Printer Friendly

Not "too much noise": Joyce's "The Sisters" in Irish Catholic perspective.

The famous first story of Joyce's Dubliners is a triumph of "technique as discovery."(1) All aspects of "The Sisters" delineate theme. Imagery, irony, structure, point of view, tone, archetypes, and underlying myths: they unite to delineate a human relationship distorted by inadequate love. Interpreters of the story have tended to take their lead from the three words that preoccupy the boy at the start: paralysis, gnomon, and simony. Of these, the term most often discussed is "gnomon," a parallelogram from which a section is missing. Most discussions of the word emphasize the missing section, often by way of morally criticizing the retired priest whom the boy, the narrator of the story, has been visiting. But a gnomon is not its missing section; it is what remains after the section has been removed: an irregular geometrical shape in which all lines have parallels. The term "gnomon" may illuminate the structure of Joyce's story, which is a kind of parallelogram--or, at least, a constellation of parallels or correspondences.(2) These involve structure, imagery, and character. All the suggestive parallels in the story ultimately illuminate the central correspondence between the boy and the priest. This correspondence derives its meaning from a subtle interrelationship of psychology, Catholic liturgical form and theology, scriptural myth, and Irish colloquial idiom--an interrelationship that must be appreciated if the story is to be fully understood.

The obvious initial parallel is between the priest and the distillery worker, "old Cotter," who is talking with the boy's uncle when the boy learns of the priest's death. Cotter and the priest are both old. Both tell stories. The priest is a spiritual man by profession and no doubt to some degree personally. So is Cotter, but in a secular sense. He works or worked in a distillery producing 'spirits' and is "red-nosed," a drinker (11). Redness is an association shared with the priest, whose surname, Flynn, is Gaelic for 'red.' The two men have been rivals for the boy's attention. Formerly, old Cotter's distillery stories had been "rather interesting" to the boy, who now considers Cotter a "tiresome old fool" (11). Recently the priest has enjoyed the boy's attention and companionship. Cotter may resent having lost the boy as audience to the priest.

For that reason, Cotter's hesitant criticism of the priest and the boy's relationship with him is initially suspect. In retrospect, however, Cotter's criticism seems based on sound intuition. To the boy's uncle he says of the priest, "I wouldn't say he was exactly . . . but there was something queer . . . there was something uncanny about him. I'll tell you my opinion. . . . " (9-10). Ellipses may indicate pipe-puffing but also the breakdown of language colliding with the conventional respect due a priest and a person recently dead. "'I have my own theory about it,' he said. 'I think it was one of those . . . peculiar cases. . . . But it's hard to say. . . .'" and "'What I mean is, . . . it's hard for children. My idea is: let a young man run about and play with young lads of his own age and not be . . .'" (10). Other hesitations to speak and awkward, respectful silences recur significantly, as we shall see, at the priest's wake. Cotter never manages to articulate precisely what his objection is. And because we know only that the priest has been paralyzed by strokes, we suspect Cotter of ridiculous bias against paralytics, a bias shared apparently by some Joyce critics who see the physical ailment as symbolic of some moral distortion.(3) Not until the end of the story does the reader discover that "something had gone wrong" mentally with the priest (18).

When Cotter makes his criticism, he may seem to suggest that he thinks the priest is homosexual.(4) It is a suggestion heightened by the lustful connotations of the priest's smile--"he used to uncover his big discoloured teeth and let his tongue lie upon his lower lip" (13)--but of course the grotesque smile is merely a consequence of physical paralysis. It seems to symbolize a desire for communion, since at that time a lay Catholic receiving communion extended over his lower lip his tongue, upon which the priest placed the consecrated wafer.(5) Nothing in the story corroborates erotic motivation in the priest, and a homosexual reading diminishes the importance of most of the rest of the story, including its symbolism and implied psychological dimensions. Nevertheless, lust is suggested and it may operate as a metaphor for some other ulterior motive--a nonsexual appetite, hunger, or desire.

