The central characters are Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta, who attend a Christmas party given annually by Gabriel's aunts, Julia and Kate, and their neice Mary Jane, who lives with them. Gabriel arrives late at the party and we see events largely through his eyes, as he interacts, sometimes awkwardly, with other people. A friend who is an ardent Irish nationalist twits him about what she thinks is his sympathy for British influence on Ireland; he is stung and reacts badly to this and then is worried that she has been offended.
When the party breaks up Gabriel and his wife go to a nearby hotel for the night because it is snowing. Gabriel is anticipating a romantic and passionate evening, but matters take a strange turn. Gretta has been in a abstracted mood since overhearing a song that was sung at the party, and in answer to Gabriel's questioning she tells him it used to be sung by Michael Furey, a young man she had been in love with in her youth in the country. He had been in poor health and had come to see her in the rain one night when she was about to leave for Dublin. He died at seventeen and she believes it was his coming to see her in the rain that night that caused his death.
After telling Gabriel this, Gretta cries and then falls asleep. Gabriel lies awake, reflecting on what he has experienced during the evening. The final paragraph is worth quoting in full.
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.I don't remember when I first read The Dead but it's a piece of writing, especially its final paragraph, that I've never been able to get out of my mind, and I've reread it periodically since then. Wikipedia tells me I'm not alone. Critics have described it as 'just about the finest short story in the English language' (Dan Berry), 'one of the greatest short stories ever written' (T.S. Eliot), and 'that magnificent short novel of tenderness and passion…' (Daniel R. Schwarz). I concur. I don't think Joyce ever wrote anything better than this, not excluding Ulysses.