James Joyce: “The Sisters”

Dubliners“The Sisters” is the first story in James Joyce’s Dubliners. Click here for the Dubliners overview post and for links to reviews of the other stories.

This story was originally published in The Irish Homestead Journal on August 13, 1904 (under the pseudonyn Stephen Deadulus). The journal had approached Joyce, who was then only 22 years old. There, Joyce published three stories in a series called Dubliners, but then complaints caused the paper to stop publishing them. Obviously, Joyce continued to write them.

It’s an enigmatic story. Much of the helpful framework, which was included when the story was originally published, is not there. We rely on what isn’t said, on rumor, on mood, to explore the story which is simply presented to us.

Our narrator is a young, nameless boy. I can’t find any indication of his true age, but he seems like an early adolescent. When the story begins, he tells us his friend, the Catholic Priest, Father Flynn, is about to die. He’s had several strokes, the last one leaving him at least slightly paralyzed:

Every night as I gazed up at the [priest’s] window I said softly to myself the word paralysis.

The boy and the priest have been friends for some time, the priest teaching him — maybe in an effort to gain an apprentice — all about the religious rites and symbols, and the boy has always been fascinated. And now the man is paralyzed, dying. Inside the boy is a mixture of fear and further curiosity. When he thinks of the paralysis, he says, “It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.” Perhaps he feels guilty for his fascination, because he never does actually go visit his old friend in his last days. Instead, he passes the home each night, watching for the light from two candles that will indicate the priest has died.

It’s an ominous tone, as we walk with him at night, looking in dark windows for death, the silent observer he will be throughout the story. And yet, for all the mysticism suggested by that, the narrator learns of the priest’s death in a much more mundane manner. He arrives home, and a family friend named Old Cotter is there telling the narrator’s aunt and uncle that the priest has died.

Here’s where the story gets enigmatic. The narrator’s uncle tells Old Cotter about the narrator’s friendship with the priest, and Old Cotter is disapproving, calling Father Flynn a “peculiar case.” The aunt doesn’t know how anyone can criticize the priest and asks just what Old Cotter means. He trails off, never saying. The narrator’s uncle mutters his agreement with this disapproval, for whatever reason.

That night, the young boy has a troubling dream in which Father Flynn — or “it,” as the boy thinks of him in the dream — visits and tries hard to confess something.

The next day, the boy says, “I found it strange that neither I nor the day seemed in a mourning mood and I felt even annoyed at discovering in myself a sensation of freedom as if I had been freed from something by his death.”

Just what are we getting at here? In today’s world, we jump, perhaps correctly or incorrectly, at some kind of abuse. Father Flynn is a “peculiar case” and the boy, though drawn by the mysteries he discusses with Father Flynn, is nevertheless uncomfortable with him.

That evening, the boy and his aunt visit the priest’s home, and more strange conversations take place. If you’re wondering why this story is called “The Sisters,” well, it starts making some sense — not a lot of sense — but some at this point. The two individuals receiving visitors are the priest’s two sisters. They sit down with the aunt and the boy, which leads to a mundane exchange of platitudes: he’s in a better place, he looks good (followed, strangely and unsettlingly with, “No one would think he’d make such a beautiful corpse.”).

After the platitudes, the aunt asks . . . or begins to ask, without actually saying anything . . . whether the priest was given his last sacraments for the dying. Yes, is the answer, but what could lead the aunt to even wonder?

Mystery surrounds the priest, obviously, but some things become clear at the end — or, as clear as they can be in such a story: some time ago, the priest dropped the communion chalice, which the sisters suggest started some kind of mental decline. One night, they could not find their brother. Finally, another priest found him muttering to himself in the confessional. His sisters — and they may be right — say he cracked under the demands of being a priest in Dublin.

The great thing about this story is that interpretation is wide open, as it is for the narrator. The narrator, by the way, says nothing to anyone (other than us); it’s as if he’s a bit paralyzed himself, trying to move through his thoughts. He sits and silently listens to his uncle and Old Cotter discuss his relationship with the priest. He sits and listens to his aunt talk to the priest’s sisters. He gets the same information that we get, and though we don’t know if we can trust him, he only ever suggests that his relationship with the priest was based on the priest’s lessons about symbols, rites, mysteries. It’s possible, then, that the narrator never learns more about any of this than we do. His feeling of freedom is the uncomfortable one many feel when someone close to them, though perhaps a bit domineering or demanding, is gone. Going on here, then, is paralysis in the face of death coupled with freedom, perhaps from the religion that crippled the priest.

Thus begins Joyce’s time with The Irish Homestead Journal, and thus begins its demise.

7 thoughts on “James Joyce: “The Sisters””

  1. Betsy says:

    I’ve been looking forward to this, Trevor. So glad you are doing “Dubliners”!

