Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
T. S. Eliot
Four Quartets
Briunt Norton

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Sisters by James Joyce

‘Sisters’ is the first story of James Joyce’s collection ‘Dubliners.’ It is about the relationship between a young boy and an old priest. I am going to focus on the theme of sin. Joyce was not a Christian and did not believe in a personal God. But he grew up in Catholic Ireland that was permeated with the idea of sinfulness. Joyce had once believed and suffered under a sense of sinfulness. And he saw this and understood it in others.
This story is short so two or three rereading are not a great burden. After a couple of readings I had gotten to know the setting, the narrative and the characters well enough to see them like stationary furniture. Now when I reread I could move around this furniture and look at it from different angles. And I could now focus in on small details and try looking from different perspectives. That thing that I originally took to be a console table came more and more to look like a sacrificial altar. The corpse in the bed begins to look like a graven idol. The family and friends at the bedside came to resemble worshipers. Everything is what it is and some other things as well
Old Father Flynn is described as guilty of simony though no details of this sin are given in the story. But consequences of the sin can be detected in the narrator. Simony is named for Simon the magician who is described in the book of Acts. Simon, a sorcerer and healer, was impressed by the powers that Jesus’ apostles possessed. Simon offered them money in exchange for the same powers. He was even baptized and joined the Christians. But the offer of money for spiritual powers got him ejected from the Christian communion. Simon was told to leave because he had converted for the wrong reason. He was concerned about what he could get rather than what he could give: his heart was not right. Simon did not argue the point he just requested that they pray for a change of his heart so he would not have to suffer what would inevitably fall to those in rebellion against God. Simon knew he was wrong.
The narrator is mentally stalked by a sense of sinfulness. The first words of the story are ominous, “THERE was no hope for him this time.” And in that first paragraph his thoughts about the old priest’s illness could even be seen as the child hoping for Father Flynn’s death. That paragraph’s last two sentenced combine dread, sinfulness and a dangerous curiosity about evil: “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 boy does not just go to visit the priest to learn about the mass and the intricacies of Christian doctrine. He has a longing to be near and see the ‘deadly work’ this old sinner and what his sin can do in spite of some level of knowledge that it is evil and deadly.
The narrator feigns unconcern about Father Flynn’s death when he feels certain Old Cotter and his uncle are watching to see how he will react to the news of Father Flynn’s death. This connotes a sense of guilt. Then as he dreams the old sinner haunts him but he remains in league with sinfulness by, “smiling feebly as if to absolve the simoniac of his sin.” But the youngster is of two minds about the sin and the sinner since he, “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.” But there is still power there since he is afraid to go inside and view the body.
The way the old priest has the child from the neighborhood memorize the mass for their amusement trivializes what many see as a life giving ritual. It brings to mind Buck Mulligan’s black mass with the shaving paraphernalia in the opening scene of Joyce’s ‘Ulysses.’
While pretending to pray when viewing the old priest’s body the boy becomes convinced the corpse is smiling. In his dream the narrator had used a smile to absolve the old priest of his sin. His conviction that the corpse is smiling keeps Father Flynn and his haunting alive even in the grave.
The narrator listens as the ladies drink wine, eat crackers and chat about the deceased. And while this goes on the boy experiences his epiphany: The ‘maleficent and sinful being’ who had haunted him now no longer exists. Father Flynn is now just silent and dead.
How was the haunting presence exorcised? One explanation is that hearing the mundane stories reinforces the reality that the old man is merely the brother of these very ordinary sisters. Why be afraid of a man who aspires to rent a car with ‘rheumatic’ tires to take a ride with these dismally colorless sisters to their birthplace in Irishtown? What could be more boring and uninspiring than a place called Irishtown? And the banality of much of the conversation between the aunt and Eliza could drown otherworldly view of the old priest in ordinariness.
Eliza’s description of her brother’s mental collapse could replace the boy’s fear of a spiritual threat with a strong awareness of pathology. Freud and Jung might have a different explanation. In his dream the narrator saw that, “. the grey face still followed me. It
murmured, and I understood that it desired to confess something.” Maybe the mental picture painted by Eliza of the crazy old man laughing to himself in the confessional resolved the boy’s need for Father Flynn to confess and the boy’s desire to absolve the old man. Maybe the boy also realized that nothing that the old man had taught him had given him the least bit of priestly power.
The thought of the trip to Irishtown in the rented car with the sisters attending to Father Flynn reminds me of ancient festivals that paraded an idol of a god through the street to end up at a location holy to the god. It is also reminiscent of Christian feasts in which an icon, the statue of a saint or a holy relic is paraded through the streets. The relationship between the old man and the boy similar to what is common between a god and many worshippers. Father Flynn connected the child to a larger wider world. And the boy’s object of worship personified his own fears and needs. Also, at the time of the boys growth into puberty, the nature of his relation to the object of worship radically changed.
This story could just be a description of the journey into adolescence. Feeling out of place and not quite right along with always being under surveillance are hallmarks of the teen years that are dawning on the narrator. Instead of using the psychobabble labels of today conflicts have been described in the language of Irish Catholic guilt. Freud was alive when the story was written but his world view had not yet seeped into the collective unconscious of Westerners.


  1. Good luck with this new project, Chris.

    I hope from time to time I can read what you presently are and join in.

  2. Just discovered this site via Pat Austin. Great idea. I've look forward to your future musings. This kind of site is quite needed.

    Goodk luck.