In order to recognize that Joyces Dubliners is a work unified by death, it is necessary for one to return to the beginning, where a meticulous reading is paramount, and start again. The opening story, “The Sisters,” is concerned with death and its impact upon the living individuals left in its wake. If the reader considers its function as essentially an introductory chapter, one will start to detect a palpable semblance of unity throughout Dubliners, as this story establishes the overarching theme of death and its associated motifs: paralysis, silences, and epiphanies-the latter of which are inextricably rooted in the poetics of modernity. “The Sisters” is a story that is concerned with youth, which represents the beginning of a progression from childhood to maturity. In this regard, the story’s form parallels the narrative for the reader, as the story at its heart is concerned with the young narrator’s developing awareness; at the same time, the reader starts to acquire a simultaneous awareness of the afore-mentioned themes and motifs. As we shall see, “The Sisters” functions as a gnomon for the entire collection of stories, as its narrator is but one of many more who are stifled and subjugated by their environment-“like a patient etherized upon a table,” as the ubiquitous J. Alfred Prufrock might say (Eliott 1).
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“The Sisters” ushers the readers into the world of Dubliners through the eyes of a child narrator. The narrator, along with the reader, confronts images of death in the opening paragraph through a lighted square of window-analogous to the window-panes of J. Alfred Prufrock. It is here, at the very beginning, that the narrator introduces the word “paralysis,” heralding a theme which reoccurs with death throughout the entirety of Dubliners. In A Beginning: Signification, Story, and Discourse in Joyce’s ‘The Sisters’, Staley emphasizes the beginning paragraph as “an overture for the themes, conflicts, and tensions that were to be evoked again and again â€¦ throughout all of Dubliners” (20). Furthermore, Staley affirms that the initial sentence’s tone of “finality and certainty â€¦ begins the circle of death for Dubliners” (22). If one were to accept Staley’s claim that the opening paragraph acts as an overture for the novel, it could then be argued that death and paralysis are not to be seen as separate entities in the context of Dubliners, but that the two are directly related, if not intertwined.
Father Flynn, through his physical paralysis, comes to embody many of the characters in Dubliners, the majority of whom are paralyzed to some extent, whether it is physically, mentally, or emotionally. Later, the reader witnesses the manner in which death interrupts or arrests the living, as the narrator lays “in the dark of [his] room” and imagines that he sees “the heavy grey face of the paralytic” (Joyce 11). Already, one can intuit that the dead play a haunting role in Dubliners, as Gothic elements are common to modernist literature. This is evidenced here, as the narrator feels that he is “smiling feebly” like the paralytic priest’s cadaver (11). Indeed, at this point the living and dead start to merge as a single image, with the narrator mirroring the state of an immobile Father Flynn. In his critical essay on “The Sisters,” Corrington states that “the boy and the old man fuse briefly” through this smile, which contrasts elements of youth and death (24). The innocence of youth is tainted early in Dubliners, as death and Father Flynn’s deathly influence permeate “The Sisters,” looming behind both reader and narrator like an ominous shade. The child narrator may very well be a reflection of the reader, mirroring the thought processes that lead to a simultaneous realization of death’s paralyzing nature in the world of Dubliners.
The narrator’s epiphany on death’s paralyzing quality is inadvertent, even ironic, as he calls attention to “a sensation of freedom as if [he] had been freed from something by his death” (Joyce 13). His actions in the story are contrary to this supposed sense of freedom; it becomes apparent that Father Flynn’s influence fills the silence that he left behind and acts as an interrupting force. Such a force bears similarities to the dead Catherine’s effect upon Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, where the latter’s life is dominated by her memory. Indeed, the narrator goes so far as to anthropomorphize paralysis as a “maleficent and sinful being” that “fill[s] [him] with fear,” yet he “long[s] to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work” (Joyce 9). The boy is both repelled and oddly compelled by the paralysis he experiences here, which exposes his inability to be truly free from Father Flynn’s death. Therefore, paralysis can be regarded the work of death, as both the boy and his sisters find themselves utterly torpid in the wake of Father Flynn’s passing.
