The Sisters: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1166

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

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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 dream, which takes place “in some land where the customs were strange—in Persia, I thought…” Though Joyce doesn’t complete the dream, the strangeness of the priest’s behavior, combined with Old Cotter’s admonitions, suggest to the reader the unhealthiness of the bond.

When the narrator learns of Flynn’s death, he feels at odds with himself. Knowing he should feel grief, he instead discovers in himself “a sense of freedom as if I had been freed from something by his death.” Indeed, the boy has been freed from the priest’s oppressive emotional lock on him. Clearly, Flynn represents, as Edward Brandabur has pointed out, “the corrupt features of Irish Catholicism,” turning spirituality into a burden and torture (335). In Joyce’s mind, Irish Catholicism had leeched life out of the population as the priest had leeched it from the boy. The Irish, Joyce felt, were paralyzed by the trivialities and rules of the Catholic church, as the narrator felt his own coming paralysis in a relationship with the priest.

When he and his aunt visit the dead priest’s home to pay their respects, the boy cannot pray beside the coffin as the others do, distracted by thoughts of Flynn and feeling—with his passing—the loss of his own spirituality, albeit a somewhat confused one. Significantly, Flynn holds a chalice (the holy cup used to hold the eucharist) loosely in his hands, symbolizing his insecure grasp on spirituality and his failure as a priest.

Eliza offers the visitors sherry and crackers, symbolic of the wine and wafer during the mass, but the boy refuses them. Partly, this shows his awkwardness with the traditions of the church, though it’s not clear that he’s abandoned the church altogether. Brandabur suggests that it represents his unwillingness to accept secular substitutes for the sacraments from the secular bearer, Eliza, as opposed to receiving them from a priest (337). In effect, the boy’s refusal is a last vestige of allegiance to the dead priest, regardless of Flynn’s suitability for his role.

As Eliza and his aunt discuss Flynn’s troubles in the priesthood, it becomes clear that he never thoroughly embraced the spiritual nature of his calling, that he was, in fact, doomed to failure early on. His sister believes his life was “crossed,” Joyce’s play on words to connect the ill-fated priest to the holy crucifix. The chalice he broke, she adds, “contained nothing,” but this too emphasizes Flynn’s empty spirituality and the emptiness of Irish Catholicism as a whole. When Flynn was discovered alone and laughing in his confessional, it symbolizes not only his incompetency as a priest but the absurdity he sensed in his inability to function as one. Eliza’s comment that there was “something gone wrong” with her brother can include the lives of many Dubliners in the book that this story introduces. In each, the reader finds characters whose souls are paralyzed and who live a contorted and frustrated life similar to that of Father Flynn’s.

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