This desire may underlie the priest's wish mentioned by the boy's uncle to Cotter: "they say he had a great wish for him" (10). In Irish Catholic idiom, this can only mean that the priest hoped the boy would become a priest. Most critics accept that reading. It explains why he taught the boy "to pronounce Latin properly," why he explained "the meaning of the different ceremonies of the Mass and of the different vestments worn by the priest," and why he asked the boy the sort of questions about morality that are asked seminarians to prepare them for hearing confession (13). If the boy wants to become a priest, he and the priest have a shared interest, which would be a basis for friendship. As far as we know, however, the boy does not share the old man's wish for him.

There is probably a personal motive behind the old priest's desire that the boy become a priest. The priest's sister Eliza says that "his life was, you might say, crossed" and the boy's aunt agrees, "Yes. . . . He was a disappointed man. You could see that." He may have been disappointed because, as his sister says, "he was too scrupulous always. . . . The duties of the priesthood was too much for him" (17). His mental equilibrium was certainly lost after he dropped and broke a chalice during Mass. But the connotations of the statements "His life was . . . crossed" and "He was a disappointed man" are broad, not limited to a single accident that probably happened relatively late in life.(6) Another, extremely likely reason for a priest's being disappointed and his life being crossed is celibacy.

Whether or not he ever regretted not marrying, he may wish he had a child. He does seem to look to the boy as a substitute son, someone to whom he can pass on his knowledge and his priesthood. If the boy were to become a priest, the old priest could 'live on' in him. In this sense--which is, of course, strictly imaginary--the father finds immortality in the son.(7) In anyone--parent or surrogate parent--the desire to live on in a child is pure egotism. Such a desire would render the boy psychologically useful to the priest, reducing him to a means of alleviating unhappiness.

Desire by the priest to live on in his protege as a father through a son seems to receive symbolic corroboration in the sisters' drapery shop selling "mainly . . . children's booties and umbrellas" (11). Umbrellas suggest contraceptives.(8) The suggestion ironically involves the priest, since celibacy is the oldest and surest form of contraception. The symbolic joining of babies with contraception suggests having children without begetting them.

The priest's desire to live on through the boy has further resonance in images that Joyce scatters throughout the story. One is the boy's trying to think of Christmas (11)--the feast of the Incarnation, a birth from nonsexual conception, and an extension into flesh of the sexless eternal begetting by which "Father and Son are consubstantial" (Ulysses 32). Another significant image is the boy's uncle calling him a Rosicrucian because of the interests he shares with the priest (11). From the uncle's joking accusation it follows that, like the boy, the priest is metaphorically a Rosicrucian--a member of a society claiming to have secret knowledge about the transmutation of metals and the prolongation of life. Before dying, a Rosicrucian was expected to initiate his successor. The priest does initiate the boy, in order to effect a sort of transmutation of identity, that of the boy into that of the priest. Eucharistic transubstantiation is another relevant image--the transformation of one thing into another.

Any ulterior motive diminishes friendship. Friendship is spiritual because its essence is love, one of the three 'theological virtues.' An ulterior motive in friendship seeks to exchange something spiritual for nonspiritual gain. Such an exchange fits the definition of simony. The priest's desire to live on in the boy therefore corresponds to the sin whose name is one of the words the boy savors at the start of the story. It is the sin which the priest confesses in the boy's dream (11). Since the priest is probably unconscious of the simoniac nature of the desire underlying his wish that the boy become a priest, there is probably no sin. (Only consciously intended thoughts, words, or deeds can be sins.) But simony would nevertheless serve as a metaphor for the selfishness of his motive.

Strictly speaking, simony requires mutual consent and is sinful for both source and receiver. For that to be so, the boy, too, would have to diminish friendship through an ulterior motive. His motive might involve what he gains in the relationship: attention, some education, and a father figure. He is, after all, an orphan whose mocking uncle is no mentor to encourage the boy's precocious religious-intellectual interests. If these gains are translated into motives, they seem blameless, but the boy also gains something socially. He reveals himself as an intellectual and cultural snob by despising Cotter as an "old imbecile" (11) and "a tiresome old fool" who "spat rudely in the grate" (10). In switching allegiance from Cotter to the priest, the boy has gained intellectual and social prestige, which, translated into motive, is not a consequence of the boy's psychological deprivation and consequently seems blameworthy. In gaining prestige he resembles the priest.

