In Michael Levenson’s essay, Living History in “The Dead”, he forms a critical analysis of James Joyce’s The Dead in which Joyce is said to have written with a New Historicist approach. Levinson argues that, “At the center of Joyce’s fiction is the relation of history to the literary life” (163), and that, “The characteristic strategy of his work is to bring inside the fiction exactly those pressures that surround it in the living world” (176, emphasis original). Joyce’s work, then, is involved with the representation of a political world within the confines of a literary fiction; a fiction that is nonetheless inextricably grounded in — and influenced by — that political world. Indeed, Levenson argues quite convincingly that Joyce is deeply concerned with issues at the forefront of New Historicist studies.
Levenson argues that much of Joyce’s story is concerned with framing. He states that, “As Joyce’s writing shows in many diverse ways, the significance of a life depends on the frame that surrounds it” (175). Similarly, he asks, “Whose speech will triumph? Whose verbal construction of the collective experience will dominate, and in dominating, will dictate the terms by which individuals understand their own lives?” (175). What Levenson’s questions express — and what he argues is contained within Joyce’s fiction — is an awareness of how the narrative framing of our lives can deeply impact lived experience. When Gabriel Conroy heatedly exchanges with Miss Ivors, then, it is more than a simple conflict of interests. The stakes are high, as indicated by Gabriel’s self-conscious preoccupation with the exchange. Levenson writes, “If Miss Ivors and the nationalists control the terms of political understanding, then not only will Gabriel’s life be seen as a fraud, he will see himself as a fraud” (175). In other words, Miss Ivor’s intimations serve in the construction of a narrative understanding of Gabriel’s life that would have very real consequences.
If Joyce’s story expresses a deep concern about the narrative framing of lived experience, how might we understand the cultural work that is being done by his short story? How is his narrative fiction working to affect a larger narrative — that of our politically engraved, lived experience? And in the specific political climate that Joyce lived in, how was his story working to influence those contemporary understandings of the Ireland-Britain conflict? These questions are important to an ever changing New Historicist understanding of a history that is constructed by narratives and narratives that are framed by history.