Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 880
In this opening story from James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914), the unnamed narrator is an adult recalling his first direct experience with death when he was a boy in Dublin in 1895. He tells of passing on several evenings the house in which a retired old priest, who was his mentor, lay dying. Then, when the boy, who lives with his aunt and uncle, comes down to dinner one night, he hears them and a neighbor talking about the priest, who has just died.
Old Cotter, the neighbor, says that “there was something queer . . . something uncanny about him” and refers to the priest as “one of those . . . peculiar cases.” The uncle recalls that Father Flynn taught the boy “a great deal . . . and they say he had a great wish for him.” However, the “wish,” or respect, that the priest had for the boy does not impress old Cotter and the family, for they are anti-intellectual and indifferent to education. The uncle even disparagingly refers to his nephew as “that Rosicrucian” and agrees with Cotter that youngsters should focus on physical activities.
During their conversation, the adults talk about the boy as if he were not present, though they closely observe him. Knowing this, the boy continues eating “as if the news had not interested [him].” Actually, he becomes increasingly upset by the comments and crams his mouth with porridge to keep from venting his anger.
The next morning, he goes to the New Britain Street house where the priest lived with his two sisters above a drapery shop, and the bouquet and card on the door confirm for him the fact that his old friend indeed has died; therefore, he does not want to knock. Wandering about Dublin in the wake of this decision, he remarks to himself that neither he nor the day “seemed in a mourning mood” and that he felt “a sensation of freedom as if . . . freed from something by his death.” Though he does not comprehend what is happening, he is, for the first time, seeing that the world at large is unaffected by one person’s death and that life goes on. In other words, the death of his mentor—or surrogate parent—is a major event in his progress toward maturity. As he continues to walk through sunny Dublin (the narrator mentions the sun twice in this context, as if emphasizing the indifference of the world to Father Flynn’s death), the boy remembers what the priest had taught him, including “stories about the catacombs and about Napoleon Bonaparte, and . . . the meaning of the different ceremonies of the Mass and of the different vestments worn by the priest.”
That evening, accompanied by his aunt, he visits “the house of mourning,” climbing a narrow staircase “towards the open door of the dead-room,” which he hesitates to enter until one of the priest’s old sisters beckons to him repeatedly. There Father Flynn is lying, “solemn and copious, vested as for the altar, his large hands loosely retaining a chalice.” When the three kneel at the foot of the bed to pray, the boy cannot “because the old woman’s mutterings distracted [him].” At this point, about two-thirds through the story, the focus shifts to Nannie and Eliza, the priest’s old sisters.
Nannie leads the guests to the sitting room, where she serves wine and crackers, and then sits on a sofa and falls asleep, having fulfilled her duties as hostess and having introduced the boy to the mysteries of the “dead-room” and welcomed him into the fraternity of adults with the sherry. Gently prodded by the boy’s aunt, Eliza (sitting “in state” in her late brother’s armchair) tells about Father Flynn’s last days. Among other things, she recalls noticing “something queer coming over him latterly” and mentions that she would “find him with his breviary fallen to the floor, lying back in the chair and his mouth open.” Then Eliza gets to more substantive matters, which in the aggregate clarify the veiled comment (“something queer . . . something uncanny . . . peculiar . . . ”) that old Cotter made about Father Flynn.
Eliza begins by saying, “The duties of the priesthood was too much for him. And then his life was, you might say, crossed.” His problem started, she says, when he broke the chalice. Others said that it was “the boy’s fault,” that is, the carelessness of the acolyte who assisted the priest at the altar, and the people made light of the incident, because the chalice “contained nothing,” the wine already having been transubstantiated into Christ’s body and blood. According to Eliza, however, the incident “affected his mind,” and “he began to mope by himself, talking to no one and wandering about by himself.”
The crucial incident, which presumably led to Father Flynn being relieved of his duties and retired, occurred one night when he was needed to make a call, perhaps on a dying parishioner. “They looked high up and low down,” Eliza tells the boy and his aunt, and finally tried the locked chapel. There two priests and the clerk found him alone in his dark confessional “wide awake and laughing-like softly to himself.” Clearly, “there was something gone wrong with him.” Eliza has the last word, for the story concludes with this statement.
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