Having your own iPad app is a kind of digital coming of age for classic works of literature. TS Eliot's poem The Waste Land was one of the first to be given the interactive bells-and-whistles treatment: since then, handsome literary apps are attracting a new generation of readers to works as diverse as Shakespeare's sonnets and The Wind in the Willows. Today they'll be joined on-screen by an app dedicated to what many regard as the greatest short story of the 20th century: James Joyce's The Dead, the final story of Dubliners, which was published 100 years ago this year.
For all the praise that has been heaped upon it by critics and commentators – TS Eliot described it as "one of the greatest short stories ever written", while Joyce's biographer Richard Ellmann called it "Joyce's first great song of exile" – the action of The Dead is deceptively slight. The story takes place in a matter of hours. Little happens. And yet everything shifts, turns, changes irrevocably.
It begins with an overworked housemaid opening the door to admit guests to a party hosted by the sisters Kate and Julia Morkan at Usher's Island on January 6th, the feast of the Epiphany and the last night of Christmas. Among the guests are Gabriel Conroy and his wife, Greta, who enjoy the company, dancing and music. When Greta hears the folksong The Lass of Aughrim sung by another guest, she remembers a young man who sang to her on another snowy night. Her husband, meanwhile, discovers his marriage and his life are not all he imagined them to be.
The brainchild of the UCD Humanities Institute, the new app was put together by Athena Media and Vermillion Design. As well as the full story, read by the actor Barry McGovern, it features music, rare images from Joyce's Dublin, architectural drawings and a series of podcast commentaries.
In contrast to the apps mentioned above, however – The Wind in the Willows retails at €5.99, while The Waste Land and Shakespeare's sonnets weigh in at a whopping €12.99 each – James Joyce: The Dead is available to download free from iTunes, thanks to funding from the Higher Education Authority's programme for research in third-level institutions.
"The app demonstrates what can be achieved by creatively combining cultural heritage, scholarship and technology to bring classic texts alive for a new generation," says Gerardine Meaney of UCD's Humanities Institute.
The most successful iPad apps look good, are easy to use, and wear their scholarship lightly, and James Joyce: The Dead scores highly on all three fronts. Those who wish to explore the Dublin of the period can visit the National Archives and the census records of 1901 in the knowledgeable company of historian Catriona Crowe.
Harry White unpacks the power of music in Joyce’s narrative, and Sean O’Laoire investigates the history of the house at Usher’s Island. Mary Daly looks at the social niceties that underlie the dance scene between Gabriel and Molly Ivors, when she scornfully calls him a “West Briton”. Kevin Whelan excavates textual references to the Battle of the Boyne, the 1798 rebellion and more.
As for the literary commentary – from Declan Kiberd, Anne Fogarty and Meaney herself, among others – it's not just entertaining and thought- provoking, it also provokes the reader to return, again and again, to Joyce's text. Which is – or should be – the ultimate aim of a literary app.
It’s also immediate and accessible. “On one level it focuses as a sort of messy party with lots of different exit and entrances, comings and goings,” is how Anne Fogarty introduces the story, taking it out of the realm of academia and into the listener’s immediate experience.
Meaney sees the story as a study in darkness and light. “There’s the brightly-lit festive room of the Christmas path, the dark hinterland of Galway, and loss and death. This is a story that is about acknowledging the inevitability of death and what that can do to you.”
Joyce regarded The Dead as a ghost story, and its climactic, spine-tingling final paragraph comes under the microscope – is it tragic, or mystical, despairing or hopeful? Readers can walk with Barry McGovern through the city of The Dead and gaze at some astonishingly beautiful archive photographs from the National Library. But the high point of the app – as its creators acknowledge – comes with McGovern's reading of the story itself.
"I can't imagine anyone reading it better," says Helen Shaw of Athena Media. "And it's such a delight to bring James Joyce's evocative and moving story to a digital world."
"Digital publishing," adds Anne Brady of Vermillion Design, "allows us to explore the vast riches of our literary and visual collections. We can dynamically merge film, sound, text and image so it becomes an interactive experience for any age group. I wonder what James Joyce would have made of it all?"
James Joyce: The Dead is available to download free on iTunes from today