32 pages 1 hour read

James Joyce

The Sisters

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1904

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Sisters”

“The Sisters” is the first story in James Joyce’s 1914 short story collection, Dubliners, considered one of the most important examples of the short story form in the 20th century. Known for a complicated relationship with his native Ireland, Joyce treats the collection’s setting, the city of Dublin, as a complex character. The stories in Dubliners are related to each other, with settings and characters reappearing throughout the collection. While the stories form a cohesive whole, each story is designed to stand alone. “The Sisters” is set in 1895; most of the stories in Dubliners are set at the turn of the century, some years before the book’s publication. The various stories were written (and revised) between 1902 and 1914, when Dubliners was published. “The Sisters” was first published in The Irish Homestead in 1904 and was extensively revised for its inclusion in the collection. This guide focuses on the Dubliners text.

During his career, Joyce developed innovative Modernist techniques, characterized by experimentalism and a conscious break from established modes of writing. His final work, Finnegans Wake (1939), is one of the most experimental works of English literature. As an earlier work, Dubliners is written in a comparatively realistic manner but contains important examples of Modernist literary techniques, like stream of consciousness and free indirect discourse, that Joyce would develop throughout his career. “The Sisters” introduces important themes that recur throughout Dubliners, including the Uncanny Representation of Knowledge, the Psychological Effect of Religious Ritual, and the Layered Notion of Paralysis: Illness and Stasis.

This guide refers to the Norton Critical Edition (2006), with text edited by Hans Walter Gabler. Citations are to line numbers in this edition.

Content Warning: This guide makes minor references to the sexual abuse of children, a subject that is possibly alluded to in the source material. Both the source text and the guide make reference to illness, death, and bereavement. The source text uses the term “a paralytic,” commonly used at the time to describe a person suffering the symptoms of a stroke: This term is quoted directly where necessary.

“The Sisters” is set in 1895. It opens with a reflection on the impending death of a paralyzed man after his third stroke. The narrator describes walking past the house of the dying man each night, checking to see whether he has died. The narrator is looking for the light inside to change from gaslight to candlelight, as candles would be lit following death.

The narrator eats supper with his aunt, uncle, and Mr. Cotter, who are engaged in an ongoing conversation. Cotter’s reflections include vague insinuations about the dying man. The narrator listens, thinking about his dislike of Cotter, before his uncle announces that Father Flynn has died. The conversation that follows, primarily between Cotter and the uncle, reveals that the narrator and Father Flynn had been friends years before, with Flynn acting as a teacher and mentor figure when the narrator was young. Cotter and the narrator’s uncle, Jack, suggest that exercise and playing with children his own age would have been better for the narrator, who becomes increasingly angry. The narrator then describes going to sleep late, after trying to avoid imagining the face of the dead man, who is smilingly attempting to confess something to the narrator.

The next morning, the narrator walks past Flynn’s house and sees the notice of his death posted there. Feeling overwhelmed to see it in writing, the narrator imagines what he would have done had Flynn been alive, going in to bring him a gift of snuff tobacco. Lacking the courage to go inside and view the body, the narrator walks down the street, meditating on Flynn’s death and the subjects they used to discuss: Latin, history, and the ceremonies of the Catholic mass. These reflections include “how complex and mysterious were certain institutions of the church” (130-31) and the ritual of the eucharist.

That evening, the narrator and his aunt visit the house of mourning to see the body. Nannie, one of Flynn’s eponymous sisters, invites them in and they view Flynn’s corpse. They then go downstairs to find Eliza, Flynn’s other sister. They sit down to a glass of sherry and a discussion about the deceased. The aunt asks whether Flynn died peacefully, and is told he did, and that he was resigned to his fate in advance. Eliza also mentions that another priest, Father O’Rourke, had come to anoint Flynn and perform the traditional Catholic last rites earlier in the week.

Nannie does not contribute to the conversation—after she serves refreshments, she soon leans her head against a pillow and seems about to sleep. Eliza says both sisters are exhausted and grateful for Father O’Rourke’s help. The narrator’s aunt comments that both sisters had been very kind to their brother. Eliza turns the conversation toward a change she’d observed in Flynn before his death: “[T]here was something queer coming over him latterly” (253-54). Eliza and the aunt agree that he was “a disappointed man” (275), whose life was “crossed” (274). Eliza pauses, clearly distracted, before suggesting that breaking a chalice, the symbol of the eucharist, was a turning point for Flynn. While the chalice was empty, Eliza seems to consider the event a catalyst for her brother’s decline in mental health and progression toward death. Eliza expands on this theory, recalling a time when Flynn was needed in the night but couldn’t be found. Two other priests found him sitting alone in his confession box in the dark, laughing, and concluded that “something [had] gone wrong with him” (305-07).