How do you feel after reading “The Dead” in James Joyce’s Dubliners? The character, Gabriel, appears to feel he’ll forever compete with his wife, Gretta’s memory of her first love—a boy named Michael Furey who died at age 17—for Joyce writes,
Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He (Gabriel) thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.
Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree.
So how do you feel after reading this? If you’re a woman do you feel your husband or boyfriend doesn’t even bring you flowers, let alone would risk his health to say goodbye to you. If you’re a man, do you feel you’re incapable of performing such a romantic gesture?
But is this the behavior of a boy or a man? Is to die of consumption and a broken heart love or selfishness? Michael Furey went out on a rainy night to say goodbye to Gretta before she left for Dublin (earlier she let him now she’d be back that summer). One week later he was dead.
Contrast that with Robert, the protagonist in Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls. Robert tells Maria goodbye before he puts up a final front against the fascists so Maria and their friends could live. Here’s how Robert (Hemingway) tells Maria goodbye,
Thou wilt go now, rabbit. But I go with thee. As long as there is one of us there is both of us. Do you understand?
Robert dies for love, not a token expression. He dies so the people he loves can live. If Robert and Maria never met, he may never have desired to become a happily married man after he completed his mission. Had they all safely escaped after blowing up the bridge in For Whom The Bell Tolls, Robert and Maria could have settled into a similar life as Gabriel’s and Gretta’s. Or if Michael Furey did not die but married Gretta, what would become of their life over time? Happy? Sad? We’ll never know. But how do these two very different stories about dying for love make you feel?