Dubliners The Sisters: Summary and Analysis
by James Joyce

Dubliners book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Dubliners Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The Sisters: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Narrator: boy, 8–9 years old

Father Flynn (dead): boy’s mentor

Narrator’s Aunt and Uncle

Nannie and Eliza: priest’s elderly sisters

Old Cotter: family friend

This story is narrated by a young boy, probably about eight or nine, discussing the imminent death of Father Flynn, an older priest whom he has befriended. After three strokes, the priest is paralyzed, but the boy hesitates to ask for certain if he has died. His aunt, uncle, and a family friend discuss the priest’s odd habits, the friend adding that the priest might not be a good influence on a younger person. The boy takes offense at what he believes is a patronizing statement, but says nothing.

After having a nightmare about Fr. Flynn, the boy discovers a notice at the priest’s sisters’ home that Flynn has died. Rather than feeling mournful, however, the boy feels an inexplicable freedom. He recollects the details about Catholicism that he learned from Flynn, but he still cannot interpret his giddiness.

Going to pay his respects with his aunt later in the evening, the boy is distracted, cannot pray, and cannot make smalltalk with Eliza (one of Fr. Flynn’s sisters) as his aunt can. Instead he listens to the sisters and his aunt discuss the priest’s disappointing career and life in the clergy, which was muddled by his dropping a chalice during a mass earlier in his career. Eliza claims that this error—coupled with the heavy demands of the priesthood—began to wear down his peace of mind, even implying that Fr. Flynn had begun to lose his mind. The boy, still contemplating the priest and their relationship, says nothing.

Father Flynn, the dying priest in “The Sisters,” has suffered three strokes and now lies paralyzed on the brink of death. This paralysis is the watchword for Joyce’s entire collection of stories, as virtually all the significant characters in Dubliners are psychically paralyzed by their life circumstances. Young and old, they are inert or helpless in the face of their own suffering and indecision. The narrator of this story, a young boy who has befriended Flynn, recognizes the fearsome quality of the paralysis and also longs to understand it, “to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.”

Although the boy is seen by his aunt as having a “great” friendship with the priest, his family’s friend, Old Cotter, perceives something unseemly, believing that Flynn’s attention has somehow suffocated—perhaps even corrupted—the boy. The narrator bristles at Cotter’s patronizing observations, but the relationship is not, in fact, a healthy one. The boy dreams of Flynn’s “grey face,” imagining “that it desired to confess something.” Both the boy and the face smile “feebly” at each other in the dream, demonstrating an uncertain understanding, even a forgiveness, of the other.

That the priest should show a desire to confess to the boy demonstrates for the reader the perversity of their relationship, as it controverts the priest’s main spiritual role. Studying their friendship, we see that the priest “amused himself” during the boy’s visits “by putting difficult questions” to him. Flynn forced the narrator into interrogation sessions about minutiae involving church doctrine, requiring him to strain for an answer about spiritual issues which the boy had “always regarded as the simplest acts.” In turning the simple and spiritual into the tortuous and strained, Flynn acts as a sadist, with the boy as his compliant victim.

His perversity is further underscored by Joyce’s revolting visual description of him: inert and grey, covered with snuff stains and trembling. The narrator’s recollection of the priest’s smile—his tongue lasciviously lying along his lower lip—“made me feel uneasy in the beginning.” It makes the reader uneasy as well, since the sexual image is completely inappropriate. The allusion to sexual impropriety is enhanced slightly further in the boy’s...

(The entire section is 1,166 words.)