Monday, September 24, 2012

Symbolism in James Joyce's "Sisters"

I've decided to post periodically some comments, insights, and questions about the stories of Dubliners on the site over the next few weeks. I have personally crafted the following posting, but hopefully, students and fellow faculty colleagues will want to make some of the posts on other stories in the near future.

The Sisters

I reread “The Sisters” yesterday afternoon. My first thought was how Joyce’s writing in the story remains so controlled!  There is so much left unsaid in the boy’s tale, yet so much gets suggested as well. Of course, the story’s aura of suggestiveness predominantly centers around the figure of Father Flynn, the deceased Priest; It is here where we as readers locate the greatest concentration of textual richness and meaning, and it is the figure of the Priest, therefore, that deserves our closest reading.

The Priest haunts our story, yet his character has little “stage time” in the presented narrative. His image and his presence, however, remain in the text like an ever-looming specter. Death too as a concept saturates the text, enhancing its mood and theme, and all of it is being related by a boy who tells more than he realizes while withholding enough information to sustain the text’s suggestive mystery for the reader.

The text reveals much about Father Flynn: he is well-educated (the reference to his education in Rome), but he is from the poorer districts of Dublin (the reference to his old home in Irishtown). We might conclude, therefore, that he was a strikingly intelligent man who showed great academic and spiritual promise.  We also sense that he was a somewhat frustrated clergy member, dissatisfied perhaps with the routines of his parish-related duties (one can gather this most clearly by closely reading the comments of his sisters and other adults). We also know that he had contracted some kind of paralytic-related disease, which also seemed to cause significant mental instability as well (the reference to his state of laughter in the confession box). Many have speculated as to what his sickness may be - some positing syphilis, for instance, which leads to our final observation: it is suggested that the Priest is deeply ridden with feelings of guilt or remorse most likely due to some significant act of sin in his past; even the boy picks up on this fact if one recalls his troubling dream (also, references to the Priest’s need for rites, his odd visits to confession, his attachment to his prayer book, and his discussions about the hierarchy of sins with the boy all suggest his conscience-plagued torment).

Immediately when one begins reading commentary on this story, one detects the popular tendency to speculate the Priest’s background story - a concrete fact that Joyce intentionally leaves unsaid.  Although it would be wrong to pass this over in silence, I do think it less interesting - and perhaps misguided - to spend one’s time and mental energies trying to supply this ultimately unknown backstory. Ultimately, the Priest is less than a character in the story, but this does not make his presence any less meaningful. As said before, he consistently haunts the text and enhances the meaning of the story, but he seems to do so more as a symbol and less as a character. This is why speculation about the specifics of his sin remains less interesting than say unpacking the symbolic meaning his "character" embodies in the narrative.

The question, my readers, is the following: what does he symbolize? 

How is he as a symbol made more complex by all the "troubling" facts listed above?

How does the boy’s perspective of this symbolic character add complexity to the overall meaning of the symbol?

How does Old Cotter’s perspective of the Priest add to the symbol’s meaning?

What about the Sisters’ perspectives and why is the story named after seemingly minor characters?

Feel free to comment and enjoy the discussion!


  1. If I'm honest, what sustains my interest in these early stories is the perspective of the child. Innocent and sincere, ignorant but not stupid, impotent to impact much but emotionally rich in surveying his world.

  2. I completely agree, and I think it is through the child's perspective that Father Flynn as a symbol becomes so interesting and complex in its meaning. There's a lot of ways to unpack the symbol of the Priest - most obviously that he symbolizes Irish Catholicism. He like many other grown men of the story could more generally symbolize the archetypal father figure as well, and with these insights in mind, the boy's perspective gives the symbol deeper, more nuanced meaning. For instance, I think of how "impressionable" (in Cotter's words) the Catholic Church had - and has - been on a late-developing-and-thus-child-like nation like Ireland.

  3. Ben F. of Mr. Colley's class says:

    I've read an interesting article which argues that Old Cotter is the secular counterpart to Father Flynn, noting that Old Cotter works in a distillery which "produces spirits" and that he is described as red-faced--Flynn is Gaelic for red. Both are in competition for the role of father figure to the narrator- Father Flynn's name even has the word "father" in it.
    Bringing in the gnomon, which briefly flits across the boy's head and is widely interpreted as a symbol of the universal lack in the short stories, there seems to be a lack of a reliable father figure for the boy.

