Literature

A Summary and Analysis of James Joyce’s ‘The Sisters’

By Dr Oliver Tearle

‘The Sisters’ is the opening story in James Joyce’s 1914 collection, Dubliners. Unlike the other stories in the collection, it is told in the first person, by a young man recalling his friendship, as a boy, with a Catholic priest. As this very brief summary of the story would suggest, there is something odd in the story being given the title ‘The Sisters’, since the two sisters are actually not the central focus of the story. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before we get to a summary and analysis of the story, here it is: you can read ‘The Sisters’ here.

Modernist literature, of which James Joyce is a key exponent, is often marked by gaps, ellipses (…), innuendos and insinuations, things unspoken but implied. In choosing to use first-person narration rather than a less limited (or ‘omniscient’) third-person narrator, Joyce, in ‘The Sisters’, immediately restricts the field of knowledge of his narrator. And by making his narrator and protagonist a young boy, who has been shielded (locked away?) from the realities of the adult world by his parents and by institutions like the Catholic Church, Joyce intensifies this ignorance or innocence. It’s hardly any wonder there are so many half-caught things in ‘The Sisters’, things which Joyce’s narrator – and we as readers – have been left to analyse, complete, and make sense of (or attempt to).

Modernist fiction is often less concerned with plot than with character, mood, and impression. Here, too, ‘The Sisters’ can be analysed as a representative example of modernism: nothing much happens in the course of the story, and the plot is easy enough to summarise – if ‘plot’ is quite the right word here. A young boy reacts to the news that the Catholic priest Father Flynn, with whom he appears to have shared some kind of friendship, has died, reportedly of ‘paralysis’, suggesting a possible stroke as the cause of death. Flynn’s death, and the snatches of conversation the narrator overhears as the young boy’s aunt and uncle and neighbours discuss the priest in muted terms, prompt the narrator to reassess his friendship with the Catholic priest, wondering what the unspecified ‘sin’ was that Flynn appears to have been guilty of.

The story is a masterclass in subtle symbolism. Note how many times mouths are referenced in the course of this short story: the narrator crams his mouth with stirabout (an Irish word for porridge) when he overhears Old Cotter talking with his aunt and uncle about Father Flynn. Old Cotter, for his part, spits into the grate while smoking his pipe and indirectly badmouthing the dead priest. When the narrator has a nightmare in which the face of Father Flynn appears to him, he wonders why ‘the lips were so moist with spittle’. ‘The Sisters’ is a decidedly oral text. Mouths are used to sin, of course, but also to confess sin. But no confession is forthcoming.

And then there’s the eating:

In the little room downstairs we found Eliza seated in his arm-chair in state. I groped my way towards my usual chair in the corner while Nannie went to the sideboard and brought out a decanter of sherry and some wine-glasses. She set these on the table and invited us to take a little glass of wine. Then, at her sister’s bidding, she filled out the sherry into the glasses and passed them to us. She pressed me to take some cream crackers also but I declined because I thought I would make too much noise eating them. She seemed to be somewhat disappointed at my refusal and went over quietly to the sofa where she sat down behind her sister. No one spoke: we all gazed at the empty fireplace.

We have wine and wafers here, but this is no Holy Communion or Eucharist, that Catholic ritual which Father Flynn would have administered hundreds of times during his life. Instead, the sherry and crackers are a sort of secular reminder of this tradition, but a sidestepping of it. Father Flynn’s funeral wake is a solemn but an undercooked affair, and the ritual meant to mark his death and celebrate his life is marked by a lack of mourners. Something unsavoury appears to surround him.

And Catholicism is an important part of Old Ireland, the outdated and paralysed country which James Joyce, in ‘The Sisters’ as in the rest of Dubliners, wants to wake from its slumber and bring into the modern age. ‘The Sisters’ ends on an ellipsis: ‘“Wide-awake and laughing-like to himself. . . . So then, of course, when they saw that, that made them think that there was something gone wrong with him. . . . ”’ But it is also a story built on ellipses, on what doesn’t get said, for whatever reason – whether because people don’t know certain things, or because they daren’t say them. In the last analysis, ‘The Sisters’ is a fine story about negatives, about not knowing and not saying, and says it (or doesn’t say it) beautifully, unnervingly, brilliantly.

About James Joyce

James Joyce (1882-1941) is one of the most important modernist writers of the early twentieth century. His reputation largely rests on just four works: a short story collection Dubliners (1914), and three novels: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Ulysses (1922), and Finnegans Wake (1939). Each of these works represents a development from the last, with Joyce’s writing becoming increasingly experimental, obscure, and challenging.

Like his fellow countryman, the Irish poet W. B. Yeats, Joyce writes about the country he knew so well: Ireland, the country of his birth. But unlike Yeats, Joyce had no time for the romantic vision of Ireland encapsulated by the Celtic Twilight. Joyce said that he wrote the short stories that make up Dubliners in order to give Ireland one good look at itself in the mirror: his vision of Ireland is an unflinchingly realist ‘warts and all’ depiction of a country which, especially in those early works, seems gripped by a paralysis (a key word for Dubliners) that is partly a result of the country’s obsession with its own past and with Catholicism. It’s telling that Joyce spent much of his adult life living outside of his native Ireland, on the Continent, where he could absorb French literary influences which would be so important for his development as a novelist.

For more discussion of James Joyce, see our analysis of Joyce’s ‘An Encounter’, our commentary on ‘Araby’, our analysis and summary of James Joyce’s short story ‘Clay’, and our introduction to free indirect style.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.