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 of mutton, he added to my aunt.

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

My aunt brought the dish from the safe and laid 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 minds 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!

This extract is from ‘The Sisters’ which is the first story from James Joyce 1914 collection titled Dubliners. It is a first person narrative that contrasts a young boy’s reaction to the death of his friend, the neighbourhood priest, with the reaction of the adults.Joyce uses a stream of consciousness to portray that this is the unnamed narrator’s first conscious encounter with the death of someone close. This is evidenced particularly in the first paragraph where the boy reacts to Father Flynn’s claims of “I am not long for this world” as being “idle” talk. This not only shows Father Flynn’s recognition of the degeneration of his health, but also a naivety on the young boy’s part. This sense of naivety is strengthened by his admission “now I knew they were true” suggesting not only his recognition of his past innocence but also his maturity about the mortal nature of life. The idea of a change in his views towards mortality is further enforced by his change in attitude towards the word “paralysis” where previously the word sounded strange to him because he was not familiar with it. But now that he has experienced the physical connotations of the word it sounds to him like a “maleficent and sinful being.” Despite this he develops a morbid curiosity about paralysis and death as he states that he “longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.” His morbid curiosity has two implications, both of which are possible: firstly, he wishes to look upon the thing that is in the process of taking the life of a good friend, secondly, he recognises his own mortality and wishes to know more about it.

Over the course of the rest of the extract it becomes apparent that the boy is living with his aunt and uncle, which would suggest that he has already experienced the loss of his parents. The exact fate of his parents is not made clear but there is a strong suggestion that he has experienced their deaths previously, which would explain his reaction to Father Flynn’s mortality, as he is being robbed of another mentor figure. On the other hand, he could have lost his parents when he was very young and likely has no memory of it, which would explain his conflicted reaction that is portrayed in the first paragraph.

While the first paragraph is an internal monologue that sets up the narrator’s feelings about mortality, the subsequent paragraphs in this extract deals with an atypical scene of a family having breakfast. One of the first characters that are introduced in this scene is Old Cotter, and the narrator presents his dialogue by using ellipses which connotes that he is having difficulty expressing his opinions. The explanation for these ellipses is that he does not wish disrespect Father Flynn in front of the narrator, especially as it is made clear that he thinks there was “something queer” and “something strange” about him. Old Cotter’s comments annoy our narrator who labels him a “tiresome old fool” and immediately places Old Cotter into the role of an antagonist in this extract. Of particular interest is the use of the word “old” as Father Flynn died of illnesses bought about by old age as well. Yet the narrator does not hold Old Cotter in the same high esteem and the reason for this put forth is that he grew tired of “his endless stories about the distillery”.

At this point the uncle confirms the narrator’s fears about Father Flynn’s passing. What is interesting in this passage is that he pretends not to understand his uncle’s statement: “you’re old friend is gone”. The reason for his feigned ignorance is made clear in his claims that he knew he was “under observation” which would suggest that the boy feels that the elders think that he should be ashamed of his friendship with the priest. However it is possible that the elders are wary of how the boy takes the news of the death of a friend and do not wish to upset him.

His uncle’s acknowledgement of Father Flynn’s importance to the narrator is shared by the aunt as she says “piously”: “God have mercy on his soul.” The narrator’s description of his aunt saying this “piously” is in stark contrast to the mostly secular reaction to the death that has been portrayed thus far. The specificity of the aunt being pious brings further attention to Old Cotter’s relative disrespect for the dead symbolised by his action of spitting “rudely” into the grate upon failing to discern a reaction from the boy to the news of the death. The aunt’s piousness is coupled by the uncle describing the narrator as “Rosicrucian” which is the strongest implication of the boy’s interests in theology and that he was possibly influenced by the priest into pursuing a religious path.

The use of the word “Rosicrucian” is also significant because it stands out from the passage where the uncle is rationalising his disapproval of the friendship between the boy and the priest on the grounds that “a young lad [should] run about and play with young lads of his own age”.  The uncle’s agreement with Old Cotter about this aspect of youth is of particular importance to the theme of mortality. They present the secular view to life and death as opposed to the religious views of the narrator and Father Flynn. While the latter two are wary of their mortality and afraid of the unknown after-life, Old Cotter and the uncle seem to be of the opinion that since the narrator is young he should make the most of his youth and be concerned with living his young life and not worry too much about death.

Old Cotter and the uncle are also afraid what effects being exposed to an infirm paralysed priest might have on the youthful mind of the narrator, as Old Cotter explains, “it’s bad for children, because their minds are so impressionable. When children see things like that, you know, it has an effect”. This clearly enrages the narrator as he informs the reader that he “crammed his mouth with stirabout for fear I might give utterance to my anger”. His anger at Old Cotter is further amplified by his repetition of the phrase “tiresome old red-nosed imbecile”. His anger seems to be unfounded as the elders fears are proved to be right, because the experience has had an effect on him. The effect is made explicitly clear in the first paragraph in this extract where he expresses a morbid curiosity about death. Thus his anger and reaction to the death of the priest justifies the adults’ fears about the effects of mortality on the young and impressionable: instead of taking advantage of the opportunities provided by his youth, the narrator is now far more concerned about his and other people’s mortality.

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