There are many themes and narrative devices introduced in the short story ‘The Sisters’ from the collection ‘Dubliners’ by James Joyce. Themes include the moribund nature and the simony of the Dublin Catholic Church of the time, Home Rule and contemptus mundi. Some narrative devices which Joyce uses are epiphany and ellipsis. Firstly, there is the major theme of the decline and ultimately moribund nature of the Catholic Church at the time. This is first seen in the first section of the novella through the image of the dead priest.
The first line itself is symbolic of the religious demise in Dublin. ‘There was no hope for him’ mirrors the lack of hope for the Catholic Church in Dublin. Also, the nature of his death (‘it was the third stroke’) is an allusion to the trinity showing how a spiritual symbol in this city is a cause of death. Also, the date on which he died is significant; July 1st is the Feast of the Most Blessed Blood, a Catholic Feast day commemorating Jesus’ sacrifice of his own blood for our sins.
This is ironic because it emerges later on in the novella that Father Flynn’s most serious transgression is spilling a holy chalice (‘it was the chalice he broke’), presumably containing either transubstantiated wine or Eucharistic wine in any case. The former would have especially have been a disgrace as this would essentially mean that Flynn had spilt the blood of Christ and therefore wasted it. This is also symbolic because just as the priest spills Jesus’ blood in vain, so Christians would believe that Jesus spilt his blood for Flynn in vain as he did not accept the offer of forgiveness and reconciliation.
This spillage may have been why he was not allowed to receive Blessed Unction as the priests deemed it too higher sin to be pardoned. But as this seems unlikely it may have been that the priest committed even bigger crimes possibly including the boy. We also see the degradation of the Catholic Church in the burlesque way in which the boy talks about spirituality. For example, he says ‘I was not surprised when he told me that the fathers of the church had written books as big as the Post Office Directory’.
This bathetic description of holy scriptures reduces the spiritual to the grossly quotidian and shows the narrator’s lack of respect for the Church. Secondly, Joyce shows how the Dublin Catholic Church has misused its power and has had a negative influence on the city. We first come across a result of this simony in the form of the boy protagonist. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that the boy has been badly treated by the priest and has been in a manipulative relationship with him.
The first effect of this abusive relationship on the boy we see is the pride and arrogance instilled in his personality through the priest. He ‘though his (priest’s) words idle’ which shows that even though he respected the priest as a teacher, he doubted the man’s judgement. The boy is also using a self-important and cynical syntax which shows his precociousness and mordancy. We also see this arrogance in the way the boy regards his family. ‘Tiresome old red-nosed imbecile! ‘ shows how although the protagonist does not voice his disgust at his lower class origins he certainly harbours judgemental and disdainful thoughts.
He is also shown not to have compassion for his relatives when he goes to see his Nannie with his aunt: ‘I could not gather my thoughts because the old woman’s mutterings distracted me’ This shows that he is so caught up in his own contempt and scorn for his own Grandmother that he cannot pray himself. This shows that indirectly the priest has lead the boy away from spirituality, as here we see that the arrogant attitude that the priest has cultivated within him has lead to him being less religious.
The negative effect that the Catholic Church had on the Dublin society can also be seen subliminally in the use of the word ‘gnomon’ which means ‘the part of a parallelogram that remains after a similar parallelogram has been taken away from one of its corners’. This is an illustration for the damaged society in which the protagonist lived in, a society that has something missing. The missing part could be anything although Joyce is probably suggesting that Dublin lacks spiritual assurance and confidence.
Gnomon can also mean the stylus of a sundial, in other words the part that casts the shadow. This is symbolic because there is a shadow cast on the Dublin society by the Catholic Church. The society has subsumed the Catholic values and so is blindly following the Church and its strictures despite the fact that it is needlessly constricting any development of the social confidence it needs. But the main misuse of religious power we see is that of the priest in his manipulative relationship with the boy.