Because he is a priest, Father Flynn is of the professional middle class. But he was originally working-class like Cotter. The Flynns are from Irishtown, the impoverished section of Dublin south of the Liffey. Through his seminary education--especially since he received it at the prestigious Irish College in Rome--he rose out of his lower-class background, which can still be heard in the faulty grammar and malapropisms of his sister's speech.(9) And by being ordained he acquired the privilege and respect accorded priests in Ireland and elsewhere. Many Irish youths became priests to gain social respectability and comfort. If they did so consciously, they were guilty of simony--as would be fictional Father Flynn if he knowingly became a priest for these reasons. The inclinations of the protagonists of Stephen Hero and A Portrait of the Artist to become priests are, we know, simoniac.(10)

Of the three suggestive terms in the first paragraph of the story, "simony" has been the most problematic for interpreters, convincing many moralists among them that the priest literally committed the sin although they find it difficult to say when or how.(11) His becoming a priest may be the instance of simony that they have sought to discover. Later we shall see that there is evidence to corroborate this.

In the recent past of the narrative, the boy's ulterior motive matches that of the priest. The boy's desire for prestige and the desire to live on in the boy are equally egotistical. They diminish true friendship. Like the priest, therefore, the boy is a simoniac--psychologically and not morally if lacking conscious intention. That may be why, in his dream of the priest confessing simony, he joins "the simoniac" in "smiling feebly" (11).

The ulterior motives of the priest and the boy may be so dominant that their friendship is not genuine. From the perspective of the boy, at least, this is initially suggested by his heartless fascination with the priest's disease when he admits, "I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work" (9). It is also suggested when his uncle announces, "Your old friend is gone," and the boy responds, "Who?" (10)--apparently failing even to recognize the priest as a friend. Even if the boy is guarding private feelings from the unwelcome attention of Cotter, his response is remarkably self-centered.

Imaginatively through association and enactment, the relationship of the priest with the boy has succeeded in making the boy symbolically priestly. Like a priest, he hears confession, though only in a dream. His weekly bringing snuff called "High Toast" has, for some readers, recalled the priest distributing Eucharistic bread.(12) Certainly it evokes a priest regularly bringing communion to the sick. At the end of the story, the boy "approached the table"--a verb used in rubrics when the priest "approaches" the altar. At the table the boy sips sherry and declines crackers in what is generally recognized to be Eucharistic symbolism. Only a priest receives the sacrament at the altar (here the table). Marvin Magalaner and others are wrong in saying that the two sisters, acting as priests, officiate at the ceremony (80).(13) The boy acts as the priest because he takes the sherry and drinks it--only the priest then drank the consecrated wine--and he would have taken the cracker in his hand and put it into his own mouth--only priests did that. Confession and communion establish the boy as a symbolic priest.

Confession was then conventionally considered the prelude to receiving communion. The two sacraments are linked and emphasized when the boy wonders at anyone's having "ever found in himself the courage to undertake" duties "so grave" as those of "the priest towards the Eucharist and towards the secrecy of the confessional" (13). In the context of the priest's death, the adjective "grave" here is significant. Confession and the Eucharist probably kill the priest--though it would be more precise to say that the cause of death is probably his neurotic guilt over the broken chalice. He dies on July first, the feast of the Precious Blood, which is what the chalice is made to hold.(14) Throughout the day he would have been reminded of the significance of the feast while reading his breviary. Unlike a defrocked priest, which some critics have wrongly suggested he is, Father Flynn reads the divine office daily, as his sister indicates when she says that lately when she brought him his soup she would find him asleep "with his breviary fallen to the floor" (16). The readings for the office of the day refer constantly to the blood of Jesus or of sacrifice--directly ninety-eight times by my count, and also indirectly through the color red or purple. An antiphon for Vespers of the feast reads, "Judas, who betrayed Him repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver, saying, 'I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.'" This is not healthy reading for a "too scrupulous" priest who has broken a chalice meant to hold the sacramental blood.(15) It seems likely that his awareness of the feast and its significance aggravated his feelings of guilt, which increased his blood pressure and brought on his third, deadly stroke.

