Five of the Best Paragraphs Ever Written in the English Language

James Joyce, author of the enigmatic and very difficult to read “stream of consciousness” novel “Ulysses,” also wrote a collection of 15 short stories found in the book “Dubliners.”  These stories portray middle class Irish life at the beginning of the 20th century, and include a story entitled “The Dead.”  Most of the action in this story takes place at a dinner party, but once Gretta and her husband Gabriel return home, she relays to him the story of how a young man who once loved her died a tragic death at a young age.  In fact, Gretta blames herself for his death and ultimately cries herself to sleep.  This leaves Gabriel awake to reflect on life and death and the mortality of all humankind.  Here then are the last five paragraphs of the short story.

Gabriel, leaning on his elbow, looked for a few moments unresentfully on her tangled hair and half-open mouth, listening to her deep-drawn breath. So she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake. It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life. He watched her while she slept, as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife. His curious eyes rested long upon her face and on her hair: and, as he thought of what she must have been then, in that time of her first girlish beauty, a strange, friendly pity for her entered his soul. He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful, but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death.

Perhaps she had not told him all the story. His eyes moved to the chair over which she had thrown some of her clothes. A petticoat string dangled to the floor. One boot stood upright, its limp upper fallen down: the fellow of it lay upon its side. He wondered at his riot of emotions of an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt’s supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merry-making when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow. Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade with the shade of Patrick Morkan and his horse. He had caught that haggard look upon her face for a moment when she was singing Arrayed for the Bridal. Soon, perhaps, he would be sitting in that same drawing-room, dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees. The blinds would be drawn down and Aunt Kate would be sitting beside him, crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died.  He would cast about in his mind for some words that might console her, and would find only lame and useless ones. Yes, yes: that would happen very soon.

The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He 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. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.


One thought on “Five of the Best Paragraphs Ever Written in the English Language

  1. You know Anne Pigone did a line-by-line rewrite of The Dead and set it a hundred years later in Boulder, Co. Only Gretta becomes Garett and Gabriell had turned in to Garbriella.

    But I don’t think she way vying for “the five best paragraphs ever written in English” 🙂

    I got this off the net:

    —Shush my darling, she said with her finger to her lips – you’ll wake up the entire hotel.


    —Sorry baby, gut reaction. But now you know how it feels.

    —How what feels? his voice still trembling from the pain.

    —Well for starters: Here we are, you and I, alone together in a relatively nice hotel room, if one can ignore the botanical wallpaper, without the kids, just the two of us, finally free from all that shit out there. And tonight at the reception when they played A Thousand Miles Away and we danced with each other and I thought to hell with all these people because it’s after all just the two of us … and 20 minutes ago I was feeling pretty horny – I can hardly move my eyelids, but I was keeping them wide for you, baby – I was feeling horny for you, and that was the only thing keeping me awake and you – it turns out, are a thousand miles away, or ten thousand, thinking about some girl you couldn’t get it up for 20 years ago. You get it now?

    —But it has nothing to do with us.

    —Oh really? Nothing to do with us? Wasn’t it we who are shallow, cowardly, circumstantial? Phonies, fakes, hypocrites? Wasn’t it we you meant?

    —No, not you Gabby.

    —What are we, Garett? We are what we see and smell and touch: that’s our world. And beauty – it’s our judge and our judgment. And it also happens to be how I make my living – our living I might add. I work on that shallow, superficial, skin-deep surface you are slamming. Appearances, packaging, that’s my trade – and guess what: it’s for real. Reality is on that surface. And all that da da da fire sermon shit is a bunch of pretentious hot-air crap; an abyss – a void. You can’t go there and you can’t live there. We ain’t Buddhas, baby – we’re consumers. We consume and then we die. In the profound words of the waitress: Enjoy! And for god sakes, stop moping about it.

    She sat on the bed, plucking at a lone strand of hair on her thigh – an escapee from her last wax job. Garett stared at the ceiling. Tears now rounded his cheeks falling to his pillow. My poor darling, we are all circumstance – by birth, by fate. Of course it’s not fair. Power’s not fair. Wealth is not fair. Beauty? No way José. Only death is fair. Death trumps all and beauty, yes. But whats’ the big deal, Garett? We’re only snowflakes, butterflies with our little ephemeral moments of glory – our circumstantial, ephemeral moments. And then …

    She laid herself flat-out on the bed so close to her husband that she could feel his warmth but not touching, and closed her eyes. Slumberous flakes of snow, silver and dark, fell over her body, Garett’s body, and all the sleeping and sleepless bodies of the Hotel Boulderado. It truly was snowing everywhere. Snowflakes from stars and moons everywhere falling like comets or dust or nothing. Falling on us all. Falling upon the beautiful and the ugly, the real and the counterfeit, the living and the dead.

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