    This story is so rich that you could pick any one sentence from it and unspool from there. Multiple themes and multiple riddles ensure that.

    For now (!), I merely want to mention that at about the time Joyce published this story the first time, his mother had already died, and his sister Margaret had promised she would take care of all the younger children. Margaret (who was also known as Poppie, for a rich red cloak she wore) stayed six years, whereupon she left and joined a religious order that took her to New Zealand. Those six years of being the step-mother for not only the children but her father as well must have be a great trouble. There was never enough money – sometimes there wasn’t enough money for food. The father was completely undependable. He would sometimes drink up money the older boys sent for Poppie to use to take care of the kids. You get the feeling that New Zealand, when she was finally able to go, was hardly far enough for her to flee.

    The Joyce family patriarch appeared to be “paralyzed”, just as Father Flynn was paralyzed.

    It touched me to read that the boy noticed how down at the heel Nannie’s shoes were. The poor old sisters found the means to take care of their derelict priest brother, the one with the title, the one with the power, or, at any rate, the one who had had the power. The Sisters were the essence of compassion, just as Poppie had been the essence of compassion for her abandoned siblings. Poppie became a nun, had wanted to be a nun even before her mother died, and so I find it interesting that Joyce titles his story “The Sisters.” Just as with anything he writes, there are layers of meaning to the title.

    The boy makes a point of the priest’s paralysis. If the priest (and also the people of Ireland, in Joyce’s mind) were in a state of paralysis – these sisters were nevertheless the model of Christian compassion.

    As for the hundred other things that one could say about this complex story – well – go for it!

  2. Lee Monks says:

    Fantastic stuff.

    Slim offerings from my end, but a quick question: why does ‘paralysis’ seem such a particularly Joycean word? The cadence of it, what it evokes? How can a writer own so many words like he does?

  3. Great stuff, Betsy — I hadn’t thought of all that when reading the story, and does give some insight as to why the story might have been titled “The Sisters.”

    I do wonder if the sisters are as charitable as you say, though. By my read, they are caring but not necessarily charitable. They seem obligated, more than anything, kind of locked into care, and I’m not sure Joyce is presenting them as the model for anything. I’ll revisit it with that in mind, though!

    Lee, I think “paralysis” is Joyce’s word because it’s easy to grab onto when reading Dubliners. Here it is, on the first page, and the metaphor is carried throughout, certainly easy fodder when we as school-children (or adults) read it for the first time :-) . It’s almost hard to look past that word and to some of the other things going on in the stories! I’m sure it will come up again and again in these posts, though I do hope to look past it if I can.

  4. I think paralysis is central, but obviously as you say it’s far from all that’s going on. Still, it’s hard to escape an image of Dublin as a suffocating place, and the tone for that is set here in the first story where a man is essentially suffocating.

    For me abuse would be too modern a reading, I don’t think it’s implied here. The priest had a great hope for the boy, in other words he hoped the boy would follow him, but follow him into what as the boy seems to be the priest’s only intellectual companion and given his age he’s hardly an equal one. The boy and the priest both look beyond the platitudes the aunts speak, but if anything being able to do that made the priest merely miserable and perceived as odd, so it’s not an ability that necessarily bodes well for the boy.

    I think there’s a question as to what there is to offer for someone like the boy. What use is it to be intelligent, to have insight, if nobody around you shares it? That’s one interpretation anyway, I could easily see others. There’s a cultural suffocation here too though, an unquestioning which makes it more relevant to ask if the priest died well than whether he lived well.

    Part of the tragedy of this for me is that I don’t think it does suggest that religion is something the priest needed freeing from. Rather I think it’s that religion was irrelevant. What use the sacred mystery of the holy trinity in Dublin, a city without curiosity or any sense of the spirit? The burden of being a priest in Dublin isn’t so much the mysteries of the faith, as the prosaicism of the laity. They care if he got his last rites because having the last rites is part of things being done “properly”, not because it helps ease you towards the grace of god. They have no conception of the grace of god.

    Saying all that, I don’t think one need be religious for that interpretation. It’s more about their utter lack of any sense of a wider existence beyond their own narrow certainties, a theme I’d say recurs.

    Of course that’s almost directly contrary to Betsy’s interpretation, which I don’t disagree with. Part of why it’s great is because it bears multiple interpretations, multiple readings.

  5. Betsy says:

    Trevor, you point out the boy felt like (upon reading the announcement of the old man’s death) he had been “freed from something”.

    Joyce doesn’t make it easy to define exactly what that something was.

    On one level, the boy was freed from having to look upon the old man’s paralysis, his “heavy grey face”, his “big discoloured teeth”, or the way the priest let his “tongue lie upon his lower lip”. The boy was free of having to watch the old man push “huge pinches of snuff up each nostril alternately.”

