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Dubliners - "The Sisters" (Story 1 of 15) 
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Post Dubliners - "The Sisters" (Story 1 of 15)
Dubliners - "The Sisters" (Story 1 of 15)


Dubliners is a collection of 15 short stories by James Joyce, first published in 1914. They form a naturalistic depiction of Irish middle class life in and around Dublin in the early years of the 20th century. The stories were written when Irish nationalism was at its peak, and a search for a national identity and purpose was raging; at a crossroads of history and culture, Ireland was jolted by various converging ideas and influences.



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Post Re: Dubliners - "The Sisters" (Story 1 of 15)
Perhaps to start off with the first story, we can look at a couple pages of the text, or a scene or two, at a time.
Quote:

THE SISTERS

THERE was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke. Night
after night I had passed the house (it was vacation time) and studied
the lighted square of window: and night after night I had found it
lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly. If he was dead, I thought,
I would see the reflection of candles on the darkened blind for I knew
that two candles must be set at the head of a corpse. He had often said
to me: "I am not long for this world," and I had thought his words idle.
Now I knew they were true. Every night as I gazed up at the window
I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded
strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word
simony in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some
maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to
be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.

Old Cotter was sitting at the fire, smoking, when I came downstairs
to supper. While my aunt was ladling out my stirabout he said, as if
returning to some former remark of his:

"No, I wouldn't say he was exactly... but there was something queer...
there was something uncanny about him. I'll tell you my opinion...."

He began to puff at his pipe, no doubt arranging his opinion in his
mind. Tiresome old fool! When we knew him first he used to be rather
interesting, talking of faints and worms; but I soon grew tired of him
and his endless stories about the distillery.

"I have my own theory about it," he said. "I think it was one of
those... peculiar cases.... But it's hard to say...."

He began to puff again at his pipe without giving us his theory. My
uncle saw me staring and said to me:

"Well, so your old friend is gone, you'll be sorry to hear."

"Who?" said I.

"Father Flynn."

"Is he dead?"

"Mr. Cotter here has just told us. He was passing by the house."

I knew that I was under observation so I continued eating as if the news
had not interested me. My uncle explained to old Cotter.

"The youngster and he were great friends. The old chap taught him a
great deal, mind you; and they say he had a great wish for him."

"God have mercy on his soul," said my aunt piously.

Old Cotter looked at me for a while. I felt that his little beady black
eyes were examining me but I would not satisfy him by looking up from my
plate. He returned to his pipe and finally spat rudely into the grate.

"I wouldn't like children of mine," he said, "to have too much to say to
a man like that."

"How do you mean, Mr. Cotter?" asked my aunt.

"What I mean is," said old Cotter, "it's bad for children. My idea is:
let a young lad run about and play with young lads of his own age and
not be... Am I right, Jack?"

"That's my principle, too," said my uncle. "Let him learn to box his
corner. That's what I'm always saying to that Rosicrucian there: take
exercise. Why, when I was a nipper every morning of my life I had a cold
bath, winter and summer. And that's what stands to me now. Education
is all very fine and large.... Mr. Cotter might take a pick of that leg
mutton," he added to my aunt.

"No, no, not for me," said old Cotter.

My aunt brought the dish from the safe and put it on the table.

"But why do you think it's not good for children, Mr. Cotter?" she
asked.

"It's bad for children," said old Cotter, "because their mind are so
impressionable. When children see things like that, you know, it has an
effect...."

I crammed my mouth with stirabout for fear I might give utterance to my
anger. Tiresome old red-nosed imbecile!

It was late when I fell asleep. Though I was angry with old Cotter for
alluding to me as a child, I puzzled my head to extract meaning from his
unfinished sentences. In the dark of my room I imagined that I saw again
the heavy grey face of the paralytic. I drew the blankets over my head
and tried to think of Christmas. But the grey face still followed me. It
murmured, and I understood that it desired to confess something. I felt
my soul receding into some pleasant and vicious region; and there again
I found it waiting for me. It began to confess to me in a murmuring
voice and I wondered why it smiled continually and why the lips were so
moist with spittle. But then I remembered that it had died of paralysis
and I felt that I too was smiling feebly as if to absolve the simoniac
of his sin.

Titles can be interesting, and here we could ask about Joyce naming the story for the sisters. But you'll have a lot more to say about these first two scenes, I'm sure.



