The Sisters Questions and Answers
by James Joyce

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How might one use particular words or phrases (e.g. "loss," "angst," "happiness," etc.) to sum up the story "The Sisters" from James Joyce's The Dubliners? Boldface words/phrases that seem particularly important.

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James Joyce's story "The Sisters" (from his collection of stories titled Dubliners) contains a number of keywords or concepts.  Some of these include the following:

  • “no hope”: this phrase refers to the dying priest, but it is also relevant to the gloomy tone of the entire tale.
  • “dead”: this word foreshadows the death of the priest, but death is also a major theme of this story and of Dubliners as a whole.
  • “paralysis”: this word refers to the strokes suffered by the priest but also suggests the entire atmosphere of mental and emotional paralysis found in the story as a whole.
  • “maleficent and sinful”: these terms suggest how the narrator thinks of the term “gnomon,” but they also foreshadow some of the gloomy moral implications suggested later in the tale.
  • “peculiar cases”: this term is used by another character to describe the dead priest, but it is also relevant to the whole baffling, curious, puzzling nature of the narrative.
  • “piously”: this term refers to conduct by one of the narrator’s aunts, but it also implies the importance that conventional religious attitudes play in the work as a whole.
  • “anger”: the narrator at one point refers to his anger, and anger is indeed one of his chief emotions in this tale.
  • “dark”: this word refers to the literal darkness of the narrator’s room at night, but this story is also figuratively dark in various ways.
  • “confess”: this word is used repeatedly to refer to the narrator’s dream of the dead priest, but it is also relevant to the larger story because it foreshadows the priest’s behavior in the confessional and also because it implies the existence of unsettling secrets.
  • “taught”: this word refers explicitly to the boy’s relationship with the dead priest:

he had taught me a great deal. He had studied in the Irish college in Rome and he had taught me to pronounce Latin properly. He had told me stories about the catacombs and about Napoleon Bonaparte, and he had explained to me the meaning of the different ceremonies of the Mass and of the different vestments worn by the priest.

At the same time, the word “taught” suggests that the boy is more educated (and more self-conscious about his education) than some other characters in the story but also that he may have learned from the priest in ways he does not yet fully understand.

  • “complex and mysterious”: these words refer explicitly to “certain institutions of the church,” but they are also relevant to the whole tone and atmosphere of the story.
  • “intricate questions”: this term refers explicitly to the questions raised by the institutions and doctrines of the church, but it might just as easily apply to the kinds of questions raised by Joyce’s own story.
  • “uneasy”: this term refers literally to the boy’s initial response to the priest but it also seems relevant to readers’ possible responses to this story.
  • “mourning”: this word refers literally to mourning for the dead priest, but it also seems relevant to the entire story’s emphasis on death and loss.

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