The Sisters (short story)
|Followed by||"An Encounter"|
"The Sisters" is a short story by James Joyce, the first of a series of short stories called Dubliners. Originally published in the Irish Homestead on 13 August 1904, "The Sisters" was Joyce's first published work of fiction. Joyce later revised the story and had it, along with the rest of the series, published in book form in 1914.
- The boy (narrator)
- James Flynn, former priest
- Eliza Flynn, sister of James Flynn
- Nannie Flynn, sister of James Flynn
- Old Cotter
- Aunt of the boy
- Uncle of the boy
″The Sisters″ gives a portrait of the relationship between a nameless boy and the infirm priest Father Flynn. The priest who has been relieved of his priestly duties has acted as a mentor for the boy in the clerical duties of a Catholic priest. The story starts with the boy contemplating Father Flynn's illness and impending death. He is fascinated with interpreting signs and symbols, and their meaning. Later, while the boy eats his dinner, his aunt, uncle, and old Cotter have a conversation in which the boy is informed that the priest has died. The conversation focuses on the priest and his relationship with the boy. That night the boy is haunted by images of the priest. The next day the boy goes to look at the announcement that the priest has died, and then wanders about, further puzzling about his dream and about his relationship with the priest. That night the boy and his aunt go to the house of mourning. They view the corpse with Nannie, and then they sit with the sisters Eliza and Nannie. They are offered food and drink, and then Eliza and the aunt carry on a conversation that reveals that Father Flynn had apparently suffered a mental breakdown after accidentally breaking a chalice. The dialogue then trails off.
From the numerous flashbacks and memories scattered through the story, Father Flynn is shown to have been an intellectual priest, trained in Rome and having a strong religious vocation. It could be interpreted, however, that he was unable to cope with the mundane daily routine of being a parish priest - which finally led to his collapse. Upon subjective interpretation of the complex text, the boy narrator is seen to have initially admired Father Flynn and looked up to him, and later felt deeply sorry for him and guilty about not having visited him in his last days - all of which the narrator must conceal from his adult environment, where Father Flynn is considered to have been a complete failure, his death is in fact regarded with relief and he is considered to have been a bad example from which the boy must be preserved. Another possible interpretation, and one which caused controversy in Joyce's attempts to publish this particular work, is that the boy's relationship with the priest may have been of an abusive nature, the implications of which the boy is ignorant due to his impressionable age. Thus the relief he feels after Father Flynn's death is an unconscious response to the removal of a threat to his innocence.
The Theme of innocence appears to be highly important in the text, evident in the child's preoccupation with the word "paralysis". "It had always sounded strangely in my ears [...] But now it sounded to me like a maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it..." The boy's connotations around the word can be seen, in a broader sense, as his reaction to his first encounter with death, and in turn, his own fleeting mortality. Like most human beings, the concept of death frightens him, but at the same time, stokes his curiosity. An encounter with death is usually the first step in the loss of one's childhood innocence, but in this story, it may reflect the loss that has already taken place. This is, of course, only speculation.
Another thematic understanding one can glean from this quote is based on the ways in which language can be shaped by our subjective projections (in the same way a text can). The associations created by the boy regarding the word "paralysis" is likely not shared by many others, and this shows that our understandings of language are not always purely rational or universal. In this way, the words like 'gnomon', 'simony' and many others which are haunted by strangeness, may be the point of departure in this text; many words, including 'gnomon', have more than one and possibly contradicting meanings, indicating that language itself lacks certainty, and this assertion seems to be present in the unresolved nature of this story.
The choice of the title is quite curious as the story clearly focuses on the boy's relationship with the dead priest and the sisters Eliza and Nannie seem to be quite marginal to it. Joyce's intention in giving this title to the story is far from obvious, though a common theory is that the title comes from the fact that the priest's sisters are shown to be the only ones (besides the boy) who really knew and understood what Father Flynn was going through in the monotonous life of a priest in Dublin.
Evolution of the story
In summer of 1904, George Russell of the editorial department of the weekly paper The Irish Homestead wrote Joyce a letter in regards to a section of the journal called "Our Weekly Story":
Look at the story in this paper The Irish Homestead. Could you write anything simple, rural?, livemaking?, pathos?, which could be inserted so as not to shock the readers. If you could furnish a short story about 1800 words suitable for insertion the editor will pay £1. It is easily earned money if you can write fluently and don't mind playing to the common understanding and liking for once in a way. You can sign it any name you like as a pseudonym. Yours sincerelyGeo. W. Russell (Letters 43)
Joyce took the offer, and ″The Sisters″ was published on 13 August 1904 using the pseudonym Stephen Dædulus, a name given to one of Joyce's semi-autobiographical literary characters in his later novels A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. ″The Sisters″ was the start of a series called Dubliners that he hoped the Homestead would continue to publish. In fact, Joyce would write two more stories for the Homestead, ″Eveline″ and ″After the Race,″ before complaints stopped the paper from publishing any more of his stories. Joyce, nevertheless, continued to add more stories to the collection. But, he had great difficulty getting Dubliners published, and it wasn't until 1914 that the first edition of the book came out. During that decade, ″The Sisters″ went through a number of revisions.
The two published versions have essentially the same plot. The diction, however, was transformed from a romantic style to a wholly modernist text.  The Homestead version spelled much out for the reader. In the 1914 version, on the other hand, Joyce dropped the non-essential commentary leaving the facts to speak for themselves, a style Joyce called "scrupulous meanness." Readers are left to interpret and feel the bare facts for themselves. The style demands a greater engagement by the reader who must now provide more interpretation of the facts.
Other changes were made to characterisation and relationships. In particular, Joyce severely strengthened the relationship between the priest and the boy making it stand out as a memorable feature of the story.
"The Sisters" has been a subject of scholarly debate, mostly in regards to the priest's illness. One analysis of Father Flynn's illness throughout the second version of the story shows that Joyce deliberately implied that Father Flynn had central nervous system syphilis. Joyce was interested and qualified enough in medicine to be able to describe a syphilitic and had definite reasons for doing so. The syphilitic nature of Father Flynn's illness is apparent in the author's use of paralysis, which was often used synonymously with paresis (general paralysis of the insane) when Joyce began his revisions in 1905. 
The priest having suffered from a sexually transmitted infection would help account for the adult society's negative opinion and disdain for him.
- In February 2017, a short film adaptation of The Sisters was written & directed by Matthew Eberle
- The Sisters (1904) – From the 13 August 1904 issue of The Irish Homestead.
- The Sisters (1914) – From the book Dubliners.
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- Dubliners at Project Gutenberg
- The Sisters by James Joyce FREE Audio & eText
- The Sisters public domain audiobook at LibriVox