As Richard Ellmann has it in his sympathetic, astute biography of James Joyce, it took the great modern Irish author many years of not writing “The Dead” before he sat down and composed it.
The middle-class-raised rebel had been thinking about it in various stages for years, determining that he would fashion a story about a party in Dublin, a place he left in 1904 with his beloved Nora Barnacle, who was born in a workhouse.
But it wasn’t until just before the First World War, when he and Nora and their children, Giorgio and Lucia, were at the end of a short stay in Rome, that Joyce’s masterly story, which he started writing in 1907, was published.
Some of it was inspired by Barnacle’s early love for a boy she knew who had died before she met and fell in love with Joyce—her Jim.
Joyce drew on Nora’s tale of loss and his own feelings about his father and other family members to write what he needed to write, but the facts got transformed by his imagination: he made the specific—or the specific to him—universally specific.
Clocking in at nearly sixteen thousand words, the novella appeared in Joyce’s 1914 short-story collection, “Dubliners,” a book that proves that fiction is as deep as life.