The Dead by James Joyce
From short story collection Dubliners, published 1914
Gabriel had not gone to the door with the others. He was in a dark part of the hall gazing up the staircase. A woman was standing near the top of the first flight, in the shadow also. He could not see her face but he could see the terra-cotta and salmon-pink panels of her skirt which the shadow made appear black and white. It was his wife. She was leaning on the banisters, listening to something. Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also. But he could hear little save the noise of laughter and dispute on the front steps, a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man's voice singing.
He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.
For St Patrick’s Day, one of Ireland’s finest writers and one of the most beautiful short stories ever written. Gabriel Conroy has been at his aunts’ Twelfth Night party in Dublin, and is about to take his wife Gretta to a hotel for the night. He is filled with love for her as she listens to the song ‘The Lass of Aughrim’. When they are alone, they will have a conversation, and she will tell him why she was listening so intently, why the song meant something to her. Gabriel has his epiphany as she sleeps, and he thinks about what she has told him. The snow falls – it is general all over Ireland. He looks out at it.
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.There are several versions of the song – which is chillingly sad – on itunes, and the 1987 John Huston film of The Dead is unexpectedly good - faithful to the original with wonderful acting.
The photograph - from the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, featured on Flickr – is of an early silent movie star known, understandably, as Louise Lovely.