Middle of Nowhere Productions

Middle of Nowhere Productions

Joyce. Dubliners. The sisters

The Sisters.

 

 

The story is set in Dublin at the beginning of the XXth Century (skip that next time, since all those stories are set in Dublin at the beginning of the XXth Century)

A boy, who must be about sixteen, learns about the death of a retired priest who was, in a certain way, his friend and mentor. He then goes with his aunt to visit the priest’s house, actually the priest’s sisters’ house, to pay his respects to the departed.

The stylistic interest of the story, narrated by the unnamed boy, lies in the alternance between the boy’s inner thoughts and the dialogues of the different protagonists, ending in an almost-disappearance of the first-person narration. A special emphasis is laid on ellipses, silences and things untold, or only hinted at. The other interest lies in the underlying criticism of the weight of the Catholic Church on the Irish society of the time.

 

The text falls into four parts:

*An introductory inner monologue, in which the main characters (the narrator and the priest) are        only elliptically evoked.

*The description of the evening at the narrator’s uncle and aunt’s, where the plot is made clearer.

*The night and following morning, devoted to the narrator’s thoughts and memories about the old priest and his death.

*The visit to the house of mourning, and the dialogue between “the sisters” and the aunt about the dead priest.

 

The story is centered on the relationship between the narrator and the old priest. In the opening monologue, the thing is made clear (although no indication is yet provided on the identities of the characters) by the abundance of first-person and third-person pronouns:

There was no hope for him

I had passed

I had found

If he was dead

I thought

I would see

He had often said to me (p.1)

The interplay between the moments when the narrator is alone and delivers his thoughts (stream of consciousness) and those when he is with the other characters and relates their words in direct speech is subtle. For example, Old Cotter’s first words about Father Flynn echo and prolong the reader’s ignorance of who the story is about:

I wouldn’t say he was exactly…

…there was something uncanny about him.(p.1)

The elliptical utterances and the suspension marks add to the mystery, along with the vocabulary : queer, uncanny.

The suspension marks are also present in the last sequence, marking not only the hesitation of the speakers, but actually replacing missing words:

Did he…peacefully? (p.7)

And everything… (p.7)

They are also present in the narrator’s monologue:

…But I could not remember the end of the dream.(p.6)

 

Some elements of the setting (places and time) have a symbolic importance.

The priest and his sister’s house is situated in Great Britain Street and they  were born in Irishtown, one of Dublin’s most impoverished boroughs. There is here, obviously, a political reference, reinforced by the fact that the priest’s death occurs on the anniversary of England’s victory over Ireland in 1690. The battle of the Boyne took place on July 12th, but the original date is July, 1st in the old style julian calendar. The importance of dates is doubled: the visitation takes place on July 2nd, the day of the feast of the Visitation. This feast commemorates the visit of the Blessed Virgin to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, the namesake of Eliza, the priest's talkative sister. Since Mary is herself pregnant, this is the first recorded visit by Jesus to anyone.

 

The story is, obviously, about religion, but not only through the explicit mentions of the priest, priesthood, the mass, the breviary etc. There are strong symbolic elements as well.

The first are typographically marked in the opening monologue: paralysis, gnomon, simony. Only one of them refers to religion, simony, but they are three, which can make one think about the Holy Trinity. Other triads corroborate the symbolic value of those three words in italics: There are, apart from the narrator, three characters in the first scene, (the aunt, the uncle and Old Cotter) three in the second (two poor women and a telegram boy p.3) and three in the last scene (the aunt and the two sisters).

Those two spinster sisters, in a childless house whose ground floor is occupied by an unassuming shop containing children’s bootees (p.3,) can be understood as nuns. The sign umbrellas recovered may be a reference to the Dublin slang term for diaphragm, umbrella, emphasizing their childlessness. They can also remind of Lazarus’s two sisters Martha and Mary in Luke’s gospel.

The final sequence obviously refers to the Holy Communion, but not totally performed. The boy, who (p.3) dreamt that he was smiling in order to absolve the simoniac of his sin, is once again acting as a priest (also note the uncle’s statements on p.2: they say he had a great wish for him and that Rosicrucian here.) He does taste the sherry, here an image of the Holy Wine, but does not eat the cream cracker, an image of the consecrated wafer. The Eucharist, actually mentioned on p.5, and in the numerous mentions of the chalice, is also symbolically present in the High Toast , p.4 (note the double meaning of the brand name) that the boy brings to Father Flynn every week, just like a priest brings communion weekly to a sick person. It can also be seen in the priest’s way of smiling: he used to uncover his big discoloured teeth and let his tongue lie upon his lower lip (5,) recalling the way Catholics used to receive the wafer from the priest.

 

More precisely, and the word paralysis and gnomon are here symbolically important, (simony is explicit) the story is about the deterioration of the Catholic faith and doctrine. The priest is himself an allegory of that paralysis. The word gnomon can be understood as a loss, and more precisely as a loss of faith. The same missing part affects the last sequence, with its truncated communion. It affects the relationship between the boy and Father Flynn: the old priest is presented by his uncle as your old friend (p.2) but the boy answers Who? Likewise, the boy does not express any emotion ; all he feels is curiosity (p.1) or liberation: I felt even annoyed at discovering in myself a sensation of freedom as if I had been freed from something by his death (p.4) Once again, the figure of the gnomon, the missing piece, reappears. The priest has obviouly been once and for all rejected into the past, as the numerous pluperfects and used to demonstrate on page 5.

 

Last but not least, the gnomon figure affects all the silences present in the text: the word silence, reiterated several times, characters keeping from talking, gestual language, ellipses, suspension marks, the fear of making noise, and above all the priest’s open mouth and his silent laugh inside the confessional. The secrecy of the confessional (p.5) and Eliza’s fear of having been heard by her dead brother (She stopped suddenly as if to listen. I too listened; but there was no sound in the house: and I knew that the old priest was lying still in his coffin…p.10) coalesce the two sides of the Irish paralysis Joyce wants to aim at: Religion and Britain. Both had the same effect on the Irish: silencing them



20/11/2009
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