Mon Mar 25, 2013 6:39 am
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Post Re: Dubliners - "The Sisters" (Story 1 of 15)
This is my second time reading Dubliners. The first time I read it I stayed on the surface, reading each story as a little vignette or snapshot capturing a moment of life in Dublin. As soon as I read the opening of Sisters and got to the word 'paralysis' and the other two words the boy associates with it, gnomon and simony, I began to grasp a second way to understand the story - the paralysis of being caught between the secular and the religious. The narrator locates the word gnomon as being in the Euclid (western secular thought) and simony in the Catechism (Catholicism). After reading Sisters last night I was trolling around on the Wikipedia and followed a link to the poet Gerard Hopkins Manley (28 July 1844 – 8 June 1889) an English poet I like very much. I have read his poetry, but knew little of him other than that he was a priest. To my surprise he spent the last years of his life in Dublin and was very conflicted between his religious commitment to the Catholic church and his art. Here is a little clip from Wikipedia:

As a devout Jesuit, he found himself in an artistic dilemma. To subdue any egotism which would violate the humility required by his religious position, he decided never to publish his poems. But Hopkins realized that any true poet requires an audience for criticism and encouragement. This conflict between his religious obligations and his poetic talent caused him to feel that he had failed them both.



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Post Re: Dubliners - "The Sisters" (Story 1 of 15)
That is an interesting take on paralysis. The fact that Joyce starts off with such a situation seems to have made readers more likely to see it as a theme of all the stories, to an extent.

We're not told how old the boy is, and in fact it seems that Joyce withholds many details that other writers might include. What he omits seems as important as what he puts in. I like the sparseness of description; I find that I still have a picture of the surroundings despite the economizing.

The boy (we're not told his name, and he doesn't seem to be of much interest to the adults) could be someone who grows up to be like Stephen Daedalus in Portrait of the Artist. He has developed an unusual appreciation of the mystery of words, as a few kids have around the age of, what, 12 or 13?

The boy's a poet, too. At least when I read the first paragraph I receive those signals that tell me that something more than prose is going on here; there's a high degree of intention in the arrangement of sounds and in the rhythms of the lines. I tried to recast the paragraph in lines to see if it might "work" as a poem. The arrangement might not be good, but I think it does make a credible poem.

THERE was no hope for him this time:
it was the third stroke. Night
after night I had passed the house (it was vacation time)
and studied the lighted square of window:
and night after night I had found it
lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly.
If he was dead, I thought,
I would see the reflection of candles on the darkened blind
for I knew that two candles must be set
at the head of a corpse. He had often said to me:
"I am not long for this world,"
and I had thought his words idle.
Now I knew they were true.
Every night as I gazed up at the window
I said softly to myself the word paralysis.
It had always sounded
strangely in my ears,
like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word
simony in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me
like the name of some maleficent and sinful being.
It filled me with fear, and yet I longed
to be nearer to it
and to look upon its deadly work.

Interestingly, Joyce's actual, published poetry has none of this boldness and originality. For example, randomly chosen from Chamber Music:
O cool is the valley now
And there, love, will we go
For many a choir is singing now
Where Love did sometime go.
And hear you not the thrushes calling,
Calling us away?
O cool and pleasant is the valley
And there, love, will we stay.

This is musical indeed, but derivative as well. And in fact, Joyce himself seemed to know that he lacked fire in his poetry. He wrote to a friend: "a page of A Little Cloud gives me more pleasure than all my verses."

Did you notice that the boy has no parents but has a Father? Yikes.

The story starts out as though we're going to be seeing things filtered through the boy's eyes, and we get his commentary in the early going. But one of Joyce's methods seems to be to alter the narrative perspective at will, and we might notice him doing that later on.

I'm running my mouth at random, but one last thing, about the Church. By this time, having heard for years about the Church in Ireland through literature, film, and of course the news, it would take a lot to erase the impression I have of it. That impression is thoroughly negative and bleak. It's not likely to become any sunnier from reading Joyce's 15 stories.



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Post Re: Dubliners - "The Sisters" (Story 1 of 15)
"That's my principle, too," said my uncle. "Let him learn to box his
corner. That's what I'm always saying to that Rosicrucian there: take
exercise."


