The ghostly feast in John Hustons adaptation of The Dead
The ghostly feast in John Huston's adaptation of "The Dead."

At the center of James Joyce's short story (or, more accurately, novella) "The Dead" is a feast. It happens in a house on Ushers Island in Dublin not long after Europe enters the twilight of the long century. The hosts are two elderly sisters (who are professional singers) and their niece. The guests are close friends and relatives of the Three Graces, as some call the aunts and their niece. It's Christmas time, and the snow is falling all over Ireland. It's falling swiftly on the statues not far from the party, on the waves of the sea, on graveyards. At the head of the table is the handsome nephew Gabriel. He writes book reviews for a local newspaper and teaches for a living. He is not into Irish politics and prefers to keep his mind on the continent. The long table he commands is loaded with food.

Joyce writes:

A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table, and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin, and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry. On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting, and behind it were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals drawn up according to the colours of their uniforms, the first two black, with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with transverse green sashes.

When Gabriel, the designated carver of the goose, asks one of the guests, Miss Furlong, what part of the bird she would like, she requests "a small slice of the breast." Gabriel cuts the meat and sends it her way. Though festive, the scene is very ghostly. Like the seated humans, and their city and country, that table is haunted by the past.

The ghost of this feast is, of course, the Great Hunger that devastated Ireland's poor between 1845 and 1850. It killed millions of men and women, and forced even more to leave their country. But in just 60 or so years, these Dubliners, some with deep roots in the West of Ireland ("...the part of the isle that suffered more critically the devastating consequences of the [famine]"), are in a position to stuff themselves silly. And they are not even rich. The sisters do not live in a respectable part of town (it's too close to the breweries for that), and yet they are enjoying "chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers" and "a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs," and much, much more.

The ghosts at this table, whose abundance was realized by the extensive commercial networks of Empire, by the vast and abrupt transfer of plants and animals that transformed not only Ireland's geography but that of every country Empire encountered and exploited—these ghosts are the early victims of a form of scarcity the world had never known and constitutes one of the key contradictions of capitalism. The famine was imposed on them by Empire. The hunger experienced by millions as a natural response to a lack of food was not caused by nature but political decisions. This artificiality was and still is the core of Empire. What this means is the famine's dead are also the ghosts of the people sleeping on our streets, or who are bused from rich cities to poor ones. In the way that starvation was imposed, the homelessness of our times is also imposed.