The Sisters Themes
by James Joyce

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The first three of the fifteen stories that compose the collection Dubliners deal with youngsters and are initiation works, narrative pieces about different aspects of the rite of passage, the progress from childhood to adulthood. Because it is the opening story in the book, “The Sisters” has the youngest hero, and it shows him confronting directly for the first time the reality of death. The story also develops the archetypal motif of the search for a father. The boy, apparently an orphan (he lives with an aunt and uncle), finds in the priest a substitute father, a kindly man who teaches him about many things, nurturing his intellect and preparing him for the future; yet Father Flynn himself is an imperfect, eventually demented, man—and priest—who is unable to face his own faults and inadequacies and ends up going mad in his own confessional.

The third theme is that of paralysis, which Joyce introduces in the first paragraph, when the boy, gazing up at the dying priest’s window, says “paralysis” to himself, a word that “had always sounded strangely in [his ears],” like “gnomon in the Euclid” and “simony in the Catechism.” Linked as it is with the other two words, “paralysis” refers to more than the priest’s physical imperfection, which is the result of the debilitating stroke he has suffered; it also calls to mind his spiritual and social imperfections. Further, Joyce’s introduction of the paralysis motif in the first paragraph of this opening story also signals its general significance for the entire volume.

In a 1904 letter, Joyce speaks of writing a group of stories: “I call the series Dubliners to betray the soul of that . . . paralysis which many consider a city.” Indeed, the fourteen stories that follow “The Sisters” introduce characters from many walks of life who are frustrated with their lives but unable to effect change. Personally, socially, and vocationally or professionally, these Dubliners—young as well as old—are paralyzed, ineffectual failures. The story, then, can be interpreted as the first of Joyce’s fifteen visions of Dublin, the capital of Ireland, which he left for good on October 8, 1904, to live the remainder of his life on the Continent.