As his sister says, the chalice "contained nothing" when it was broken (17). But chalices were considered sacred. They partook imaginatively of the supreme value of what they held during Mass. Only the priest was ever allowed even to touch a chalice. (All that is changed now that lay people give communion and receive under both species: the chalice has lost its magic.) As the priest lies in the coffin, a chalice stands on his chest, as if triumphant over its supine victim.

Confession is meant to alleviate guilt. No doubt the priest did confess breaking the chalice and no doubt he was told that the accident was not a sin. But he continued to feel guilty. When he suffered his emotional collapse, he was found "wide-awake and laughing-like to himself" in his confession box. (The box image recalls the coffin in which he lies while his sister relates this episode.) Symbolically confession and the confessional are images of guilt, since, paradoxically, even by absolving from guilt the sacrament imaginatively affirms as real the guilt of the act committed. When he was found in the confessional, he was "sitting" in the central compartment, where priests sit to hear confession and dispense absolution. (There is nowhere to sit in the adjacent compartments; penitents kneel.) Maybe he was attempting to absolve himself, which is something theologically a priest cannot do. This is also suggested by something the boy observes: the priest's "red handkerchief . . . with which he tried to brush away the fallen grains, was quite inefficacious" (12). The word "efficacious" may be the most important technical word in sacramental theology. (To be efficacious a sacrament must involve proper form and intention.) Like his handkerchief, the priest is red (Flynn). Like the grains of snuff, the chalice had fallen. Father Flynn's attempts to wipe away the stain of sin, as he neurotically feels it to be, have not been efficacious.

The dual focus on confession and communion underlies the story's parallel structure. In the first five pages the boy listens to his uncle and Cotter talk about the priest and then dreams of being in the confessional. In the last five pages he goes to the wake and listens to his aunt and the priest's sister Eliza talk about the priest. Cotter with the uncle; Eliza with the aunt. Like Cotter, Eliza breaks her speech with ellipses whenever she is about to say something that might be regarded as disrespectful to the dead priest. After hearing the first conversation the boy dreams of confession; while listening to the second conversation he drinks sherry, which evokes communion.

The first half of the story ends in uncertainty. The boy remembers smiling "as if to absolve the simoniac of his sin" (11, my italics) but he "could not remember the end of the dream" (14). Did he absolve the priest? Probably not. We do not realize this until the parallel moment in the second half of the story, but there is a hint of vengefulness even in his dream when he feels his soul "receding into some pleasant and vicious region" (11).

In the story's second climactic moment the boy refuses full communion by sipping sherry but declining cream crackers. At the altar the priest celebrating Mass consumes, under the appearance of bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus--'body and blood' being synecdoche for the living person ('body and blood, soul and divinity') of Jesus. Lay people received the bread, not the wine. No one ever received the wine and not the bread. So the boy's drinking wine alone is symbolically backwards, a reversal of a layman's receiving communion and certainly an incomplete communion--but reversed or incomplete communion with whom?

