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Absorption of Language and Connotations in Joyce's 'The Sisters'

Updated on April 25, 2013
Photo by Mike Searle of Ballyhooly Church in Ireland. CC-BY-SA 2.0.
Photo by Mike Searle of Ballyhooly Church in Ireland. CC-BY-SA 2.0. | Source

R. B. Kershner

R.B. Kershner, Joyce, Bakhtin and Popular Literature, 1989, University of North Carolina Press.

An exploration through the 'carnivalesque' theories of Russian philosopher and literary critic Bakhtin of Joyce's works.

Words and Language Shaping Perspectives

'The Sisters' is the first story in Dubliners, and if the book as a whole is seen as Joyce's condemnation of what he saw as illusory and fantastical thinking by the people of his birthplace, a thread of progression can be seen through the stages of life traced by the collection - from childhood games and fantasies to the older Dubliners weaving more mundane stories for themselves. In this first story, the protagonist and narrator is very young and still learning words and connotations from the people around him, that will shape his future perspective.

The narrator in ‘The Sisters’ does not fully understand the conversations of the adults around him: ‘I puzzled my head to extract meaning from his unfinished sentences,’ he thinks of Cotter’s remarks as he is lying in bed. Kershner writes that the language of the adults in this story is a ‘language of the initiate,’ and that the boy, ‘frustrated and alienated […] refuses to admit his situation [and] adopts a disguise’ (Kershner, p.22 - see grey box on the right for full citation). But the boy is only half-aware that he is gathering sinister and negative connotations about his world, and appears to be unable to fully recognise that the connotations he possesses are actually negative and sinister.

Paralysis, Gnomon and Simony in 'The Sisters'

the word paralysis […] had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon […] and the word simony in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.

(Dubliners, p.7)

The word ‘but’ in the above quotation does not quite introduce the contrast we might expect. The connections between the three words ‘paralysis’, ‘gnomon’, and ‘simony’ are curious but plain enough within the context of the story:

  • The first, 'paralysis' has connotations of disease, inability to move and/or act, and following on from these, stagnation and death.
  • The second, 'gnomon' in combination with ‘Euclid’ is of a geometrical shape – the shape that remains when a smaller parallelogram is removed from a similar larger one, which one might compare with the figurative paralysis in Dubliners in that it both does and does not alter the essential ‘shape’ of a person: the person becomes something that must always reference the original but which is something different and seems always incomplete because of this very referencing.
  • The third, 'simony' is the ‘very grave sin’ of the ‘buying or selling of any spiritual benefit or office’, which practice, in commercialising the spiritual, debases and paralyses it, rendering the spiritual useless by forcing worldly affairs upon it (‘Simony’, Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia).

Sinister Connotations

All three words within these contexts have either sinful or maleficent connotations, and so the contrast in the quote above that is signified by the ‘But’ is one between words – signifying abstract concepts – and names – in this case the ‘the name of some maleficent and sinful being’. It is a contrast of linguistic labels. The connotations of the actual manifestations that the words signify are, on both sides of the ‘But’, similarly unpleasant or sinister, but only by omitting the ‘But’ could this angle be highlighted. Instead, the use of ‘But’ by the boy narrator highlights not the connotations, or the change in his attitude over time (as would be indicated by beginning the contrast with ‘Now’), but the language-centred contrast of words and names. That the boy is confused about meaning and labels indicates how much of his knowledge he is absorbing without understanding the effect of such knowledge.

Self-Referencing in 'The Sisters'

This unwitting process of learning is coupled with a paradigm whereby the thoughts of the boy are concerned not with reality as absolute and separate, but with the world as it revolves around himself. In the first paragraph the boy references himself fifteen times: ‘I had passed’, ‘I had found’, ‘I thought’, ‘I would see’, ‘I knew’, ‘I had’, and so on. Similarly the words of the priest that the boy quotes in this paragraph also reference the speaker: ‘I am not long for this world’ (Dubliners, p.7).

'The Sisters' - The Start of Imagination and Fantasy

In the boy’s thoughts in this paragraph, statements of things unequivocally imagined occur three times:

  • ‘If he were dead, I thought’;
  • ‘I had thought his words idle’;
  • ‘I longed to be nearer to it’

(Dubliners, p.7).

This framework of the ‘self’ that is applied to the external is complicated by the point above, that the boy’s thoughts, and therefore his image of ‘self’, are tainted by the connotations he gathers from those around him. Cotter refers to the priest as ‘queer’ and ‘uncanny’, and although both Cotter and the boy use the label ‘opinion’ and thus demark it from fact, the sinister inferences have already become inextricably linked in the boy’s mind to Father Flynn, as we have seen with the proximity in his thoughts of the priest, ‘paralysis’, ‘gnomon’, ‘simony’, and ‘some maleficent and sinful being.’

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