[We also wrote a response-story: Another Cotter Story]
“The Sisters” is the first story in James Joyce’s story collection Dubliners (published 1914; the first version of the story published 1904 in The Irish Homestead. The 1904 version is better).
The story is a recollected first person account. The narrator was a boy at the time of the death of Father James Flynn (July 1st, 1895 [meaning, if the story had been written by that boy in 1904, the boy would be about nine years older, so say somewhere between nineteen and twenty-five]).
The story begins in the boy’s home, where he lives with his Aunt and Uncle and their border, who the narrator refers to as “Old Cotter”. The priest’s death is announced and discussed, with all eyes on the boy who had been close to the priest, and with the boy refusing to look up, outraged by Cotter (“I crammed my mouth with stirabout [a type of oatmeal porridge] for fear I might give utterance to my anger. TIresome old red-nosed impecile!”).
Imbecile though Cotter may be, the boy finds himself straining to understand what Cotter was insinuating with unfinished statements like “It’s bad for children … because their minds are so impressionable. When children see things like that, you know, it has an effect … “
See things like what?
The story proceeds basically chronologically, although much of what is going on is in the boy’s head, so there’s a lot of flashbacks. Well, more like wanderbacks — the whole piece is subdued and a little gloomy like the dark old pre-electric homes it takes place in. The priest had died of “paralysis”. According to many critics, this was meant to imply he died of syphilis. In any case, he seems to have been in some manner of invalidom throughout his friendship with the boy. The priest had taught the boy details about Catholicism, improved his Latin, and generally gave him a glimpse into the scholarly side of his religious tradition. A glimpse which impressed the boy greatly (“The duties of the priest towards the Eucharist and towards the secrecy of the confessional seemed so grave to me that I wondered how anybody had ever found himself the courage to undertake them; … “)
The boy goes with his mother to visit the corpse. The priest had lived with his two sisters, who are both elderly now too. The old sisters are worn out from dealing with his death (one falls asleep during the visit). They are sorry for him, but take some comfort in the peace of his passing. (“‘He had a beautiful death, God be praised.'”) The reader is relieved when the strong odor in the viewing room turns out to be flowers. The sisters had done the best they could for him; they’d been poor; they said “poor James!” remembering the carriage ride to their childhood home he’d still hoped to take with them but never did do.
At the end is something of a punchline.
We’d heard Cotter’s strange hints about the man’s iffiness; and then the boy has this weird dream involving the Orient and ancient velvet curtains and the priest’s desire to confess. And then at the end of the story one of the sisters says, “The duties of the priesthood was too much for him. And then his life was, you might say, crossed.”
And then comes the story of the alter boy and/or Father Flynn breaking a chalice. Not a very important one. But somehow that seems to have been the turning point. And that night Father Flynn disappeared and Father O’Rourke found him eventually in the confession-box: “And what do you think but there he was, sitting up by himself in the dark in his confession-box, wide-awake and laughing-like softly to himself?”
We get another image of the priest “solemn and truculent in death, an idle chalice on his breast.” and Eliza (the sister) saying ” ‘ … So then, of course, when they saw that, that made them think that there was something wrong with him …”
Was it supposed to be clear to readers that Father Flynn had died of syphilis? Was it supposed to be clear to readers that adults in town had some inkling of a venereal death? Was this Cotter’s allusion? That a child shouldn’t hang out with anyone, and particularly a priest, dying of an STD? Were the late-night muttering confession and the dream confession both about some whore-house that undid his perfection and eventually took his life?
Why is the chalice such a big deal? What did the chalice mean to James? The chalice symbolizes the cup that Jesus shared at the Last Supper. The cup of Jesus’s blood, shed for all us poor sinners. Was the point that in life Father Flynn had felt unworthy of that cup but was stuck with it, being a priest and having no other possible life?