Realistically, the boy declines to eat cream crackers because he thinks he "would make too much noise eating them" (15). Although his desire to avoid noise has affinity with the hesitation of Cotter and Eliza to speak, it is psychologically and symbolically different. It is yet another thing he shares with the priest who, before he died, says his sister, "kept on saying that before the summer was over he'd go out for a drive one fine day just to see the old house again where we were all born down in Irishtown. . . . If we could only get one of them new-fangled carriages that makes no noise . . . them with the rheumatic wheels--for the day cheap, he said" (17). ("Rheumatic" is a malapropism for 'pneumatic,' referring to inflatable rubber tires.) There are many reasons why the old priest might want to make no noise, but only one symbolic reason. Colloquially among the Irish, too loud a noise will awaken the dead. I know of Irish contemporaries of Joyce who would invariably exclaim whenever their grandchildren made loud noises: "You'd wake the dead."(16) Joyce was familiar with the expression. As Leopold Bloom rides to a burial in the "Hades" chapter of Ulysses, he thinks of women preparing a corpse: "Slop about in slipperslappers"--soft-soled slippers instead of shoes--"for fear he'd wake" (72). Later, as Bloom walks away from the Ormond Hotel in the "Sirens" chapter, he begins farting, which reminds him of music: "Drum? Pompedy. Wait. I know. Town crier, bumbailiff. Long John. Waken the dead. Pom" (238).

The priest's wanting not to waken the dead while driving through the neighborhood of his origin suggests his wanting not to make painfully present or real the poverty and lack of social prestige from which he has separated himself through education and ordination. This would suggest that social climbing was indeed, whether consciously or not, a motive in his becoming a priest--a desire for a life not so much pneumatic (spiritual) as pneumatic (cushy). It may even be something he is conscious of and which he feels guilty about.

The boy avoids the noise of eating crisp crackers because he also, colloquially, wants not to awaken the dead. For him, of course, the dead is singular--the priest upstairs in his coffin. The relationship between noisy eating of crackers and the dead man suggests that the boy's symbolic communion, perverse and deliberately incomplete, is with the priest. In its reversal and incompleteness, it is an absence made visible, a partial or complete absence of emotional communion with the man others consider to be his friend.

When the boy first heard that the priest had died he had felt "a sensation of freedom as if I had been freed from something by his death" (12). He may well feel relieved of the pressure of the priest's ulterior motive. No one enjoys being reduced to a means of filling another's psychological need. All this is understandable and forgivable. Nevertheless it is also a lack of love on the boy's part, a resentment over something in the priest which is also, after all, forgivable.

The symbolic force of the colloquialism about noise awakening the dead is emphasized when Eliza speaks about her brother's being mentally disturbed. It is not the sort of thing she would have talked about to acquaintances if he were alive. After her daring revelation, she imagines for a moment that her brother might hear and take offense: "She stopped suddenly as if to listen. I too listened," says the boy, "but there was no sound in the house: and I knew that the old priest was lying still in his coffin" (18). No need to worry; he remains safely dead.

The title of the story calls what has always seemed to critics unwarranted attention to the priest's sisters, Nannie and Eliza. Decades ago Peter Spielberg convincingly interpreted the sisters as corresponding to the sisters in Luke's gospel (10:38-42)--Martha who is hard working, and Mary who is not and likes to visit. Their brother is Lazarus, whom Jesus raises from the dead (John 11). Spielberg demonstrates the Joycean word play by which Eliza and Nannie are Elizabeth and Annie or Beth and Annie, which join in "Bethany"--the name of the biblical town where Jesus visits them and raises their brother. Hugh Kenner also noticed the correspondence between Joyce's characters and the biblical figures, unaware that Spielberg had seen it seventeen years before. Neither Spielberg nor Kenner nor other critics aware of Spielberg's insight have seen the biblical narrative as integral to the meaning of Joyce's story. As Spielberg puts it, in the New Testament Lazarus is raised by Jesus; here, Jesus is absent and the priest stays dead. It seems a point hardly worth making.(17)

But the biblical narrative is integral to Joyce's story. This is apparent to anyone who sees the boy as a Jesus figure and his relationship to the dead priest as potentially life-renewing. We saw that, by hearing confession and giving communion to the priest and to himself, the boy has symbolically become a priest. In theological language, a priest is an alter-Christus, an 'other Christ.' Because the old man had hoped to live on through the boy, the boy corresponds to the archetype of Jesus, the savior who renews Lazarus's earthly life. Jesus calls Lazarus his "friend" (John 11:11). We hear the boy's uncle refer to the priest as the boy's "friend" and we witness the boy's incomprehension (10). Or is it denial? Jesus raised his friend from the dead. Symbolically the boy takes care not to raise the priest from the dead.

