A Traditional Battle

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For the most part, human beings equate traditions with our individual beliefs and behaviors, but more than likely our traditions were passed on by our older generations. James Joyce and Tayeb Salih reveal through their characters that in order to procure their traditions’ sustainability, a country or a community must isolate themselves from outsiders and modernity. As the authors’ characters explore their respective traditions, they realize that regardless of their feelings towards their traditions, their perspectives do not matter because once they die, their viewpoints will fade. Essentially, it is up to the living to continue old traditions because the dead have no say. Consequently, if the living refuses to embrace old traditions, a community’s beliefs and values will eventually die too. 

In James Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” modernity and tradition are the dominant themes. However, they act as opposing elements because the main protagonist Gabriel no longer believes in his country’s old traditions. However, Gabriel appreciates his family’s traditions even while he feels his country is at a standstill. During his aunts’ annual get together, Gabriel admits to his old friend Miss Ivors that he is “sick of [his] own country” (Joyce). In response, Miss Ivors accuses Gabriel of ignoring his cultural roots because he would rather explore other countries and languages. Nevertheless, Gabriel respects his aunts’ traditional hospitality. For example, in his speech, Gabriel declares that Ireland has no other traditions but “hospitality. [and] It is a tradition that is unique as far as [his] experiences goes…among the modern nations” (Joyce). Gabriel suggests that honor and hospitality is not a part of modern society. Therefore, while Gabriel relishes traditional values, he suggests that modern values and old traditions may not always mesh. In fact, after he leaves the party, Gabriel realizes that traditions eventually end with death. 

For example, Gabriel understands that his aunts sustain his family’s traditions, and with their eventual death, tradition will die too. Upon his realization, Gabriel feels that “His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world; the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling” (Joyce). In other words, in time Gabriel’s perspectives will become as obsolete as his ancestors. John Boyd, author of the essay “Gabriel Conroy’s Secret Sharer,” suggests “The Dead” actually reveals a poignant moment of self-discovery and maturation. Boyd explains Gabriel’s “limited consciousness or ego…is enriched by encountering the vital and spontaneous energies of that opposite personality previously submerged in his unconscious and known as the shadow” (pg. 500). Subsequently, Gabriel’s “shadow” self is his wife’s deceased former lover. Gabriel recognizes through Michael that everyone’s eventual end is death. Similarly, Salih’s narrator comes to the realization that as his generation grows older and dies, so will his village’s traditions. 

In his short story “The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid,” Tayeb Salih also explores tradition and modernity as its dominant themes. The old storyteller tries to enlighten his young listener with the story of the Doum tree. The villagers understand that the tree is their spiritual guidance, much like the significance placed on the Tree of Life. Because the villagers wish to remain a traditional community, they refuse outside sources that attempt to modernize them. However, Salih’s narrator does not feel a conflict between his tradition and the need to modernize. In fact, it is quite the opposite. He holds a deep respect for his small village and he tries to convince others that it is the perfect place to live. 

The Doum Tree is what allows his village’s perfection, and it symbolizes a spiritual force as it protects others until they die. With that in mind, the narrator realizes that when those who believe in the tree die, the legend that surrounds the tree may die too. The narrator makes an effort to sway the listener as he goes into great detail about the tree’s significance, but the listener disappoints him. In response to the narrator’s story, the listener wonders when the village will welcome modernity. The listener asks “‘And when…will they set up the water-pump, and put through the agricultural scheme and the stopping-place for the steamer?'” (Salih). However, the village has no desire to obtain these so-called modern needs. Instead, they would rather hold on to their old traditions.

In actuality, the listener symbolizes a new generation. The narrator dismisses the young listener because he senses that he symbolizes change. In this way, the listener is the narrator’s shadow self because he allows the narrator to understand that the village’s traditions may change whether they welcome it or not. The tree’s significance will end “‘When people go to sleep and don't see the doum tree in their dreams’” (Salih). In other words, when they pass on, they no longer see the tree. In that way, it seems that death changes traditions in each short story. 

Whether they are beliefs or behaviors, we pass our traditions onto the next generations. While some of our traditions survive modernity, others depend on the past. James Joyce’s and Tayeb Salih’s protagonists have conflicted ideas about their traditions. In addition, because both stories end on an obscure note, it seems that both characters recognized their shadow selves. While they may not have a say in their communities’ traditions, they have the ability to believe in what they want until they die. Their death may end their own perspectives, but in, actuality, it is always up to the living to continue tradition. 

Works Cited

Boyd, John D. "Gabriel Conroy's Secret Sharer." Studies In Short Fiction 17.4 (1980): 499. Academic Search Complete. Web. 24 May 2013.

Joyce, James. "The Dead." The Literature Network. Jalic, Inc., n.d. Web. 25 May 2013. <http://www.online-literature.com/james_joyce/958/>.

Salih, Tayeb. "The Doum Tree of Wad Ham." The Wedding of Zein. N.p.: n.p., 2005. N. pag. ProQuest. Web. 23 May 2013.