by James Joyce
Characters in "The Sisters"
The Unnamed Narrator
We don't know exactly how old he is, but our narrator's old enough to resent being called a "child" by Old Cotter. We also don't know why he lives with his aunt and uncle, but that's how his cookie crumbled, so there's no use digging into it.
What the story does dig into is the boy's inner world. We learn about his thoughts about his—let's call it like we see it—weird relationship with a priest who has just died. It's all a little strange, but we'll figure it out.
Bad News from a Bad Messenger
At the very beginning of the story, the boy knows that the priest is going to die soon, and he's been way worried about it. So much that he walks by the house every night to see if there's been any change. It's bad enough that his fears come true, and the priest dies, but what really stinks about the whole shebang it is that Old Cotter, an annoying family friend, breaks the news to him. He's not exactly supportive when he deals the blow.
And the worst part is that he knows everyone's going to be watching him for a reaction now. He's a smart kid, though, and his first response is to "continue eating as if the news had not interested me" (The Sisters.12). But dinner just goes downhill from there, and things get really bad when Old Cotter says that his relationship with the paralyzed priest might not have been so hunky-dory: he thinks boys his age should play sports, not sit in dark rooms with old men. To be honest, Shmoop thinks he has a point.
The narrator holds his tongue again and goes to bed. His dreams don't help to bolster his side of the story. He dreams that priest is confessing his sins to the boy. It's a major role reversal and it gives us a vague idea that there really is something wrong with the boy's relationship to the priest after all.
The End and the Beginning
The next day, our narrator thinks a bit more about his old friend's death:
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. (12)
Hmm. Shouldn't he be a bit more bummed? And when he's not, not only does he "discover" something about himself, he's "annoyed" to have that discovery. What this tells us is that our narrator is attuned to events (like the priest's death), and to his reactions to those events (feeling free), and even his reaction to those reactions (being annoyed). Is this a little much for a prepubescent possible orphan? Maybe.
After this revelation, the boy remembers his relationship with the priest, which is sort of halfway between teacher and friend. We know it sounds crazy, but for a smart kid with absent parents in old-timey Dublin, learning about "how complex and mysterious were certain institutions of the Church" (The Sisters.29) might be sort of fun.
Whatever the case, it's clear that after the priest's death, something's missing from our narrator's life. But what that is, he can't quite place. And as the story goes on, the sensation that something's off grows stronger and stronger.
I See Dead People
After all this hemming and hawing and thinking and pondering and meandering, we're primed and ready for the climax of the story—when the kid goes to see the dead priest's body. Looking down at his old friend, the boy is surprised that the priest isn't smiling with that funny look he used to make in real life. The dead guy is dressed up like a priest and his face is fatter than usual, "truculent, grey and massive" (The Sisters.32).
Now, if you were hoping for some long interior monologue in which we learn all about the boy's thoughts and feelings on this dead body, well, you're in for disappointment. Instead of his thoughts, we get a whole lot of awkwardness, and a very long conversation.
Feeling like you got the short shrift? We are, too. We never learn how the kid truly feels about the priest, or what went on in all their long conversations—if anything. But that's part of the beauty of Joyce. He's not going to spell out the deeper meaning for you—if there is one. He'd much rather you come to your own conclusions.
We're about to look at several more stories with young male narrators who are pretty on top of things at a young age, and it's going to be important to remember these smart, and sad, and very thoughtful young characters as we start to meet some rather ignorant, briefly cheery, and let's just say unthinking adults in the stories that follow. One of the questions that Dubliners asks is how life changes people. The case of this narrator—who is basically at the beginning of his own life but watching and responding to the ending of someone else's—pretty much sets the stage.
My Brother Went Crazy…
Eliza's one of the sisters of Father Flynn, and we get to know her at the end of the story when she fills in some really important gaps about her brother's last days. Eliza's manner—her peculiar way of mourning her brother's death at the same time as she reveals the fact that the dude was quite possibly nuts—jumps out as a little peculiar. She keeps saying, "Poor James" (The Sisters.56, 58, 62) and she seems really sad, but she's also not afraid to say he wasn't really good at his job, that "the priesthood was too much for him" (The Sisters.65).
…And Then I Told Everyone About It
You're James Joyce writing the first story of your soon-to-be-amazing collection of stories, and you need a title for the first one. Why not something like, "The Dead Priest" or "The Chalice"? Apparently Joyce thinks that the sisters of the dead priest—one of them sleeps through most of the story after serving drinks and cookies—are more important than him, and even more important than the boy.
That's because the sisters have the story straight. They've got the divine secrets of the blah blah sisterhood, and they're the ones who can communicate to us about the dead. The question is, who's listening?
Rev. James Flynn
I'm Just Dying to Get to Know You
A main character who spends most of the story dead! Now that's the kind of book that gets us excited. Not to mention the strange, strange mystery surrounding the guy. Officially, Father Flynn dies after having several strokes that had left him paralyzed. But the unofficial story has quite a bit more to it.