The archetypal underlayer of the story is also effected by the wake's taking place on July second, the feast of the Visitation.(18) This feast commemorates another 'rising,' during 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. Upon hearing Mary's greeting, Elizabeth announces that "the babe leaped in her womb"--Jesus being the cause of the leaping, as Elizabeth realizes, since she says, "Blessed is the fruit of thy womb" (Luke 1:41-42). The babe who leaped is John the Baptist, the precursor of Jesus. In Joyce's story, dead James Flynn corresponds to the Baptist. He does not leap: he remains "lying still" (18). But he had initiated his intended successor. In that respect he conforms to the type of the Baptist, who baptizes Jesus and identifies him as the one to come after him--after which, in the biblical narrative, the sky opens and the voice of God announces, "Thou art my beloved Son; in Thee I am well pleased" (Luke 3:21-42). These words express what the old priest, now dead, had longed for, a successor--and psychologically a son--in whom to be well pleased.

The Visitation and the raising of Lazarus are the myths underlying the story. (By 'myth' I mean not untruth--as the lexicographers of the Enlightenment defined it--but a story that engages a person at the deepest level of fear, desire, or awe.) The raising of Lazarus is the primary myth, but it blends with the enlivening visitation to the precursor by the newly incarnate Son. The boy refuses to raise the priest by refusing to be his successor. This is symbolized by his withholding full communion from him. All this has its punning verification in the sign in the drapery shop below: "On ordinary days a notice used to hang in the window, saying: Umbrellas Re-covered. No notice was visible now for the shutters were up" (11-12). The boy refuses to 'recover' the priest. It is a denial of composite myth, the penultimate irony of the story.

The ultimate irony is that the denial of myth may cancel its positive content but does not erase the pattern. By refusing to resurrect the priest and by refusing full communion with him, the boy approximates the priest more deeply than by dreamily hearing confession and symbolically taking communion. The boy finishes his relationship with the priest by withholding love. (If their relationship is symbolized by the word "gnomon," then surely the missing part of the parallelogram is love.) The boy has already mirrored the priest by having an ulterior motive that diminished friendship. Since young people respond to love with love, responsibility for its absence may lie chiefly with the priest for selfishly wishing to live on, or live again, through the boy. But by reciprocating in kind, by withholding love, the boy corresponds most deeply and completely to the priest. What the priest desired has consequently happened, though not as the priest intended--for the boy would deny the priest life and liberty.

If he had loved the priest, now dead, he would not, of course, really have liberated him or given him life. But he would have liberated himself. Instead, he binds himself to the type of the man he rejects. The significance of that may have some resonance in the wake's taking place two days short of American Independence Day.(19) In any case, like the shop's umbrellas advertised by the sign now out of sight, the priest has been, in this unintended sense, "Re-covered."

The dreamed confession and the sherry and crackers are symbols. The biblical Visitation and the raising of Lazarus are underlying myths. Their inherent meanings--forgiveness, communion, rebirth--operate as symbols and a metaphor of what the boy denies the priest, and that is love. In this, the boy contradicts the archetype of Jesus. Love is what had apparently been lacking in his "friendship" with the priest all along. The surest indication of this from the boy's perspective is something that no interpreter of the story has noticed--that nowhere in his retrospective narrative does the boy express the slightest warmth or affection for the priest.


1 The title of Mark Schorer's famous article.

2 Joyce may have been prompted to choose the word not only by thematic considerations but also in recognition of the story's elaborate structure, which was already virtually achieved when he added the paragraph containing the term in the final, 1909 revision.