I'm curious about this line early in the story ... "The Sisters" narrative is about death in an Irish Catholic setting - "he had a beautiful death" Eliza says, which is a line I really like. But why does the uncle make this reference to Rosicrucians and who is he referring too as 'that Rosicrucian? the boy? the aunt? It may not be meaningful in the story, but my limited knowledge of Rosicrucians as protestant and occult makes me feel that this reference is out of place in this otherwise Catholic setting and I feel that Joyce had some purpose for including it. Maybe it was an insult or put-down to call someone a Rosicrucian, like calling someone a witch ?



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Post Re: Dubliners - "The Sisters" (Story 1 of 15)
giselle wrote:
"That's my principle, too," said my uncle. "Let him learn to box his
corner. That's what I'm always saying to that Rosicrucian there: take
exercise."


I'm curious about this line early in the story ... "The Sisters" narrative is about death in an Irish Catholic setting - "he had a beautiful death" Eliza says, which is a line I really like. But why does the uncle make this reference to Rosicrucians and who is he referring too as 'that Rosicrucian? the boy? the aunt? It may not be meaningful in the story, but my limited knowledge of Rosicrucian as protestant and occult makes me feel that this reference is out of place in this otherwise Catholic setting and I feel that Joyce had some purpose for including it. Maybe it was an insult or put-down to call someone a Rosicrucian, like calling someone a witch ?


Let's look at the whole piece of text in which Rosicrucian appears.

Quote:
"What I mean is," said old Cotter, "it's bad for children. My idea is: let a young lad run about and play with young lads of his own age and not be... Am I right, Jack?"

"That's my principle, too," said my uncle. "Let him learn to box his corner. That's what I'm always saying to that Rosicrucian there: take exercise. Why, when I was a nipper every morning of my life I had a cold bath, winter and summer. And that's what stands to me now. Education is all very fine and large.... Mr. Cotter might take a pick of that leg mutton," he added to my aunt.

"No, no, not for me," said old Cotter.

My aunt brought the dish from the safe and put it on the table.

"But why do you think it's not good for children, Mr. Cotter?" she asked.

"It's bad for children," said old Cotter, "because their mind are so impressionable. When children see things like that, you know, it has an effect...."


And now the definition of Rosicrucian from the website The Free Dictionary:
1. A member of an international organization, especially the Ancient Mystic Order Rosae Crucis and the Rosicrucian Order, devoted to the study of ancient mystical, philosophical, and religious doctrines and concerned with the application of these doctrines to modern life.
2. A member of any of several secret organizations or orders of the 17th and 18th centuries concerned with the study of religious mysticism and professing esoteric religious beliefs.

And from Wikipedia:
Rosicrucianism was associated with Protestantism, Lutheranism in particular,[4] and the manifestos opposed Roman Catholicism and its preference for dogma over empiricism.

Cotter and the boy's uncle are discussing the boy, so I think the uncle is referring to the boy when he says, "That's what I'm always saying to that Rosicrucian there..." Also the use of the word there indicates something within sight; as if to point. The conversation of the two men is articulating the point of view that philosophical pursuits are not valuable; it will not make money. They even go as far to say that philosophical inquiry or training is damaging to children's minds. If you look at the definitions of Rosicrucian with this in mind, I think Joyce used the term to make his point (I am guessing, so I could be wrong). Stay with me and I will try to make my case. First, he uses the term to highlights the nature of the tutelage going on between the boys and the dead priest, second the divide between the head and body (pursuit of knowledge and leaning and physical work (real work in the eyes of the two men) - this mirrors the set up of the Catholic Church: the priests were the only ones that are supposed to read and interpret the bible (knowledge and learning) and the believers/followers are the body they just do the living and working. Rosicrucian is associated with Protestantism and the taking back of the right to understand and interpret for ones self.

I've got to get to work! I hope I've said enough to make my argument. Amazing how much can balance on one word choice!



Thu Mar 28, 2013 5:57 am
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Post Re: Dubliners - "The Sisters" (Story 1 of 15)
I'm seeing the main quality of this story as something like uncertainty, ambiguity, or mystery. We don't know, first, exactly how the boy feels about the priest who has just died. Does he walk by the priest's window each night because he liked the priest as a mentor of friend? Something more profound or darker is implied by his fascination with words like "gnomon" and "paralysis," and his urge to "look upon its [paralysis] deadly work." The priest's situation seems to be feeding the boy's imagination. We do see that he thinks Old Cotter is a silly old busybody for making disparaging remarks about the priest, so there is probably some loyalty or admiration for what the priest represents. I imagine that bright, unconventional boys often were drawn into the deeper teachings of the Church. it might have been about the only outlet for a thoughtful kid.