    This was not a man who bestowed gifts upon the boy; this was a man who accepted gifts from the boy – the snuff the boy brought from the aunt, perhaps in payment for the priest’s attention to the boy.

    On another level, the boy was free of having to pretend the old man was his “father” (his own parents, apparently, being dead).

    On yet another level, the boy was free of having to discuss the semantics of sin.

    On another, the boy is free of the old man’s terrible yearning – a yearning that is embodied in the snuff he stuffed up each “cavernous” nostril, as if the man were an emptiness that could not be filled. It’s ironic that the priest’s addiction is through his “black, cavernous nostrils”, through which he should be breathing air, air probably also being a trope for the holy spirit.

    On another, the boy is free of the constant reminder of the old man’s dereliction – that on the one hand the priest could teach the boy about priestly vestments, but on the other be clothed himself in clothes “stained” and covered in snuff.

    On another, the boy was free of his sense that there was something the old man wanted to confess to him, wanted this so badly he would pursue the boy in a dream after his death.

    The boy was now free of what he intuited – that the sin had something to do with simony – perhaps in the sense that the priest was in some way a false priest, or perhaps in the sense of some kind of priestly corruption, or perhaps in the sense of some kind of heresy. (Britannica suggests that Simon Magus, from whom the word simony originates, was the “arch-heretic.)

    The boy is now free of something he knows – that the old man had sinned in some way.

    On another, he is free of the idea that the old man “had a wish for him”, meaning, obviously, that he go into the priesthood. But there is also the sense that the old man wants to possess him, not so much in the physical sense, but in a psychological sense. The boy would now be free to be his own person

    The boy was free of having his future planned out for him.

    He says that after he read the death notice tacked to the door, he “walked away slowly on the sunny side of the street, reading all the theatrical advertisements in the shop-windows as [he] went.” He thought about the dream he’d had the night before, about how perhaps he’d been in “Persia”.

    There is the sense of intense pleasure – warmth, fun, possibility, Persia …

    On the one hand, the boy knows he should be grateful for the old man’s tutelage, but in a visceral way, the boy also knows now he’s free to choose – pleasure, perhaps.

    It’s only the first story, and yet one of the concerns is for a life force that ought not to be denied – the desire to be on the sunny side of the street, the desire for warmth and light and possibility and Persia and what fun there is to be had.

    So Trevor – I am reminded how in this world of Mookse and Gripes we too are daily “freed from something’. In this world of thought you have created, the pleasures of reading (and movie watching) are open to all. At Mookse and Gripes, literature is treasured for what it offers to anyone with the energy to open the book. There are no gate-keepers, there is no right way to think, there is no secret handshake. That’s a great thing. There is a sense that openness to the book is the right approach. You cultivate that.

    The tricky thing with Joyce is that he was so erudite. People have made a lifetime of sorting out all his riddles and games; one feels inadequate to the task when confronted with, say, a “gnomon”. There’s nothing to it but to look it up. And from there it’s a slippery slope to reading what everybody else had to say about the gnomon and “Dubliners”.

    Max, I’m with you on the richness of “The Sisters” – that it allows for multiple readings. Trevor, I’m with you when you say the reader is left to rely on what isn’t said. That’s great guidance for this story and probably all the rest of the book as well. The gnomon may be a red herring, in a way, given that a reader could well be best served by keeping track of what isn’t said.

    That said, I want to say it moves me that the boy appears to be an orphan, though Joyce never says so, exactly. He’s fatherless, and all that that implies. The tricky problems of simony and gnomon fade before the monumental fact of fatherlessness.

  6. Carol says:

    The above comments are a joy to read.

    There are all the formal rules about the sacraments, the host, the wine, the chalace, all expected to be unerringly and fastidiously adhered to as inscribed in the rituals. And along with these, the remedies for errors such as what must be done in a case of accidentally dropping the host,(the sacred body), the wine (the blood) such as cutting out a piece of carpeting.
    So the priest has broken the chalice and he broods over it in an obsessive way. Has he performed every remedy down to the letter of the law? No wine has spilled yet not only has he dropped, but he has broken the chalice.
    He goes over the rules and the laws and formal rites with the boy. There are differences between the types of sins, etc. The rules and laws are endless and so must be the priest’s worries about having dropped and broken the chalice.
    Perhaps this is the sin that wears on the priest’s mind and causes the anxiety which becomes apparent to others manifested as distracted or odd behavior.
    So he is buried with an unbroken chalice as if someone thought this would be a consolation to him throughout eternity.

  7. sshaver says:

    Damn those “complaints.” What’s wrong with people? Really? Couldn’t even see the talent in Joyce?

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