3 For example, Don Gifford. When Joyce spoke of Dublin as the "centre of paralysis" he was using a metaphor, not a symbol. Even Burton Waisbren and Florence Walzl see the priest's paralysis as a moral symbol, though they interpret the priest's illness as paresis, or congenital syphilis--which they admit might have been inherited from one of his parents (758-62). In fact, given his scrupulosity--which we have no reason to doubt since his sister attests to it and the boy implies it--paresis would have to be inherited. Not that the syphilitic reading is necessary, for the priest's having had two strokes is enough to account for his paralysis.

4 Those who think so either dismiss his sister's judgment that he was "too scrupulous" or see the relationship as homoerotic but not overtly sexual. See Edward Brandabur, "Sisters" (337-43) and Scrupulous (42); and Leonard Albert (354).

5 Eileen Kennedy first interpreted the image of the priest's exposed tongue this way in "Lying Still" (365).

6 Lateness in life is an assumption but a fair one, since a debilitating catastrophe early in the priest's career would probably have been specified as happening early. After the boy's aunt says "He was a disappointed man," there is a long silence in which Eliza goes into a reverie, after which she says "It was that chalice he broke. . . . That was the beginning of it" (17). The lapse of time suggests that in her final remarks she may not be referring to or explaining her brother's disappointment. Moreover, priests were regularly moved between churches within the diocese every five to seven years--so that the stationing of Father O'Rourke "at the chapel" at the time of the breakdown (18) and now when he can arrange for funeral services in the chapel (16) suggests that the mental collapse occurred recently.

7 Although Thomas E. Connolly dismisses the notion of the old priest's desire for paternity, it seems a likely motive and has remained a persistent theme in criticism. See most recently Brian A. Bremen (58).

8 Commenting on occurrences of the word "umbrella" in "Oxen of the Son," Gifford and Robert Siedman say it is Dublin slang for a diaphragm, the contraceptive device that blocks the cervix (427). Zack Bowen makes the connection between "prophylactics" and "waterproofing material in general" (259). Bowen mentions the umbrella reference in "The Sisters," but only to say that it suggests a condom the priest ought to have used to avoid contracting his (to my mind, hypothetical and dubious) syphilis (260).

9 The priest was, like the boy, precocious. Gifford makes the point that only the brightest seminarians went to Rome (31). The rest went to Maynooth.

10 See Walzl, "Sisters" (397), Joyce, Stephen Hero (202-06, 228), and Portrait (158-59).

11 See Julian Kaye (23), William Bysshe Stein, "Sisters" (item 61); and Gerhard Friedrich (72). Connolly, debunking the worst absurdities of his predecessors, allows for the possibility of the priest's having actually committed the sin but cannot guess what it might be (195).

12 See Clive Hart (20); and Friedrich (72). Marvin Magalaner makes the point that before the 1909 revision of the story, the aunt and not the boy brought the snuff to the priest (77). Joyce apparently made the change to emphasize the boy's symbolic priesthood.

13 It would be improbable even to consider them as altar servers. If anything they would be sacristans, supplying the bread and wine, a job often performed by nuns or "sisters."

14 The liturgical significance of the day of death was first noticed by Walzl, "Sisters" (183-87); and Stein, "Sisters" (item 2).

15 Michael S. Reynolds refers to the word "blood" recurring throughout the Mass of the day (336)--but as an invalid Father Flynn would not have attended or celebrated Mass.

16 One was my wife's grandmother, Esther Mapother from Howth; another was Mattie Phelan, who used the expression not jokingly or casually, as Esther did, but fearfully because she superstitiously believed it might be true.

17 See Kenner (149-50). Thomas Staley recalls Spielberg's short essay (538). Connolly mentions Spielberg's insight only to dismiss it (194). So does Donald Torchiana (19).

18 Kennedy notices that the wake occurs on the Feast of the Visitation, but derives no significance from it, despite the suggestive quotation in her title, "Lying still" (363). In the original 1904 version of the story published in The Irish Homestead, the date of the death was July second, which placed the wake on the third of July. The change of date may have been motivated by a desire to set the wake on the feast of the Visitation as much as to set the death on July first, the Feast of the Precious Blood.