The boy’s inability to find any fraction of freedom from Father Flynn’s death becomes more evident as his mental haunting persists. Here, the child imagines the “heavy grey face of the paralytic” and feels the apparition “follow [him]” (Joyce 11). Father Flynn is referred to synecdochically here, defined by a heavy grey pallor that suggests death incarnate, further melding themes of death and paralysis. More importantly, perhaps, the narrator has rendered Father Flynn incomplete, a “gnomon” by definition. Joyce employs the Euclidian definition of gnomon: “a remainder after something has been removed” (Joyce 9). This depiction of Father Flynn becomes significant later when one considers who is left more complete by the end of the story, and further relates to Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights, who is left incomplete by his loss of Catherine, making him a gnomon of sorts as well. Nonetheless, this point illustrates the narrator’s inability, or perhaps reluctance, to be freed by Father Flynn’s passing. Indeed, it seems significant that he “imagine[s]” Father Flynn’s face rather than dreaming about it, which would indicate a sort of conscious rejection of letting the dead be truly dead. In Dubliners: A Student’s Companion to the Stories, Werner states that when “contemplating the word paralysis, the boy attributes to it an active presence that he wishes to observe rather than evade,” and the same can be said about the concept of death for the narrator, as both themes are interlaced throughout the story (45).
The development of consciousness in regard to death and its paralyzing quality is central to “The Sisters.” This development points to the story’s role as a beginning, as the maturation, or lack thereof, of the various narrators’ consciousness and perception later becomes a major issue throughout Dubliners. Epiphanies are abundant in Dubliners, as they are in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, and other modernist literature; nonetheless, as Werner notes in Dubliners: A Student’s Companion to the Stories, Joyce only “gradually focuses his attention” on the “experience of revelation” (47). Furthermore, the “increasing complexity of his epiphanies is basic to the mature voice capable of articulating the contingent experiences of truth” as an ongoing process “for character, author, narrator, and reader” (55). Such a development can be seen in the various protagonists’ encounters with death in Dubliners. In particular, “The Sisters” represents a beginning for both reader and narrator. Just as the boy is experiencing his first encounter with death, the reader is experiencing his first bitter taste of life within the world of Dubliners. As a result, there is a simultaneous introduction to life and death.
The moment of realization in the penultimate paragraph displays the narrator’s perception of death, as he states simply that “the old priest was lying still in his coffin as we had seen him, solemn and truculent in death” (Joyce 18). Here, the narrator still attributes a certain sense of hostility to Father Flynn as if to further affirm the haunting qualities of his death. The detached style in which Joyce imparts this realization is important, as it indicates that the narrator is barely cognizant of anything beyond the dead body. As Beck states in Joyce’s Dubliners: Substance, Vision, and Art , this realization “communicates no incredibly precocious philosophical breakthrough, but the verisimilitude of a dawning awareness, a gradual, hushed, yet decisive epiphany” (Beck 43). More importantly, the boy does not seem conscious of his paralysis as later narrators, such as Gabriel Conroy and Duffy, are.
If the opening story is essentially a framing device, one can assume that the child narrator in “The Sister’s” exhibits the start of a vicious cycle of internalizing paralysis. Werner claims that the narrator of “Araby” represents “the first stage in the development of a destructive solipsism” portrayed in adult characters such as Duffy, but one can argue that this stage actually begins with the narrator of “The Sisters” (54). Furthermore, Beck notes that the narrator of “the Sisters” eventually “realizes his identity just that much more, and with it his secret isolation” (43). Indeed, the core of the story is “the boy’s beginning to see into himself as to the life around him,” specifically the impedance of death upon that life. Death is the catalyst for epiphanies in both “The Sisters” and “A Painful Case.” In the former example, death triggers an emotional paralysis in the living, while in the latter story, death causes a realization of Duffy’s pre-existing emotional paralysis.
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Here, it is important to expound upon the significance of the narrator’s youth in the story. As Werner notes, “the stories of childhood” in Dubliners “picture early confrontations of young boys with their corrupt environment (41). In “The Sisters,” such an environment is marked by an inevitable convergence of the living and the dead wherein the latter haunts the former. The young narrator is paralyzed by the external circumstances of his life, as Werner would argue. In fact, Werner goes on to claim that such a suffocating experience “encourage[s] even the more sensitive â€¦ children to accept and internalize paralysis,” which leads directly to adult counterparts who “have surrendered utterly to paralysis” (41, 42). James Duffy, the protagonist in “A Painful Case,” exemplifies the adult Dubliner who has repressed his emotional paralysis for entirely too long, “measuring his life in coffee spoons” in the same manner as J. Alfred Prufrock.