We have already seen how it affected the boy but to see a true metaphor for the simonaic nature of the Church at the time is the priest. We first hear about ‘simony’ on the first page where the boy is describing words that sound ‘strangely’ in his ears. Simony ironically is one which the boy is drawn to, although he is probably unaware that he has been exploited by the priest (a manifestation of this sin). Although we do not hear or see him in the novella we can gain a picture of him through the descriptions given by others. Mr Cotter describes him as ‘one of those… eculiar cases’ and says that ‘he had a great wish for him (the boy)’.
This suggests that the priest wanted the boys as his acolyte rather than leading him towards spirituality. We also see the priest’s pleasure in dominating the boy: ‘sometimes he amused himself by putting difficult questions to me’ and ‘some he used to put me through responses’ show the priest’s enjoyment in bolstering his ville der macht. On narrative device that Joyce uses is epiphany. All the protagonists in ‘Dubliners’ experience some kind of epiphany.
Epiphany plays a powerful role in Modernist literature and Joyce being a Modernist was no exception. It is possible that there is a double epiphany in ‘The Sisters’. One of the priest and one of the boy. We are told that the priest was found ‘sitting up by himself in the dark in his confession-box, wide-awake and laughing-like softly to himself’. It may have been that the priest, realising how close he was to death, finally saw his own perversion and saw the dark, irrevocable truth of the nature of his simony.
The manic laughter could be his way of coping with it seeking hysteria rather than to actually confront his sins. He may also have seen the irony in the way he as a member of the clergy should be a role model but now sees his own lack of morality. The laughter may indicate that the priest was suffering from some kind of nervous degeneration due to a disease (‘when they saw that, that made them think that there was something wrong with him’). This form of dark, unsettling epiphany can also been seen in other Modernist literature of the time.
For example, when Kurtz in ‘Heart of Darkness’ utters the cry ‘the horror! The horror! ‘ at the point of his death as he realises the true nature of life and sees the folly of men. The boy also undergoes some form of epiphany when he realises at the end of the text that the priest has lead a life devoid of spirituality and grace. This is shown the last line of description given to him: ‘an idle chalice on his breast’. This suggests that the boy realises that the priest was spiritually useless and that his heart was not set on pure Catholicism.
Joyce also introduces a main theme of Home Rule. This was the ruling of Ireland by Britain and the inability to have its own government. The first indication of this imperial rule is an interpretation of the sundial related meaning of the word ‘gnomon’ (it is the stylus). We have already seen how this shadow-casting stylus could represent the oppressive nature of Catholic hegemony but it may also represent the oppression of imperial rule. At this time there was a nationalistic malaise cast over Dublin and this is represented by the shadow of the sundial.
We have already seen that the priest’s death day, July 1st, is significant in a religious context but it also is the day on which the Protestant King William of Orange defeated the Catholic King James in 1690 in the Battle of the Boyne and subsequently started the long reign of English monarchs over Ireland. Also, we are reminded again of home rule by the use of the street name ‘Great Britain Street’ which shows that British imperialism has fully infiltrated the Dublin society, even down to the street names. Finally Joyce uses the narrative device of ellipsis.
This is the deliberate evasion of the truth by the characters for the sake of respectability. Firstly the narrator himself does not disclose any scandalous information concerning the priest although there is no implication that he knows any. But more importantly we see his relatives discussing the priest and clearly leaving out any words that might cause offence. For example, Mr Cotter says ‘he was one of those… peculiar cases… But it’s hard to say… ‘ Here we have a clear visual representation of this ellipsis in the form of the ‘… .
We see this again when the uncle seems just about to disclose what it is that the boy and the priest have been doing which they should not have and then the voice trails off again: ‘let a lad run about and play with young lads of his own age and not be… ‘. In conclusion, Joyce uses many themes and narrative devices effectively to portray his views about Dublin life. These include the faults in the Catholic Church of the time, the oppressive rule of the English and also the narrative devices of ellipsis and epiphany.