capable of when the guests are arriving. Huston’s Gretta is blatantly silenced by Gabriel after pleading with him to go to Galway: instead of replying ‘“Well there’s a nice husband for you”’ (p.218), as occurs in Joyce’s The Dead, she remains silent and staring at her partner before walking away. Freddy’s grumpy and unlikeable mother is silenced by Gabriel’s unwillingness to listen to her stories and is pawned off on Freddy Malins, a much more likable character in film than in book, who has to sit through her open disapproval of his drinking. Furthermore, through premature applause, Gabriel also silences the trance caused by Tony Huston’s additional character Mr Grace’s rendition of ‘Donal Og’, a poem of betrayal, love and loss. This highlights Gabriel’s position as an outsider who struggles to deal with certain situations which, in Joyce’s original, is shown through his interior monologue after his encounters with confrontational women.   

In terms of language, the film remains faithful almost word for word to Joyce’s The Dead. The term ‘screwed’ meaning ‘drunk’ was changed to ‘stewed’ due to its sexual connotations, as was the word ‘gay’ to ‘fine’ in the song ‘For he’s a jolly gay fellow’ , most likely as a result of its modern day use to mean homosexual. However, this modification could be argued to diminish the significance of Morkan ladies’ characters in Huston’s adaptation. Though regarded as spinsters by their peers, a feminist viewpoint would offer that they chose that unconventional lifestyle for themselves. The word ‘gay’ during Joyce’s time was an ambiguous term undergoing many changes. One of its common uses was to describe heterosexually unconstrained lifestyles like, for example, that of a ‘Lothario.’ One of the possible meanings for gay is, according to The Oxford English Dictionary[16] ‘2.a. Addicted to social pleasures and dissipations. Often euphemistically: Of loose and immoral life.’ When referring to women, the term more often than not implied the leading of an ‘immoral’ life; in other words, prostitution or having relations out of wedlock. If this meaning of the word ‘gay’ is to be considered in Joyce’s The Dead, the aunts would have had a very modern perspective with regard to sex and relationships. The suppression of the word ‘gay’ in Huston’s adaptation, therefore, prevents any possible empowerment of women stemming from the aunts’ nonconformist situation. This change, along with the other modifications concerning women in The Dead, leads to the possible re-classification of John Huston’s adaptation from a transposition to a commentary which, according to Wagner, is ‘where an original is taken and either purposely or inadvertently altered in some respect […] when there has been a different intention on the part of the film-maker, rather than infidelity or outright violation.’[17]

The only approval Joyce’s Gabriel shows Aunt Julia and Aunt Kate are during his speech, comparing them and Mary Jane to the three graces (p.233), all the while maintaining a low opinion of them in his mind, calling them ‘A woman who did not know where she was or where she was going’, looking like ‘a shrivelled red apple’ (p.204), respectively. In the film, however, Gabriel’s blatant lack of respect for his aunts is not made apparent, as Huston only shows Gabriel showering them with compliments and instigating the song ‘“For they are jolly fine fellows”’, which brings tears to their eyes. The tension between Gabriel and the female characters is lost in translation in Huston’s adaptation, so much so that it could be argued that Huston’s Gabriel would be a completely different character to Joyce’s Gabriel were it not for Huston’s successful display of silenced women.

All in all, John Huston’s ‘faithful’ adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead is not as faithful as first presumed, particularly when it comes to the subject of masculinity and feminism, especially concerning the character of Gabriel Conroy. The omission of focalization on Gabriel’s character and of his interior monologue means the audience does not have the opportunity to understand Gabriel’s character as completely as in Joyce’s The Dead, with the implication that the women become of less importance to the narrative than in Joyce’s original. Some of Joyce’s subtle suggestions, such as that of Gretta’s possible pregnancy, become less ambiguous in Huston’s adaptation, whereas others, such as the aunts’ non-conformist lifestyle, are overlooked and discarded. However, Huston’s adaptation does provide the audience with a wider perspective of events and shows how the women are silenced by those around them, especially by Gabriel Conroy, the epitome of the bourgeois male.  This is an aspect that Joyce did not depict explicitly and, instead, portrays as a silent story parallel to Gabriel’s main account. In both film and story, Gabriel’s shortcomings and difficulties in his relationships with women are addressed in his final epiphany and, in contrast to Michael Furey’s relationship with Gretta, Gabriel ‘had never felt like that towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love’ (p.255).