I see the "Rosicrucian" as a synonym for a type of abstruse theology that has no practical value, but not meaning to imply that either the boy or the priest were Rosicrucians. It's an exaggeration aimed at the boy, I think. There really seems to be something else on the minds of the adults, something about the priest that is worse in their minds than impractical theologizing. There wouldn't be a need for Old Cotter to have a "theory" about the priest going all mystical, at least I think not. It irritates the boy that Cotter doesn't complete his sentences, only creating innuendos about the dead man. When the boy goes to bed, he then dreams of the priest as a ghoulish and pathetic figure. Is this only the result of what the adults just said, or does the boy harbor his own doubts about the priest? Why would he dream of the priest asking forgiveness of him? There is a hint, in the boy's dream, of a possible sin of simony by the priest, but this sin doesn't seem to fit with what is revealed about the priest by the sisters. We can talk about that scene whenever you're ready....



Last edited by DWill on Thu Mar 28, 2013 8:21 pm, edited 1 time in total.



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Post Re: Dubliners - "The Sisters" (Story 1 of 15)
Saffron wrote:
. . . As soon as I read the opening of Sisters and got to the word 'paralysis' and the other two words the boy associates with it, gnomon and simony, I began to grasp a second way to understand the story - the paralysis of being caught between the secular and the religious.


The boy narrator does seem to be pulled in different directions. We know he spent a lot of time with Father Flynn and that the priest may have encouraged him in the direction of the priesthood. He explained to the boy the meaning of the ceremonies of the mass, the different vestments worn by the priest, the difference between mortal and venial sins, etc.

And then in an early scene Old Cotter seems to be saying its unhealthy for the boy to spend so much time with the old priest, that that a young lad should "run about and play." I can't help but wonder if there are hints of sexual abuse. The narrator describes a scene where the old priest is doing something with his tongue:

"When he smiled he used to uncover his big discoloured teeth and let his tongue lie upon his lower lip--a habit which had made me feel uneasy in the beginning of our acquaintance before I knew him well."

I can't quite make sense of the boy's weird dream when the priest seems to seek forgiveness from him, an inversion of the normal priestly role:

". . . I remembered that it (heavy grey face of the paralytic) had died of paralysis and I felt that I too was smiling feebly as if to absolve the simoniac of his sin."

The tongue-lolling may be only the priest going through the motions of receiving communion and indeed, the priest seems to crave forgiveness as he nears the end of his life. At the end of the story, the two sisters are talking about Father Flynn's accidental breaking of a chalice, an offense that must have been taken serious (though somewhat lessened in this particular case because the chalice was empty). Even so, apparently Father Flynn was deeply disturbed by the incident.

Towards the end of his life, Father Flynn became increasingly nervous and agitated (perhaps in fear for his mortal soul), and one night when they find him in the church confessional by himself "wide awake and laughing-like softly to himself." And the final Irony of the story is the last line that this incident is when they thought "there was something wrong with him."

So was this story a kind of condemnation of a religion that deems a priest can only laugh and be happy if there's something wrong with him? I'm not sure. But it was a creepy and weird story, the kind of story I always like. 8)

On another level it's a coming of age story that reminded me a lot of Hemingway's short story, "The Doctor" where the young boy narrator, Nick Carter Adams, goes with his doctor father to help an Indian woman give birth. And unbeknownst to all, the husband of the Indian woman quietly kills himself during the birth, so it's young Nick Carter's Adam's first experience with death.

Nick Carter? :blush:


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Post Re: Dubliners - "The Sisters" (Story 1 of 15)
DWill wrote:
. . . I see the "Rosicrucian" as a synonym for a type of abstruse theology that has no practical value, but not meaning to imply that either the boy or the priest were Rosicrucians. It's an exaggeration aimed at the boy, I think.


I think you're spot on here. For what it's worth, my Penguin edition has this footnote for the "Rosicrucian" reference:

A jocular if slightly derisive reference to the narrator's interest, as a dreamer and as a possible future ordinand, in the esoteric mysteries of religion. By associating with Father Flynn he seems as if he is receiving an introduction, not completely healthy for one of his tender years, to the cultic and magical aspects of the Church's power, already setting him apart from the rest of mortals. A Rosicrucian is a member of a fraternity of religious mystics which traces its origins to ancient Egypt by way of the probably fictitious fifteenth-century German monk Father Christian Rosenkreutz. There was a revival of interest in the cult in the nineteenth century as conventional religion seemed increasingly unsatisfactory to many minds hungering for mystery and occult powers.

