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, and he dreams of escaping to a mysterious land. 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, but unable to cope with the mundane daily routine of being a parish priest - which finally led to his collapse. 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.
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":
Dear Joyce 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 sincerely Geo. W. Russell(Letter p. 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 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 Sisters (1904) – From the 13 August 1904 issue of The Irish Homestead.
- The Sisters (1914) – From the book Dubliners.
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