  4. Flynn definitely exemplifies (if not symbolizes) how Dublin and Catholicism (according to Joyce) can paralyze the spirit of individualism that he argues for. It is clear that Father Flynn was quite intelligent - after all, he studied in Rome after his upbringing in the slums of Dublin. Flynn could have become a scholar in the Vatican yet for unknown reasons stayed in Dublin to preach. I think he regrets not travelling away from Dublin. Perhaps the reason Flynn tries to educate the narrator of the story is to live vicariously through him should the narrator take the path that Flynn himself did not take.

    -Dan C.

  5. I think the boy also shows a paralysis throughout Sisters, as he is consistently unable to say anything to the Sisters or to his family and Old Cotter about Father Flynn's death, despite their expectations of him to do so. He feels their pressure but remains quiet.

    -Thomas M.

  6. I feel that the Priest is expected to be a symbol of all that is pious and good because he works for God. However, because he has a darker side, that symbol becomes more intricate. Our perception of priesthood is no longer applicable when we find out that he has committed sin (Whether that be directly related to the boy or not is irrelevant.) Joyce could be making a statement here about Irish Catholicism, or a more universal idea that humans, no matter their occupation, are imperfect.

  7. While this is not related to sisters in particular, I would like to make the observation that each of the stories ends with a a line that is meant to be important and weighty. In the case of sisters, the last line is meant to reveal that Flynn was likely more than a little crazy, and such an idea re-contextualizes the story and thus the stories often demand a second reading.
    Jonathan C.

  8. I think it is worth noting that even though Joyce had a reputation for being anti-catholic, he portrays the boy as affectionate toward the priest.

    At first glance, Joyce seems to want to simply insinuate that the priest has sinned, to the point where even his repeated confessions can't wash him of the sins. But by adding the boy to the story, "The Sisters" becomes a story about how a boy feels about his mentor dying, not just a story about a corrupted priest.

    I interpret the priest's disease to symbolize the disease that Joyce feels Catholicism is to Ireland, but the addition of the boy's admiration for the priest shows that perhaps not all of their influences are bad, in Joyce's eyes.

  9. I find it interesting to note that the speaker in Araby lives in a house formerly inhabited by a deceased priest. While through contextual clues we can be certain that this is not the same priest from Sisters, it still seems to be too far of a stretch to say that this was just a coincidence, though of what purpose this is supposed to serve, I remain ignorant.

  10. One of the things that caught my eye when reading "The Sisters" was the use of the word "gnomon" on the opening page of the book. The word is a geometry term, according to, that means the part of a parallelogram that remains after a similar parallelogram has been taken away from one of its corners. Or as I thought of it, the "child parallelogram" that remains if you remove the "adult parallelogram." With this in mind, I wonder if we are supposed to view our narrator as the "gnomon" or "child" that remains once his "parent" Father Flynn is removed from his life. If this is the case then the story may have been entitled "The Sisters" as a way to draw the reader's attention to the non-broken relationship that is presented in the story. Although the sisters of Father Flynn have lost a family member, they still have each other, while the narrator is now forced to grow up feeling like he has a missing piece.

    -Maren M

  11. I agree that the background of Father Flynn is relatively irrelevant and that it is much more useful to make points based on what we do know. Father Flynn as a character is not as important as what Father Flynn symbolizes. I think that Father Flynn represents the reoccurring theme of the paralysis. The influence that he has on the boy keeps him from being a child and socializing with children his own age. And in a way his death symbolizes the death of the dominance of Catholicism over Ireland. I read a text that highlighted the significance of the date of Father Flynn's passing - July 1. In 1690, July 1 was the day when Protestant King William III defeated Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne around the time of the Glorious Revolution. I found it interesting that priest had passed away on the same day of the Protestant victory back in 1690 that reinforced the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland. A simple piece of information like a date of passing that could easily go unnoticed to us 21st Century Americans has much more symbolism once you read between the lines. That is what I enjoy about James Joyce's writing.