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

On one of Joyce’s finest short stories

‘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). Read the rest of this entry

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A Summary and Analysis of James Joyce’s ‘A Painful Case’

On one of Joyce’s most curious stories from Dubliners

Analysing James Joyce is rarely easy. The Irish modernist writer loved ambiguity, the essential mystery and unknowability of everyday life, and the slipperiness of language, and his novels Ulysses and Finnegans Wake certainly attest to the last of these. But before these novels, Joyce wrote a collection of fifteen short stories about life in Ireland’s capital city in the early twentieth century. Dubliners (1914) was Joyce’s first masterpiece, and ‘A Painful Case’ is a miniature masterpiece. You can read ‘A Painful Case’ here.

‘A Painful Case’ appears around two-thirds of the way into the Dubliners collection: it is the eleventh of the fifteen stories. Since Joyce roughly ordered the stories from ‘youth’ to ‘old age’, ‘A Painful Case’ is a story about the onset of late middle age, a time when people have perhaps left it too late to seek love and marriage – or, if they have these things, they will come to realise that they fail to live up to youthful expectation. In summary, ‘A Painful Case’ introduces us to James Duffy, a man who lives on the outskirts of Dublin, in the village of Chapelizod. He is a bachelor, his life somewhat clinical and sterile. He is, in a word ‘saturnine’: gloomy, sluggish, lacking dynamism. But then one day Duffy meets a married woman, Emily Sinico, with whom he strikes up a friendship. They bond over their shared love of classical music and going to concerts, until one day Mrs Sinico appears to make a romantic overture towards Duffy, scaring him off. He breaks off all contact with her, and two years later he reads in the newspaper that she has been killed by a train, having become depressed and taken to drinking. ‘A Painful Case’ ends with Mr Duffy wandering around the city, reflecting miserably on how he is once again alone and has apparently passed up the one chance he had of knowing true love and happiness with someone.

That’s a fairly accurate summary of ‘A Painful Case’, at least from one perspective. But Read the rest of this entry

The Best James Joyce Stories Everyone Should Read

James Joyce’s collection Dubliners (1914) was not an initial commercial success. It sold just 379 copies in its first year of publication, and 120 of those were bought by Joyce himself. Yet Dubliners redefined the short story and is now viewed as a classic work of modernist fiction, with each of its fifteen short stories repaying close analysis. Here are five of Joyce’s very best stories from Dubliners.

The Sisters’. The opening story in the collection, ‘The Sisters’ is unusual in that it is told in the first person, by a young boy whose friendship with a recently deceased Catholic priest, Father Flynn, starts to concern him as the narrator picks up rumours and whispers about the priest’s behaviour and reputation. Did Flynn do something wrong? Joyce doesn’t tell us – but the boy’s dreams and nightmares suggest that he may have been aware of something improper concerning the priest’s actions but, being only a child at the time, Read the rest of this entry