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.
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!