“The Sisters,” a short story included in James Joyce’s collection titled Dubliners, is structured in a number of ways, including the following:
- The story opens by plunging in medias res (“into the midst of things”), a common literary device often used to provoke curiosity, create interest, and engage the reader’s own interpretive powers. The prior “story” behind this story consists of a series chronological events. Joyce, however, imposes his own “plot” upon that prior story and those events, beginning near the end of the prior story rather than starting at the chronological beginning.
- “The Sisters” is told from the perspective of a first-person narrator, who turns out to be a youth who had been friendly with an old priest. Inevitably, then, everything that the youth tells us about others will help characterize him as well. The point of the story is not simply to tell us about a series of events but also to show us how the narrator’s reactions and responses to those events help reveal his own personality, values, and motives.
- Much of the story consists of dialogue reported by the narrator. In other words, the youth lets other characters “speak for themselves,” but inevitably such a method raises an important question: is the narrator reliable in what he reports? Does he “rig” the story in favor of (or against) other characters? Can we accept his reports as objective evidence? Does he have anything to hide? How trustworthy is this narrator? (In general, he does seem trustworthy, particularly because he tells us explicitly when he does not like another character, so that he doesn’t try to hide his own biases. He also seems basically trustworthy because he tells us when he cannot remember information and when he finds information difficult to interpret. Thus, he says at one point,
As I walked along in the sun I remembered old Cotter's words and tried to remember what had happened afterwards in the dream. I remembered that I had noticed long velvet curtains and a swinging lamp of antique fashion. I felt that I had been very far away, in some land where the customs were strange -- in Persia, I thought.... But I could not remember the end of the dream.
- The story moves from (1) concern about the possibility of the priest’s death, to (2) confirmation that he has indeed died, to (3) comments by others on the narrator’s relationship with the priest, to (4) the narrator’s own reflections on his relationship with the priest, to (5) a description of the priest’s funeral, to (6) reminiscences by others about the dead priest. Of these sections of the story, perhaps 3, 4, and 6 are the most interesting and intriguing because they raise the most ambiguous questions and thus most engage the reader’s own mind. These are literally the most thought-provoking sections of the story.