Paralysis and the Fantasy of Beliefs in Joyce's 'The Sisters'
Epifanio San Juan
Epifanio San Juan, James Joyce and the Craft of Fiction: An Interpretation of Dubliners, 1972 Associated University Presses.
Joyce wrote that Dublin ‘seemed to me to be the centre of paralysis’, and the priest’s physical paralysis in ‘The Sisters’ reflects the figurative paralysis he saw in the city. But beyond this simple mirroring the role of Father Flynn is deeply complex (Joyce, quoted in San Juan, p.18 - see grey box, right, for details).
One of the major themes in 'The Sisters' is the insidious grip religion exerts on the young boy - religious language, both complex and mundane, invades the narrator's life: he examines the word 'simony' in the opening paragraph, which he knows from 'the Catechism' and a few lines later he quotes his aunt, 'God have mercy on his soul,' she says of Father Flynn, 'piously'. In the small household, religion is cloying and ever-present - its connotations and language surround the young boy-narrator, and the tale tells of a priest, the boy's friend, who breaks down into seeming madness after dropping a sacred chalice.
A more in-depth discussion of the role of language and connotations in 'The Sisters' is in a separate essay: Absorption of Language and Connotations in 'The Sisters'
Dubliners page numbers refer to the Penguin Popular Classics edition.
The reader is constrained to the point of view of the child, relying on his feelings and the reported gossip he hears, but we do not know whether this is a real reflection of the priest, or the influence of the adults, or the child’s fear and fixation of the priest's paralysis, or the awe he feels for the priest’s learning: ‘Often when I thought of this I could make no answer or only a very foolish and halting one,’ or any and all of these (Dubliners, p.12). And because we are constrained to second-hand feelings and gossip, the priest remains a shadowy presence in the story, existing for us only in semi-articulated thoughts and phrases but never in reality.
The boy narrator is unsure himself of the meaning of events and speech around him, and so he is an unreliable narrator, and even the direct words he quotes are full of ellipses and half-finished sentences: '"My idea is: let a young lad run about and play with young lads of his own age and not be ... Am I right, Jack?"' (Dubliners, p. 8, ellipsis in the original).
The Madness of Father Flynn
The reason for the priest’s descent into dementia or madness is similarly obscure. At the end he is found, alone and laughing to himself in the confessional when he is needed elsewhere by his parishioners. San Juan writes:
Father Flynn may be considered the gnomon in the narrative […]. The removed parallelogram may refer to the boy’s withdrawn admiration for him […] or it may refer to the flaw, a loss of will, which renders Father Flynn unfit to fulfil his duties. This flaw causes the accidental breaking of the chalice and his subsequent retirement.
(San Juan, p.36)
Many and Conflicting Interpretations of Joyce
But according to Eliza’s words, ‘It was that chalice he broke . . . . That was the beginning of it’ (Dubliners, p.17). So in her eyes the priest was not ‘unfit to fulfill his duties’ prior to the chalice being broken, but only after, since it was this which was ‘the beginning’. This being so in the priest’s chronology the question remains if San Juan’s explanation of the priest is to be considered: why, if he was ‘unfit’ prior to breaking the chalice, does Eliza see the breaking of the chalice as ‘the beginning’ of his strange behaviour (Dubliners, p.11)? And why is he found laughing softly to himself in the confessional?
The evidence is conflicting because not only is the narrator unreliable, but so too are the other characters. The ellipses mentioned above show that the adults may be unwilling to voice certain opinions in the presence of a child, but they may also indicate that they themselves are not sure of their own opinions: what we read is only part of the story.
The Fantasy of Religion: An Interpretation of 'The Sisters'
Referring to the theme of illusory thinking that runs through Dubliners, one possible interpretation is that the priest, already weakened by old age, is shaken to the core in his deeply-held lifelong beliefs when he expects a dire outcome from his dropping of the sacred chalice, and his expectations are dashed: Father Flynn dropped the chalice, and the world still turned. Nothing happened. The chalice was a symbol imbued for the priest with a lifetime of belief based on faith rather than reality – a fantasy of sorts.
The strength of faith and belief that this - a small shred of contrary evidence to shatter a man's beliefs and his mind - would require is enormous, but in Joyce's portrayal of a religion-imbued Dublin, it is not without evidence: in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the protagonist Stephen Dedalus attends a 'retreat' - a religious half-week from Wednesday to Friday devoted to prayer, introspection and preaching. The impact and terrifying nature of the preachers' words are stunning: hellfire, damnation, eternal suffering and indoctrination are prominent in the speeches given to the teenage boys (see chapter 3 of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). This may or may not be a true reflection of either religion or Dublin, but it is the world that Joyce creates across his writing.
That Father Flynn is found laughing to himself in the confessional – the most secret and solemn part of a church, which signifies one of the most sacred offices of a Catholic priest – only adds to the impression that when nothing happened, Father Flynn did not so much lose his faith as see through and beyond its trappings and into a bigger reality.
This would transform the priest’s laughter from madness into a qualified relief, comparable perhaps to the swoon of Gabriel’s soul at the end of the book, in the final story 'The Dead', as he too finally sees unbounded reality. The difference between the priest and Gabriel, and hence why the priest’s relief borders on a mental breakdown, is that after his epiphany the priest remains trapped by his vocation into living a lie whereas Gabriel’s life will accommodate and expand because of his newfound knowledge.