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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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The Intellectuals and the Masses: Modernism against the Crowd

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle revisits a classic study of modernist culture and snobbishness

John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939 was published in 1992, over a quarter of a century ago now. The book explores how writers of the early twentieth century – intellectuals as such H. G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, Wyndham Lewis, E. M. Forster, and others – conceived of, and wrote about, the majority of their fellow human beings (the ‘great unwashed’ to use Bulwer-Lytton’s phrase), in disparaging and often jaw-droppingly unsympathetic terms. Carey’s book also shows how this idea of ‘the masses’ was useful to the intellectuals, such as the modernists, in providing them with a mainstream populism which they could then set themselves up in opposition to.

John Carey is one of the greatest living critics. His The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens’ Imagination is one of the few works of criticism on Dickens’s work which not only manages to enter into full imaginative sympathy with its subject but also succeed in actually being rather funny. I read it twice while I was studying for my MA. But The Intellectuals and the Masses is probably Carey’s best-known book, and deserving of a reappraisal now, especially given the widening gulf between the governing classes and the rest of the population, the richer and poorer, the elite and everyone else. Among the many insights Carey’s book provides, there is his fascinating Read the rest of this entry

‘The Walls Do Not Fall’: H. D.’s Trilogy, Modernism, and War

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads a wide-ranging poem about the Second World War

When H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) and her then-husband Richard Aldington walked into a bomb-damaged house during the First World War, Aldington found an abandoned volume of Robert Browning’s poetry and kicked it across the room. What use was poetry in the face of such destruction? But poetry tends to endure in wartime: T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets would largely be written during the next world war, while H. D.’s own poetry would have a curious and poignant afterlife: sections of her poem ‘The Walls Do Not Fall’ (from her long poem Trilogy) were inscribed by an anonymous graffitist among the ruins of the World Trade Center after 9/11.

As Norman Holmes Pearson notes in his introduction to the Carcanet edition of Trilogy which I own, with this long poem – or trilogy of long poems – H. D. was trying to connect the communal experience of the Second World War with her own history and with history in general. Read the rest of this entry