Silence is introduced in the opening paragraph as yet another motif to be associated with death. As mentioned, the narrator of “The Sisters” characterizes the very presence of Father Flynn’s corpse with an antagonistic silence. However, one should note the relationship between Father Flynn’s silence and the sisters referenced in the title, as the two entities are almost at odds with one another. As the story progresses, the sisters keep attempting to break the persistent silence with their patter, but the dialogue is only ever about Father Flynn. In this manner, the dead haunt even the speech of the living. Corrington remarks that “the old man has had a certain degree of ascendance over [the sisters]” and “even in death, he is their primary concern” (22). Corrington’s comments are primarily concerned with the sisters as a symbol of devoted service to the Catholic Church, the notion of Father Flynn’s ascendance and enduring presence speak to the haunting nature of the dead. Father Flynn is never more than a cadaver in “The Sisters,” yet his influence is undeniable. He looms over the environs silently, but to such an extent that the silence becomes a malevolent force. Rabate comments on the nature of silence in the context of Dubliners, writing that “silence can finally appear as the end, the limit, the death of speech, its paralysis” (33). If one works within the notion of silence as an antagonistic opposition to speech, the final moments of “The Sisters” can be seen as the ultimate paralysis inflicted by the dead Father Flynn. Joyce ends with Eliza’s speech, interrupted by ellipses before it finally trails off, imparting a paralyzing silence upon the reader. It is as if the characters, like J. Alfred Prufrock, are left wondering the same: “how should I begin?”
Joyce extols little intimation of hope within the world of Dubliners, where the living portray an emotionally paralyzed life equivalent to that of the dead. It is only upon further examination that one can argue that Joyce actually glorifies death to some extent and indicates it as a more amenable condition. Although the eponymous sisters’ dialogue throughout the story is rife with cliché, a particular assertion is striking. Eliza declares that Father Flynn had “a beautiful death,” which brings to mind Joyce’s claim that death is the “most beautiful form of life” (Joyce, Dubliners 15; Joyce, “James Clarence Mangan” 60). She goes on to say that Father Flynn “make[s] a beautiful corpse,” which contrasts the paralyzed depiction of his earthly life. In fact, Father Flynn is marked by a certain incompleteness from the opening paragraph of “The Sisters,” when the narrator associates the priest’s paralysis with the word “gnomon” (Joyce 9). As mentioned, the narrator only represents Father Flynn symbolically-by his face-which further suggests an incompleteness. Finally, the broken chalice symbolizes the “beginning” of Father Flynn’s broken state-his burgeoning madness.
Another definition of the word “gnomon” is applicable to Father Flynn; as discussed in lecture, it is “a shadow cast as on a sundial” (66). Father Flynn’s influence as a deathly shade is undeniable, as he lingers throughout the story. On the other hand, his being, or lack thereof, serves to illuminate the “partial, reduced lives of Joyce’s Dubliners,” which seems to be Joyce’s ultimate goal here (66). The story’s explicit concern with the dynamic of life and death is a deliberate one, as Joyce “carefully arranged the order of stories in Dubliners” (Beck 42). Indeed, the exploration of life and death is both central to modernity and the major crux upon which Dubliners is unified. Thus, Beck’s concern with the “meaning” and “interpretation” of the story are secondary to revealing the manner in which it functions as an overture to the novel (42). Ultimately, “The Sisters” establishes a pattern of the dead impacting life to the point of paralysis that is not altered until the final story. “The Sisters” makes it possible to explore the later stories of Dubliners in the context of themes and motifs set forth from the very beginning. Werner states that the “remainder of Dubliners fulfills [the narrator’s] longing to be nearer to paralysis and its deadly work,” which is an accurate assessment, as Joyce continues to develop this particular theme throughout the work (35). It is this inexplicable, paradoxical longing that harkens back to the poetics of modernity and notions of the sublime.
“The Sisters” functions as an overture for Dubliners, introducing the themes and motifs that serve to unify the novel. Death and paralysis are intertwined throughout Dubliners, as they are in many other modernist works. Paralysis is present not only in “The Sisters,” but in “A Love Song for J. Alfred Prufrock,” in which the titular protagonist wonders endlessly, “do I dare?” The impact and implications of death can be seen as well through the influence of Father Flynn. Like Catherine of Wuthering Heights, he hovers over the lives of others like a shade, lending Gothic elements to an otherwise realistic, if stagnant depiction of Irish life. These themes provide an appropriate context-a modernist context-in which the rest of the novel can not only be enjoyed, but properly engaged.
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