Word count: 2,794



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Bachmann, Gideon, ‘How I Make Films: An Interview with John Huston’, Film Quarterly,  19:1 (1965) pp.3-13

Bauerle, Ruth. Date Rape, Mate Rape: A Liturgical Interpretation of 'The Dead', in Bonnie Kime Scott, ed.  New Alliances in Joyce Studies: "When it's aped to foul a Delfian" (Newark: University of Delaware, 1988) pp.113-125.

Beaujour, Michel, ‘Some Paradoxes of Description’, Yale French Studies: 61 (1981) pp. 89-107

Bradshaw, Peter, ‘The Dead’, The Guardian, 1 December 2006 <> (accessed 1 January 2013)

Corseuil, Anelise Reich. John Huston’s Adaptation of James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’: The Interrelationship Between Description and Focalization <> (accessed 1 January 2012)

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John Huston and the Dubliners, dir. by Lilyan Sievernich (Liffey Films, 1987)

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Laird, Nick, ‘I Think He Died For Me’ The Guardian, Saturday 2 December 2006 [Accessed 23rd December 2012]

Long, Robert Emmet ed., John Huston Interviews (USA: University Press of Mississippi, 2001)

Norris, Margot. ‘Not the Girl She Was at All: Women in "The Dead"’ in ed. Daniel R. Schwarz, The Dead (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994), p. 190-205.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan, ‘Portfolio Without Artist’, Chicago Reader, 8 July 1988 <> (accessed 19 December 2012)

Sakr, Rita, Staging Social and Political Spaces: Living Theatre in Joyce’s “The Dead” < > (accessed 23 December 2012)

The Dead, dir. by John Huston (Vestron Pictures 1987)

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Wawrzycka, Jolanta, Apotheosis, Metaphor, and Death:John Huston’s The Dead Again <                  > (accessed 18 December 2012)

[1] James Joyce, Dubliners (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1926)

[2] Robert Emmet Long, ed. John Huston Interviews (USA: University Press of Mississippi, 2001) p.x

[3] Dudley Andrew, Concepts in film theory (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc, 1984), p. 98

[4] Geoffrey Wagner, The Novel and the Cinema (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press: Rutherford, NJ, 1975) p.224

[5]  Gideon Bachmann, ‘How I Make Films: An Interview with John Huston’, Film Quarterly,  19:1 (1965) p.4

[6] The Dead, dir. by John Huston (Vestron Pictures 1987)

[7] John Huston and the Dubliners, dir. by Lilyan Sievernich (Liffey Films, 1987)

[8] Anelise Reich Corseuil, John Huston’s Adaptation of James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’: The Interrelationship Between Description and Focalization <> (accessed 1 January 2012) <> (accessed 1 January 2012)

[9] Michel Beaujour, ‘Some Paradoxes of Description’, Yale French Studies: 61 (1981) p.42

[10] Anelise Reich Corseuil, John Huston’s Adaptation of James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’: The Interrelationship Between Description and Focalization <> (accessed 1 January 2012) p.67

[11] Jolanta Wawrzycka, Apotheosis, Metaphor, and Death: John Huston’s The Dead Again < > (accessed 18 December 2012) p.68

[12] Ibid. p.70

[13] Ruth Bauerle, Date Rape, Mate Rape: A Liturgical Interpretation of 'The Dead', in Bonnie Kime Scott, ed.  New Alliances in Joyce Studies: "When it's aped to foul a Delfian" (Newark: University of Delaware, 1988) p. 116

[14] Jonathan Rosenbaum, ‘Portfolio Without Artist’, Chicago Reader, 8 July 1988 <> (accessed 19 December 2012)

[15] Anelise Reich Corseuil, John Huston’s Adaptation of James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’: The Interrelationship Between Description and Focalization <> (accessed 1 January 2012) p.73

[16] The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edn, (Oxford: Clarendon Press Oxford 1989) s.v. gay

[17] Geoffrey Wagner, The Novel and the Cinema (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press: Rutherford, NJ, 1975) p.224



Yasmin Jensen Giménez


brightONLINE student literary journal

14 Aug 2013