19 This may seem straining for significance, but the Irish had in the past six decades contributed more than anyone else to the population of the United States, which for that reason loomed large in Irish consciousness. Also, the United States was the only country that had successfully thrown off the yoke of British Imperialism, an act the Irish longed to emulate.


Albert, Leonard. "Gnomonology: Joyce's 'The Sisters.'" JJQ 27 (Winter 1990), 353-64.

Bowen, Zack. "Joyce's Prophylactic Paralysis: Exposure in Dubliners." JJQ 19 (Spring 1982), 257-73.

Brandabur, Edward. "The Sisters" in "Dubliners": Text, Criticism, and Notes. Eds. Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz. New York: Viking, 1971. 337-43.

-----. A Scrupulous Meanness. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1971.

Bremen, Brian A., "'He was too Scrupulous Always': a Reexamination of Joyce's 'The Sisters,'" JJQ 22 (Fall 1984), 55-66.

Connolly, Thomas E. "Joyce's 'The Sisters,'" College English 27 (December 1965), 189-95.

Friedrich, Gerhard. "The Perspective of Joyce's Dubliners." James Joyce's Dubliners. Ed. James Baker and Thomas Staley. Belmont, Cal.: Wadsworth, 1969, 71-78.

Gifford, Don. Joyce Annotated. 2nd ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1982.

Gifford, Don, and Robert Siedman, Ulysses Annotated. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

Hart, Clive, ed. James Joyce's Dubliners. New York: Viking, 1969.

Joyce, James. Dubliners. Ed. Robert Scholes. New York: Viking, 1967.

-----. Stephen Hero. Eds. John Slocum and Herbert Cahoon. New York: New Directions, 1944, 1963.

-----. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ed. Richard Ellmann. New York: Viking, 1964.

-----. Ulysses. Ed. Hans Gabler. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.

Kaye, Julian. "Simony, the Three Simons and Joycean Myth." James Joyce Miscellany. Ed. Marvin Magalaner. New York: Joyce Society, 1957, 20-37.

Kennedy, Eileen, "'Lying Still,' Another Look at 'The Sisters.'" JJQ 12 (Summer 1975), 362-70.

Kenner, Hugh. A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers. New York: Knopf, 1983.

Magalaner, Marvin. Time of Apprenticeship: The Fiction of Young James Joyce. New York, Abelard, 1959.

Reynolds, Michael S. "The Feast of the Most Precious Blood and Joyce's 'The Sisters.'" Studies in Short Fiction 6 (Winter 1969), 336.

Schorer, Mark. "Technique as Discovery." Hudson Review I (Spring 1948), 67-87.

Spielberg, Peter. "The Sisters: No Christ at Bethany." JJQ 3 (Spring 1966), 192-95.

Staley, Thomas. "A Beginning: Signification, Story, and Discourse in Joyce's 'The Sisters'" Genre 12 (1979), 533-49.

Stein, William Bysshe. "Joyce's 'The Sisters'" Explicator 20 (March 1962), item 61.

-----. "Joyce's 'The Sisters'" Explicator 21 (September 1962), item 2.

Torchiana, Donald. Backgrounds for Joyce's Dubliners. Boston: Allen, 1986.

Waisbren, Burton, and Florence Walzl. "Paresis and the Priest, James Joyce's Symbolic Use of Syphilis in 'The Sisters.'" Annals of International Medicine 80 (1974), 758-62.

Walzl, Florence L. "Joyce's 'The Sisters': a Development." JJQ 10 (Summer 1973), 375-421.

-----. "A Day in Joyce's 'The Sisters,'" Texas Studies in Literature and Language 4 (Summer 1962), 183-87.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Hofstra University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:James Joyce
Author:Dilworth, Thomas
Publication:Twentieth Century Literature
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Previous Article:"Things I don't want to find out about": the primal scene in "The Confessions of Nat Turner." (novel by William Styron)
Next Article:'Heart of Darkness' and late-Victorian fascination with the primitive and the double.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters