Dubliners: Novel Summary: The Sisters
In the first story of Dubliners, a young boy who lives with his uncle and aunt is concerned about a man who has recently had his third stroke. He passes by the paralyzed man's window every day watching for the candles that will signify his death. The boy thinks over the word "paralysis" in his mind and ponders on its strange sound: "I said softly to myself paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears (1). One night at dinner a friend named old Cotter visits the family. It's a "peculiar case," old Cotter remarks, referring to the ill man whose name is Father Flynn (2). The uncle comments positively on the friendship between Father Flynn and his nephew. The priest had acted as a mentor to the boy in hopes he would enter the priesthood. Old Cotter insists, however, that a boy should be left alone to "run about and play with young lads of his own age" (2).
Angry that old Cotter has called him a child, the boy has a difficult time sleeping. What, he wonders did the old man mean by his unfinished sentences, and he thinks about Father Flynn, his paralyzed face and moist lips moving as if in confession. The following day, he goes to the house where he used to visit Father Flynn bringing him, on occasion, High Toast snuff. Outside, a placard announces Father Flynn's death and the boy realizes the reality of death. No longer will he visit the sick old man in the dark room and talk about history and the intricacies of the Catholic Church. He knows he should feel remorse and is surprised and annoyed to find he does not. Instead he feels a freedom now that school is out.
In the evening he visits the house of death with his aunt. Nannie, one of Father Flynn's two sisters, takes them in to view the body. The other sister, Eliza, sits in the dead priest's chair. They talk about how the priest experienced a peaceful death after receiving Extreme Unction. Both tell of how they cared for their brother and comment on how much he will be missed. Lately, he had begun to act strangely and sometimes Nannie would find him in his chair, his prayer book fallen to the floor. He was disappointed by life, she says, remarking that his strange behavior began after he dropped and broke the chalice. The sisters had realized something was wrong with his mind after they had found him laughing one night in the confessional when he was needed to go out on a call.
The tales in James Joyce's Dubliners collection are arranged in chronological groupings, the first three dealing with children, the second three with youth and the last stories with adults of various ages. The first story, "The Sisters," is highly regarded for its structure and intense control of language.
The highly influential role of the Catholic Church in the lives of every Irish person during most of the twentieth century needs to be emphasized because it acts as an underpinning in most of Dubliners. The author was deeply anti-Catholic and blamed the Church as one element in the "paralysis-a recurring theme in many of Joyce's works-infecting the whole country and keeping it from moving forward in terms of government, economics, culture, art and so forth. Joyce was particularly taken with the role of priests in the Catholic Church especially the power they wielded as the intermediaries between sinful people and God. Through the priest, people could talk to God and confess their sins, receive forgiveness and thus enter heaven. Thus, while Father Flynn can be viewed as a sympathetic and pious character, he is also paralyzed, mad and perhaps even corrupt. Some scholars argue that the priest's mental illness is reminiscent of the final stages of syphilis and furthermore argue that the priest winds up mad in the confessional because he feels he must confess a sin of a sexual nature. In the boy's dream, the priest also moves his lips, as if to confess something. Why, the reader wonders, would the boy have such a dream? Joyce here metaphorically suggests that the Church, once powerful and dynamic, has become a demented stagnant institution with a shameful past. Dropping the prayer book and dropping the chalice round out this metaphor. The sisters, it seems, like most other good Catholics, are just as paralyzed, remain blind to the truth, and yet continue in their devotion. However, Father Flynn dies having received Extreme Unction, the final form of penance and ultimate forgiveness.
It is important to remember that very often what Joyce doesn't say is what really matters. Old Cotter's "unfinished sentences," for instance need to be examined closely not just by the puzzled narrator as he attempts to make sense out of his first experience with death, but also by the reader. "The Sisters" simply withholds information the
reader must dig to uncover. Because of his youth, the boy is an honest but unreliable narrator. He feels angry that old Cotter calls him a child, yet he is a child attempting to make sense out of an adult world. In this regard, the reader feels just as puzzlede-what is going on? However, the adult reader has more life experience to figure out the child's report. The friendship between the old man and the child needs to be examined. Just what does Old Cotter think is wrong and why should the boy remain solely with friends his own age?