The footnote goes on to say that W.B. Yeats published an essay about Father Rosencreutz in 1895, the year this story was set.


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Post Re: Dubliners - "The Sisters" (Story 1 of 15)
DW wrote:
We don't know, first, exactly how the boy feels about the priest who has just died. Does he walk by the priest's window each night because he liked the priest as a mentor of friend? Something more profound or darker is implied by his fascination with words like "gnomon" and "paralysis," and his urge to "look upon its [paralysis] deadly work."


I agree that the main quality of the story is mystery. At times I feel as frustrated as the boy because so many sentences are left incomplete - I want to know :) An aside: this technique really captures how it feels to be young and listening to the conversation of adults speaking in code and 1/2 sentences. A young mind (at least mine did) tends to filling in the gaps; sometimes in improbable and fantastical ways. As far as how the boy feels about Father Flynn, I know that there is no direct evidence from the boy himself as to how he feels about him, but I found no reason to doubt the perception of the boy's aunt that there was some affection (see quote below). The darkness I feel from the words "paralysis" and "gnomon" come from the association to death and the fear of death. I assumed Father Flynn was paralyzed by the stroke (his 3rd), so it is descriptive of his actual condition as well a building block of the story. When I looked up the word "gnomon" (it is the little triangle or shape that the light of the sun falls on to create the shadow on a sundial to point at the time) I immediately thought of a ghost pointing the way - a foreshadowing of the death and maybe the role of Father Flynn in the boys life. Let me just say, I am aware that I may have over thought this.

Quote:
"Well, so your old friend is gone, you'll be sorry to hear."

"Who?" said I.

"Father Flynn."

"Is he dead?"

"Mr. Cotter here has just told us. He was passing by the house."

I knew that I was under observation so I continued eating as if the news
had not interested me. My uncle explained to old Cotter.

"The youngster and he were great friends. The old chap taught him a
great deal, mind you; and they say he had a great wish for him."


DW wrote:
I see the "Rosicrucian" as a synonym for a type of abstruse theology that has no practical value, but not meaning to imply that either the boy or the priest were Rosicrucians. It's an exaggeration aimed at the boy, I think.
Yes, I did get that and reading your post I see how I missed something. I agree with Geo, you nailed it. I wish I knew more about what was going intellectually in Ireland when Joyce wrote the story. I can't help thinking that some of what Joyce is capturing in the story is the cultural push back against the emergence empiricism and science as the dominate way to understand the world; the attempt to hang onto spiritualism and faith through an interest in mysticism.

Now here is what I want to know:
1. I with Geo: What the heck does the dream mean?
2. What is the supposed simoniac sin that Father Flynn committed? Are there clues in the story?
3. Why did Joyce name the story "The Sisters", why, why, why? (The sisters express only pity and kindness toward their brother and imply that he has been wronged).



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Post Re: Dubliners - "The Sisters" (Story 1 of 15)
Saffron wrote:
. The darkness I feel from the words "paralysis" and "gnomon" come from the association to death and the fear of death. I assumed Father Flynn was paralyzed by the stroke (his 3rd), so it is descriptive of his actual condition as well a building block of the story. When I looked up the word "gnomon" (it is the little triangle or shape that the light of the sun falls on to create the shadow on a sundial to point at the time) I immediately thought of a ghost pointing the way - a foreshadowing of the death and maybe the role of Father Flynn in the boys life. Let me just say, I am aware that I may have over thought this.

Great stuff, both of you. I don't know why, but it floors me to know about 'gnomon.' I thought it wasn't worth looking it up, but the fact that the sundial shadow has a name like that seems to have a significance even if I can't directly relate it to the story. On the boy's ambivalence about Father Flynn, I noted that after the priest's death, the boy says he felt a sense of freedom, but it was a sense that "annoyed" him, in keeping with an overall ambivalence.
Quote:
I found it strange that neither I nor the day seemed in a mourning mood and I felt even annoyed at discovering in myself a sensation of freedom as if I had been freed from something by his death. I wondered at this for, as my uncle had said the night before, he had taught me a great deal. He had studied in the Irish college in Rome and he had taught me to pronounce Latin properly. He had told me stories about the catacombs and about Napoleon Bonaparte, and he had explained to me the meaning of the different ceremonies of the Mass...


About the attitudes of Cotter and the uncle toward the priest, it might be that some men, especially, held an unfavorable view of the priesthood as a being too caught up in meaningless doctrine or speculation. Just because the Church was powerful in Ireland doesn't mean that it was beloved.
Quote:
Now here is what I want to know:
1. I with Geo: What the heck does the dream mean?
2. What is the supposed simoniac sin that Father Flynn committed? Are there clues in the story?
3. Why did Joyce name the story "The Sisters", why, why, why? (The sisters express only pity and kindness toward their brother and imply that he has been wronged).

That's what I like, a person demanding to know something! Can I deliver? Uh, sorry. Not on 1 and 2, at least. The simplest explanation is that the boy dreams because the adults implied that Flynn had done something wrong, and the dream represents the boy's unsuccessful attempt to know what paralyzed priest had done. It's incongruous that the paralyzed priest can smile (and why would he be smiling?), but dreams don't make sense (contra Freud). And the boy smiles back at him, actually has a smile on his face, wanting to absolve the priest of his sin of simony. Who knows, maybe the theory Old cotter had does relate to why Flynn committed some specific impropriety, but the scene at the end with the sisters doesn't seem to support that. Damn this Joyce, why couldn't he make it easier for us? Did he know that there would be book clubs like this and he'd have to give them what they paid for? That brings me to the title. The only answer I have (weak) is that the sisters' lives were devoted to the care and maintenance of their brother, who unlike them had been able to attain a position of some prestige, whereas they remained poor and uneducated. So the story is not theirs, but the effect of the Irish social system fell most heavily on them. That's all I got.

But I am pleased to have picked up on some humor I'd missed. Imagine this story as a film, and there wouldn't be a way to avoid chuckling at such parts as:
Quote:
"Father O'Rourke was in with him a Tuesday and anointed him and prepared him and all."

"He knew then?"

"He was quite resigned."

"He looks quite resigned," said my aunt.

"That's what the woman we had in to wash him said. She said he just looked as if he was asleep, he looked that peaceful and resigned. No one would think he'd make such a beautiful corpse."

"Yes, indeed," said my aunt.

and
Quote:
"Ah, poor James!" said Eliza. "He was no great trouble to us. You wouldn't hear him in the house any more than now.

and
Quote:
If we could only get one of them new-fangled carriages that makes no noise that Father O'Rourke told him about, them with the rheumatic wheels, for the day cheap--he said,


The word I'm coming back to that describes the story is "haunting." The old priest in the confessional, softly laughing to himself, juxtaposed with the scene in the sisters' sitting room, the coffin upstairs containing the "truculent"-looking priest, is kinda spooky, is definitely that way for the boy.

One comment I read on this story said that in the latter part of it, the boy withdraws. We had been prepared in the early going for his reflections on all of the action, but at the sister's house he is mostly silent. I don't agree with that view. In the presence of adults, and on such an occasion as the first death experienced, the boy says about as much as is natural. And he has the important observation at the very end:
Quote:
She stopped suddenly as if to listen. I too listened; but there was no sound in the house: and I knew that the old priest was lying still in his coffin as we had seen him, solemn and truculent in death, an idle chalice on his breast.


I agree with geo that the creepy/weird quality of the story makes it fascinating and helps it be a very good one indeed.



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Post Re: Dubliners - "The Sisters" (Story 1 of 15)
DWill wrote:
The only answer I have (weak) is that the sisters' lives were devoted to the care and maintenance of their brother, who unlike them had been able to attain a position of some prestige, whereas they remained poor and uneducated. So the story is not theirs, but the effect of the Irish social system fell most heavily on them. That's all I got.


Thank you, that does make sense. Not so weak, I think.

DWill wrote:
But I am pleased to have picked up on some humor I'd missed. Imagine this story as a film....


Yes, I definately had a smile on my face reading over the passages you quoted.

DWill wrote:
I agree with geo that the creepy/weird quality of the story makes it fascinating and helps it be a very good one indeed.


I love this story and have read it 3 times this go 'round. Creepy/weird does seem to be the type of short story I like best; which explains my liking Alice Munro. Speaking of her reminds me. I just worked with a family that is basically a living version of her story The Bear Came Over The Mountain, which was the basis for the movie Away From Her. When I first read that story (I know I am so far off track, I can't see land) I did not have the experience with people with dementia as I do now and the story did not seem wholly credible to me. It sure does now!



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Post Re: Dubliners - "The Sisters" (Story 1 of 15)
The boy knows that the priest is on the verge of death and yet he strolls by every night without going in to see him. He's curious but something is holding him back from actively visiting the priest to see if he is ok. Every night he did this he said to himself 'paralysis'.

I really can't see the direct tie in of Gnomon or Simony but I enjoyed reading everyone's thoughts. One deals with the natural world and the other with the buying and selling of divine favor. Neither holds religion in a favorable light and while one brings attention to man's attempt to understand nature, the other shows human weakness and hypocrisy. Could also mean ancient Greek Man/boy sexual relations and the giving of money to keep his mouth shut.

The boy wonders at his emotional detachment, at his pause, I think. He is paralysis and the priest is paralysis. Maybe you guys are right and the check of human knowledge and divine knowledge create some kind of stalemate that generates little or no good.

I'm reading this without any kind of perspective. What's worse - I have my own 2013 perspective that is going to twist what's there. Anyway, I find that the conversation between the boy and the old man "your friend is dead" is strange. The older folks don't really like the priest and find that there's something wrong with him. They give no respect to the dead priest.

When the boy is told the news of the priest's death he feels he needs to hide his concern and his concern is so muted that it seems to take little effort for him.

What Mr. Cotter says, how he cuts of his own sentence, and how the next story develops, it sure does leave an impression of a relationship that was too close for comfort and one that might have scarred the boy some.

Then, "when children see things like that..." See things like that? Not learn things like that. There is a visual instead of describing how certain ideas are past on.

Then all the ...I'm going to my happy place (christmas time) and here I am in a pleasant but vicious region with the priest waiting for him... why the lips were so moist with spittle.

"But then I remembered that it had died of paralysis and I felt that I too was smiling feebly as if to absolve the simoniac of his sin." Sounds like the priest paid him not to tell anyone what he did. Why else describe him in this way?


The odour of the death got me a little. I had flashbacks of the Brothers Karamazov to be honest but the way in which the sentence was constructed made everyone think of a stinky corpse and then - bam - no, the flowers. To me this means that his whole outfit stunk - was a farce.

The questions asked by the priest to the little boy...is this a sin or is it ok? Will god think it's ok and that it's just human weakness???

Nothing is explicit. There is a lot that's here and a lot that there isn't. I think of the Nun by Diderot. How repressed these people are sexually. I think of Rabelais and his portrayal of the clergy, I think of Voltaire, De Sade, Boccaccio, Hugo, Eco... the list is long and these are only authors that I've read - all who write about the depravity of the church. If literature was the only thing left to history - no non-fiction books - then those who would read about us would know that our clergy was the devil.

So, this all points to a man who stroked it too much... 3 times to be exact and he probably had herpes.



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Post Re: Dubliners - "The Sisters" (Story 1 of 15)
geo wrote:
And then in an early scene Old Cotter seems to be saying its unhealthy for the boy to spend so much time with the old priest, that that a young lad should "run about and play." I can't help but wonder if there are hints of sexual abuse. The narrator describes a scene where the old priest is doing something with his tongue:

"When he smiled he used to uncover his big discoloured teeth and let his tongue lie upon his lower lip--a habit which had made me feel uneasy in the beginning of our acquaintance before I knew him well."

I can't quite make sense of the boy's weird dream when the priest seems to seek forgiveness from him, an inversion of the normal priestly role:

". . . I remembered that it (heavy grey face of the paralytic) had died of paralysis and I felt that I too was smiling feebly as if to absolve the simoniac of his sin."

The tongue-lolling may be only the priest going through the motions of receiving communion and indeed, the priest seems to crave forgiveness as he nears the end of his life. At the end of the story, the two sisters are talking about Father Flynn's accidental breaking of a chalice, an offense that must have been taken serious (though somewhat lessened in this particular case because the chalice was empty). Even so, apparently Father Flynn was deeply disturbed by the incident.

Towards the end of his life, Father Flynn became increasingly nervous and agitated (perhaps in fear for his mortal soul), and one night when they find him in the church confessional by himself "wide awake and laughing-like softly to himself." And the final Irony of the story is the last line that this incident is when they thought "there was something wrong with him."


I do agree, there does seem to be a sort of sexual tension when the priest is discussed by any of the characters in the story. The ending is a little confusing, although I can't help but wonder if there's some sort of connection between the boy dreaming of the priest confessing and then the sisters bringing up how the priest was, "sitting up by himself in the dark in his confession-box, wide-awake and laughing-like softly to himself." This connection made me wonder if, firstly, the priest was truly alone in the confession-box, perhaps there was someone on the other side? Secondly, if the boy was trying to escape from some secret that the priest had told (or potentially did) to him.

When the sisters said, "and then his life was, you might say, crossed." I couldn't think of many other ways in which a priests life could be crossed, except for in sexual perversion.

The dream was another indicator of potential sexual abuse or tendencies, for, the boy didn't smile back in the dream until after he remembered that James Flynn was "paralyzed".

"But then I remembered that it had died of paralysis and I felt that I too was smiling feebly as if to absolve the simoniac of his sin."

Perhaps he was absolving him for personal reasons? Or perhaps it is his subconscious trying to piece together sexually implied moments or things said by the priest that he didn't fully understand.

I also found it odd that the boy kept referring to James Flynn as an "it" or "the paralytic", rather than as a human being. Perhaps he used these terms to emotionally or mentally distance himself from the priest, for he appears to only use it when referring to him in his dream.

"It murmured; and I understood that it desired to confess something. I felt my soul receding into some pleasant and vicious region; and there again I found it waiting for me. It began to confess to me in a murmuring voice and I wondered why it smiled continually and why the lips were so moist with spittle."

It may be that the boy distances himself from the idea of James Flynn whenever he is forced to confront Flynn's sin. He may be scared of the truth. It isn't until the last sentence that he begins to call James Flynn a "him" or "his" or a "he" again. He continues to refer to him in a more personal manner again after he "absolve[d] the simoniac of his sin" at the end of his dream. Which could indicate his finally confronting this sexual sin and coming to terms with it, rather than avoiding or being afraid of it, perhaps due to his own lack of understanding of his own sexuality (depending on how young he actually is).

I did end up googling the significance of the chalice in the Catholic religion and came up with this,

"The chalice is a symbol of Holy Communion and the forgiveness of sin won by Christ's blood shed on the cross."

There is more, if you wish to read it at: http://www.catholic-saints.info/catholi ... symbol.htm

If the chalice is a symbol of God's forgiveness of our sins, then perhaps that is why the priest was so devastated by the chalice breaking. The sister's also mysteriously mention that the breaking of the chalice was somehow "...the boy's fault". At first, when I read this, I couldn't understand how it would be the boy's fault, no matter how many times I went over that sentence. However, in light of the idea of the priest having sexual perversions, it suddenly made sense to me that the chalice breaking could only be the boy's fault by inciting those previous passions and sins from the priest. I thought it was interesting that the boy didn't react to Eliza's comment of it being his fault, so it made me wonder if perhaps the boy was only vaguely aware of his affect on the priest (rather than it being outright abuse), thus explaining his mysterious thoughts and feelings toward the priest throughout the book. Perhaps he didn't understand his feelings of discomfort around the priest himself.

I think this entire story is a very gradual unraveling of this ultimate sin that the priest committed. Although, I can't figure out why James Joyce would title it "The Sisters".



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Post Re: Dubliners - "The Sisters" (Story 1 of 15)
Thanks for your interesting comment, LokiMon. The story is suffused in mystery, I think we all agree on that. Perhaps with the passage of time and the revelations of child abuse by priests, we're more likely to attribute that sin to Father Flynn. The story hints at simony as the sin, but it's never made clear what ecclesiastical privileges the priest tried to sell. I read the dream scene as indicating that there was an unusual closeness between the priest and the boy. It could have had a sexual component, as the priest appears to the boy as lascivious as well as ghoulish and creepy. The boy could also have been marked for holy orders by the priest, which would explain why he spent so much time tutoring the boy. so there is a weird reversal of roles in the dream, as the boy becomes the confessor.

I thought that the boy referred to by the sisters as causing the dropping of the chalice was probably the altar boy.

I don't know why Joyce chose "The Sisters" as the title, either. I had thought the reason could be that the sisters' lives were the most affected by having to kowtow to their brother the priest, while they remained poor and uneducated. But that's all I have.



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