The Eyes are Window to the Soul


Joyce often use descriptions of characters to flesh them out and to drive the narrative.  Once we see the characters through this lens, we receive a hint of who they are to be in the story.

Gabriel in The Dead is introduced thusly:

"O, then," said Gabriel gaily, "I suppose we'll be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man, eh? "

The girl glanced back at him over her shoulder and said with great bitterness:

"The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you."

Gabriel coloured, as if he felt he had made a mistake and, without looking at her, kicked off his goloshes and flicked actively with his muffler at his patent-leather shoes.

He was a stout, tallish young man. The high colour of his cheeks pushed upwards even to his forehead, where it scattered itself in a few formless patches of pale red; and on his hairless face there scintillated restlessly the polished lenses and the bright gilt rims of the glasses which screened his delicate and restless eyes. His glossy black hair was parted in the middle and brushed in a long curve behind his ears where it curled slightly beneath the groove left by his hat.

When he had flicked lustre into his shoes he stood up and pulled his waistcoat down more tightly on his plump body. Then he took a coin rapidly from his pocket.

"O Lily," he said, thrusting it into her hands, "it's Christmastime, isn't it? Just... here's a little...."

He walked rapidly towards the door.

"O no, sir!" cried the girl, following him. "Really, sir, I wouldn't take it."

"Christmas-time! Christmas-time!" said Gabriel, almost trotting to the stairs and waving his hand to her in deprecation.

The girl, seeing that he had gained the stairs, called out after him:

"Well, thank you, sir."

He waited outside the drawing-room door until the waltz should finish, listening to the skirts that swept against it and to the shuffling of feet. He was still discomposed by the girl's bitter and sudden retort. It had cast a gloom over him which he tried to dispel by arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie.


In this story we learn Gabriel is a man of letters, generous, and sometimes unaware of other people’s feelings or motives.  In this description we see as being fancy, polished, and taken aback by the girl in his aunt’s employ.  These are important details to note as the story moves forward.

We meet his aunts here:

Just then his aunts and his wife came out of the ladies' dressing-room. His aunts were two small, plainly dressed old women. Aunt Julia was an inch or so the taller. Her hair, drawn low over the tops of her ears, was grey; and grey also, with darker shadows, was her large flaccid face. Though she was stout in build and stood erect, her slow eyes and parted lips gave her the appearance of a woman who did not know where she was or where she was going. Aunt Kate was more vivacious. Her face, healthier than her sister's, was all puckers and creases, like a shrivelled red apple, and her hair, braided in the same old-fashioned way, had not lost its ripe nut colour.

In this divine description, we learn not only about the aunts but how Gabriel views them as this description is written from his vantage point.  He is not altogether uncharitable, but his view is more honest than sentimental.  As for the aunts, we are witness to their decline and perhaps out of date ways, which Gabriel later uses in his speech to the assembled guests.

A drunken guest is presented as:

In fact right behind her Gabriel could be seen piloting Freddy Malins across the landing. The latter, a young man of about forty, was of Gabriel's size and build, with very round shoulders. His face was fleshy and pallid, touched with colour only at the thick hanging lobes of his ears and at the wide wings of his nose. He had coarse features, a blunt nose, a convex and receding brow, tumid and protruded lips. His heavy-lidded eyes and the disorder of his scanty hair made him look sleepy. He was laughing heartily in a high key at a story which he had been telling Gabriel on the stairs and at the same time rubbing the knuckles of his left fist backwards and forwards into his left eye.


We know from an earlier mention that Freddy Malin’s alcohol intake is a concern for the aunts.  In this piece of description, the tension is further stoked.  We clearly see that Malins is not very kempt or well.  Joyce uses this description to heighten our concern for the evening’s events.


In a tender moment, Gabriel sees his wife and once doesn’t recognize her:

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.

This moment sparks a romantic reverie on the part of Gabriel that comes crashing down around him when he learns his wife once loved another in her voice.  This ties together his earlier inability to connect with Lily, a discourse on the relationships between men and women, and his own lack of understanding regarding the mystery that is his wife.

In this exercise, picture one of your characters.  Build a portrait of them that both provides a visual for the reader and works to foreshadow their ultimate conflict.  What tension can be built into or hinted at in this description?  How can you show through the physical what might be at work under the surface? This can be as long as you would like and may or may not be included fully in your story.  Sometimes we need to write beyond the margins of our stories to have a full understanding of our characters.  Sometimes by writing more than we need, we stumble upon the exact right thing to say.