Having only read snippets of James Joyce, I was timid to tackle a full length story--I thought the story might be utter nonsense. However, I quickly was taken by Joyce's wonderful writing. He creates visual imagery of both character and scene of a nearly cinematic level, and this feature allowed the story to flow.
Nonetheless, upon reaching the end of the story, I felt wholly baffled at what the meaning might be. I suspected a plug for Irish nationalism or maybe the contrary, but I never guessed Gabriel's wife would weep for a man whom she loved.
After some time of mulling over the story, though, I came to believe Joyce is encouraging everyone to live boldly and with great passion. Joyce's central character Gabriel thinks to himself, "One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age." Gabriel not only tells us to follow our dreams and passion; he begins to weep "generous tears" because "he had never felt like that himself towards any woman." In the party, Gabriel is the alpha male--he is the master carver; he gives the sole speech; and he is in charge of making sure Freddy is not unwieldy. Even so, at night, Gabriel feels his own mortality in the falling of the snow, and weeps for himself because he has withdrawn for the living world without leaving any impression and without experiencing anything substantial. The two different scenes in the story foil the different aspects of being human- the external and the internal.
This aspect of the story connects Joyce's The Dead to multiple other stories including Young Goodman Browne, which talks about smugness and gloom; The Son's Veto, which addresses aristocratic dissappointment; and The Yellow Wallpaper, which shows a woman's thoughts contrast her interactions with the people around her (for awhile at least).