Can I Quote You on That?
Since Father Flynn is dead, he can't tell his own story. We'll have to settle for the scoop from the mouths of others, and their takes range from loving to suspicious.
The narrator's father and Old Cotter don't like that Father Flynn spent so much time with the narrator, because "it's bad for children," they think (The Sisters.18). The narrator's uncle agrees, however, that the priest "had taught" him a lot of stuff. The narrator himself isn't sad that he's gone like we might expect, but he is having, as we know, a really strong reaction to the death, full of reveries and dreams and rages. And then there's Eliza, whose story sort of aims for the facts, but definitely has some personal bias, too. Just whom are we supposed to believe?
It's like that game, telephone, where you start a story at one place in a circle and whisper it to each other until it's a totally unrecognizable Frankenstein version of itself at the end. In "The Sisters," so many different people who aren't Father Flynn get a chance to define him that it's sort of tragic. Too bad the guy can't speak for himself and explain why dropping a chalice made him crazy, or if that was really what did it after all. The injustice of having other people speak for you and understand you is the unspoken tragedy of "The Sisters." Like Eliza says, "Poor James."
Since Joyce does give him the job of narrating, it's worth thinking about the boy's version of Father Flynn. The narrator of the story spent a lot of time with him, time that the priest spent quizzing him about the Catholic Church and chewing tobacco. And although the narrator remembers his instruction with gratitude, he dreams of the priest's face as a confessor, hinting that the priest had committed a grave sin.
There are hints in the story, but no clarification of this aura of mysterious wrongdoing that follows the priest around, like when the boy dreams that he must "absolve the simoniac of his sin" (The Sisters.26).
Paralysis: Not Just a Medical Condition
Here are the facts: Father Flynn dies a paralytic, thanks to a couple of nasty strokes. Here's the fuzzy stuff: when the narrator makes note of Father Flynn's death, he says,
Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work. (The Sisters.1)
There it is. Right there in the first paragraph of the first story of the whole collection—the word paralysis. And what a word it is. The boy seems frightened of it (aren't you frightened of maleficent things?), but also totally into it. Plus, right off the bat, paralysis is tied to religion, through the priest, and death, through… the priest. Keep a weather eye out for more links like this in future stories.
The narrator certainly experiences his own form of paralysis later, when he's not quite sure about his feelings about Father Flynn's death. He wants to see the body, but he doesn't want to see the body. He's not all that sad that the priest is dead, but he's disappointed in himself for feeling that way. It's just plain awkward.
But hey, what's life if not one giant awkward parade? Everyone in Dubliners is stuck—or paralyzed—in one way or another. No matter how much the characters move around the city, they're all essentially paralyzed: suffocated by their overbearing family members; by their own weakness, narrow-mindedness, and greed; by their own and their nation's past; and by the very weather of a city where it always seems to be either dark, cold, windy, rainy, snowing, or some depressing combination of all of the above. Instead of inviting us in, Dubliners tells us about everyone who can't get out.
For boy, the priest seems like some sort of evil Santa Claus: the priest can see him when he's dreaming, and know when he's awake. What does the boy want to tell us about when he sees the actual corpse? You guessed it—his face. And what's weird about the priest when the boy first meets him? The "big discoloured teeth" he shows when he smiles. We could go on, but he point is that this priest has a mug you can't forget.
So try to keep it in mind as you read the rest of Dubliners. That is, if it's not too freaky to imagine the "truculent" and swollen face of a paralyzed, dead priest looking out from beyond the grave. Because he symbolizes inertia and paralysis, because he dies and yet stays a main character, and because he makes for an amazing story, Father Flynn is like the patron saint—or, uh, patron priest—of Dublin and Dubliners. Poor James, indeed.
The narrator of the story lives with his aunt and uncle, and she takes him to the sisters' house, where the priest's body lies in its coffin. When Eliza tells her story of Father Flynn, she's talking mostly to the boy's aunt, who responds to it with tiny clichéd expressions of sympathy like "the Lord have mercy on his soul" (The Sisters.63).
She's the other sister of Father Flynn, and after serving drinks and cookies to the narrator and his aunt, she's half asleep on the couch. Eliza tells us that after taking care of so much business when the priest died, Nannie is "wore out" (The Sisters.51). Still, she's one of the "Sisters" who give the story its title, and her exhaustion suggests a key aspect of the collection and the city it describes.
He's a family friend who's not all that friendly; during the course of his dinner conversation, he calls the narrator a "child" and casts doubts about the purity of the priest's friendship with the boy, which really makes the narrator seethe. Still, the guy may have a point.
His main role in the story is to pass along the news of the priest's death from Old Cotter. Then, talking with the old fart, he agrees that the close friendship of the boy and the priest might not have been for the best. He would prefer for the boy to be athletic rather than intellectual.