“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.