The mood is somehow gloomy. How? Is it that I know those houses were dark, or is that made to come alive by the work itself? The conversations all seem subdued. The closest thing to vim and vigor is the little exchange where old Cotter recommends boys run around with other boys “and not be … ” , and the boy’s uncle agrees with a kind of funny line, “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 me now. …”
There’s an oppression hanging over the story. With the boy refusing to look up while the adults eye him for a response to the priest’s death. With Old Cotter’s insinuations that there was some flaw in the priest that a boy would’ve done well to stay away from. With the boy’s recollection of a paralytic old man spilling snuff all over his great coat and lolling back with his “big discolored teeth” showing and his tongue lying “upon his lower lip” — little pauses of disgusting decrepitude mixed into the priest’s display of the intellectual marvels of the church. With the boy and his aunt alone next to one passed-out and one downcast spinster. With the corpse: “His face was very truculent, grey and massive, with black cavernous nostrils and circled by scanty white fur. There was a heavy odour in the room–flowers.” Even the smell of flowers, though a relief for those who thought that sentence might be describing some mustier and deader scent, adds to the heaviness of the air in the room and thus to the scene.
The characters, with the exception of Old Cotter, are likable. The aunt, uncle, and two sisters seem kind, gentle, hardworking, valiant somehow. Dutiful and understated. What about the priest? He seems broken and desperate for a friend and audience. And the boy? Seems like a boy who is observing, watching, listening, waiting. A boy in a somber space where playfulness makes little sense and so stuck with the other option left children: quiet slightly mystified observation of this giant grown-up world that is slowly overtaking and sweeping his world along. He’s not yet old enough for the gentle resignation of the adults. Even Old Cotter isn’t so bad, though he is, as the narrator states — still apparently peeved at the old codger — something of a self-important old humbug.
The mood is, as we’ve mentioned, rather gloomy and dark. But, thanks to the kindliness of the characters, also kind of gentle and safe.
The language is straight-forward. The narrator does not always “show”, but sometimes just says, for example, that the priest’s sister “seemed to be somewhat disappointed at my refusal … ” of the crackers. Although, that sentence ends with “and went over quietly to the sofa where she sat down behind the sister”, which, combined with “disappointed”, does kind of paint a picture of a short walk that seems longer, since the shoulders sag and the pace lags.
He uses “truculent” more than once to describe the priest’s corpse. It is a word that doesn’t really fit with the general consensus that he looks “resigned” in death. Truculent means argumentative. And so where the adults see calm acceptance, the boy seems to see obstreperous defiance. Why? What’s the secret rebellion that the boy knew of but the adults missed? He was, as his sisters say, disappointed in life, but maybe he demonstrated more resentment at and disagreement with the world’s assessment of him while speaking with the child. Or maybe it’s that no one else had taken the time to listen to him in so long that no one else heard the “no, I’m not just this sad story!” that imbued his lectures to the impressionable lad.
From my notes after the initial (at least recently) reading:
Nowadays if people insinuate there’s something off about a priest who likes to hang out with boys and loses it after he and an alter boy fumble a chalice, the first thing they think is sexual abuse of minors. But at the time this story was written, that was probably not the case.
The gross description of the snuff box, stained teeth, and snuff dust all down his coat. Playing with the boy’s mind — impressing him. A friend and teacher but still relieved when he dies. What’s the weight? Just to not have to hang out in the dark with a sad invalid?
The story is told gently, faithfully. We do not lose the perspective of a child watching adults very keenly.
His uncle’s pride at his own active youth. But that the character remains a lightness and gentleness, particularly with the silly needling “that Rosicrucian”.
What had the priest taught him? How to pronounce Latin. Stores of catacombs and Bonaparte. Meaning of different ceremonies of mass. Teased him with quizzes about mortal, venial, and mere imperfection. Complexity of church. Youth amazed at what it takes to get the Eucharist and etc just right.
Nannie’s ill-hooked skirt and her worn boots distracting the boy as he means to pray by the corpse. (Nannie is the sister that eventually falls asleep during the visit.)
Glad of his beautiful death. Redeems him? Proves that he did have a spiritual nature and calling after all?
(Eliza[the sister who stayed awake]) Repeated “so” in her explanation of his sad story (at the end).
Author: CG Triolog
Editorial Team: B Willard with A Whistletown
Copyright: AM Watson