A Russian Formalist would first examine the story’s structure, noting the extract’s linearity, that the fabula is sjuzet-less (‘plotless’ Joyce and Brown, 2000, p. xliv), the self-conscious use of the long dash (—) replacing conventional speech marks (“ ”) and the third-person limited omniscient narrator, with Gabriel as mediator: ‘Gabriel was silent. He did not wish her to think that he was interested in this delicate boy.’ Relentless repetition of words and imagery acting ‘as interrelated elements or ‘functions’ within the total textual system’ directly and indirectly link to the story’s title. Within the final five pages alone there are six instances of ‘dead’, five of ‘died’ and two of ‘die’ and ‘death’ respectively, reprised in ‘the smile passed away’, ‘intruding on her grief’, ‘she too would soon be a shade with the shade of Patrick Morkan’, ‘dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees’, ‘crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died’, ‘did not want to live’, ‘did not wish to live’, ‘better pass boldly into that other world’, ‘His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead’, ‘the time had come for him to set out on his journey Westward’ and ‘the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried.’ Ostranenie can be detected in Gabriel’s characterisation, disturbing the semantic peace; for instance ‘Gabriel felt humiliated by the failure of his irony and by the evocation of this figure from the dead, a boy in the gasworks’ and ‘A vague terror seized Gabriel at this answer, as if, at the hour when he had hoped to triumph, some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him, gathering forces against him in its vague world’ and culminating in the recurring allusion to snow: ‘Yes, the papers were right: snow was general all over Ireland’; snow’s elevation to a newsworthy meteorological event not usually ‘general all over Ireland’ exemplifies the concept of ‘estranging’. Language that ‘flaunts its material being’, from this perspective, possesses intrinsic aesthetic value. The Dead’s lyrical language style climaxes in the final paragraph, which is dripping with poetic imagery (‘treeless hills’; ‘dark mutinous Shannon’; ‘on the spears of the little gate’), repetition (of ‘snow’ and ‘falling’) , alliteration (‘crooked crosses’; ‘his soul swooned slowly’), and poetic inversion (‘falling softly…softly falling’; ‘falling faintly…faintly falling’).
Turning, now, to a reader-response evaluation and Iser’s concept of the implied reader. In a letter to the publisher, Grant Richards, Joyce stated: ‘I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilisation in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely-polished looking-glass’ (Joyce and Brown, 2000, p. xv). From this it can be reasonably assumed Joyce’s implied/ideal consumers were his compatriots, equipped to concretise textual indeterminacies relating to the text’s contemporary themes: political (‘He used to sing that song, The Lass of Aughrim’ - the title ‘adds…a note of national significance’ (Joyce and Brown, 2000, p. 315), religious (‘up here to the convent’; ‘Nun’s Island’ - indicating Gretta’s socially-ambitious parents and/or protection of Gretta by the nuns from being spoilt in some sense (Joyce and Brown, 2000, p. 316) and of Ireland’s post-colonial loss of national identity (‘a person long ago’; ‘fade and wither dismally with age’). That Joyce appears to rely upon his implied readers to concretise his writing supports Iser’s assertion that, without such a contemporary connection, ‘there would be no literary work at all.’ Note, too, the similarity between Iser’s concept of textual indeterminacies and that of ostranenie. The act of concretising prompts the reader to meaningfully engage with the text in unpredictable ways; as Eagleton frames it: ‘There is a parallel here [referring to Iser] with Russian Formalism: in the act of reading, our conventional assumptions are ‘defamiliarised’ (Eagleton, 1996, p. 68). Iser’s model leads neatly to Fish’s ‘learned’ interpretative strategies and communities. Contrasting with Russian Formalism, a reader-response analysis would take the extract’s numerous allusions to death and decay as more than the literary functioning of the text. ‘The smile passed away from Gabriel’s face’ would be interpreted beyond an altered physiognomy, as a significant insight into Gabriel’s mien: smile-as-mask suffering sudden death upon Gretta’s confession. The name ‘Gabriel’ would also be deemed significant, so too that of Gretta’s first (or only) love, Michael: they share biblical roots, meaning ‘man of god’ and ‘who is like god?’ respectively, underscoring the text-as-religious-parody - resonating acutely with Joyce’s contemporary audience. ‘The snow-capped statues’ are more than the pleasingly-poetic imagery identified by Formalists, symbolising the ‘… stony equivalent of Gabriel Conroy’s atrophied emotional life’ (Joyce and Brown, 2000, p. xxxvii). Indeed, Gabriel’s ‘stony’ detachment is located in Joyce’s deployment of a limited third-person omniscient narrator, the readers’ perspective mediated through Gabriel’s isolation. Finally, a consideration of Jauss’s horizon of expectations. In stark contrast to Russian Formalism, the subjective interpretations ‘historically-situated’ consumers bring to a text are considered key. The Dead is deeply rooted in Ireland’s past, including ‘The Great Famine’ of the mid-19th century (the theme of ‘feasting’ is central to the earlier part of The Dead). As Kevin Whelan observes ‘One of the chief discoveries [in reading The Dead] is the buried history of the Famine embedded at its center. The resonance of The Dead and its peculiarly charged language derives from this depth of historical layering, all the more evocative because it is hidden’ (Whelan, 2016). Joyce’s description of Michael Fury as a ‘very delicate boy’ whose premature death Gabriel assumptively attributes to ‘consumption’ (modern-day ‘tuberculosis’, inextricably-linked to poor diet and poverty) would have been starkly familiar to Joyce’s peers. A 21st-century reader’s horizon of expectations might, however, prompt a decidedly different reading, perhaps construing ‘very delicate’ as meaning ‘effeminate’ and ‘consumption’ as shorthand for imbibing an excess of alcohol, so rendering the ‘gravel thrown up against the window’ an act of hooliganism - an horizon of expectation not anticipatable at the time of the story’s composition.
In closing, by juxtaposing the literary theories of Russian Formalism and reader-response, this essay has demonstrated Russian Formalism’s exclusive focus on the extract’s structure: that it is ‘plotless’ and reported by a third-person limited omniscient narrator; that repetition and imagery - acting ‘as interrelated elements or ‘functions’ within the total textual system’ - directly and indirectly link to the story’s title (‘dead’,’died’,‘die’ and so forth); that ostranenie is present in Gabriel’s characterisation, disturbing the semantic peace and language that ‘flaunts its material being’ (‘crooked crosses’; ‘falling faintly…faintly falling’) proves the presence of ‘literariness’, but nothing more. The reader-response theorist would recognise ostranenie as a similar concept to that of concretising textual indeterminacies: both prompt the reader to meaningfully engage with the text in unpredictable ways so that ‘in the act of reading, our conventional assumptions are ‘defamiliarised’.’ However, while a Formalist’s approach is text-centric, a reader-response analysis regards its implied reader as central and while a Formalist considers that same text as a collection of ‘interrelated elements’ or ‘functions’, a reader-response theorist regards it as worthless without the implied reader: as Iser put it, ‘there would be no literary work at all.’
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''...I have made up my mind that I'm not going to be popular, & so genuinely that I look upon disregard or abuse as part of my bargain. I'm to write what I like; & they're to say what they like."
Anne Olivier Bell (ed) (1984), The Diary of Virginia Woolf Volume II: 1920-24, Middlesex, Penguin, p. 168.