The story centers on Gabriel Conroy on the night of the Morkan sisters' annual dance and dinner in the first week of January 1904, perhaps the Feast of the Epiphany. Upon arriving at the party with his wife, Gabriel makes an unfunny joke about the maid's marriage prospects; and he fidgets, adjusts his clothing, and offers her money as a holiday present. Not long after that, he gets flustered again when his wife pokes fun at him over a conversation they had earlier, in which he had forced her to wear galoshes for the bad weather. With such episodes, Gabriel is depicted as particularly pathetic. Similarly, Gabriel is unsure about quoting a poem from the poet Robert Browning when he is giving his dinner address, as he is afraid to be seen as pretentious. But, at the same time, Gabriel considers himself above the others when he speculates that his audience would not understand the words he uses.
Later, when giving the traditional holiday toast, Gabriel overcompensates for some of his earlier statements to his evening dancing partner Miss Ivors, an Irish nationalist. His talk relies heavily on conventions; and he praises the virtues of the Irish people and idealizes the past in a way that feels contrived and disingenuous, especially considering what the past will mean to him once he hears his wife's story. In fact he hurts Miss Ivors by mistake so much that she rushes away even before dinner is served.
As Gabriel is preparing to leave the party, he sees a woman absorbed in thought, standing at the top of the staircase. He stares at her for a moment before he recognizes her as his wife. He then envisages her as though she were the model in a painting that he would call "Distant Music". Her distracted and wistful mood arouses sexual interest in him. He tries indirectly to confront her about it after the party, in the hotel room he has reserved for them; but he finds her unresponsive. Trying to make ironic, half-suggestive comments, Gabriel learns that she was feeling nostalgic after having heard Mr. D'Arcy singing The Lass of Aughrim at the party.
Upon being pressed further, Gretta says that the song reminds her of the time when she was a girl in Galway and in love with a boy named Michael Furey. At the time, Gretta was being kept at her grandmother's home before she was to be sent off to a convent in Dublin. Michael was terribly sick and unable to see her. Despite being bedridden, when it came time for her to leave Galway, Michael travelled through the rain to Gretta's window; and, although he was able to speak with her again, he died within the week.
The remainder of the text delves further into Gabriel's thoughts after he hears this story, exploring his shifting views on himself, his wife, the past, the living and the dead. It is ambiguous whether the epiphany is just an artistic and emotional moment or is meant to set the reader pondering whether Gabriel will ever manage to escape his smallness and insecurity. The story culminates at the point when Gabriel discovers that, through years of marriage, there was much he never knew of his wife's past.
Check back soon when libretto and/or lyrics for The Dead becomes available.