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Monday, December 20, 2010

DUBLINERS, by James Joyce: "The Sisters"

"Synesthesia," by Kandinsky
One of my favorite experiences via reading comes only every once in a while, generally after multiple readings of a single work, and maybe that only after a significant piece of time has permitted the buildup of nostalgia, in which case it has to be a book or story I've really enjoyed.  It's synesthesia, which, in this case, is the sensation of a sense (sight, smell, touch, etc.) triggered via the triggering of another sense.  Example: while reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and sitting there with the Buckets in their ratty little room, I smell (really smell--not just the imagining of smell) the yellow age and the brown decrepitude and general despair.  Know what I mean?  Surprisingly, to me at least, I got this same sensation, with those very same colors and smells no less, from my first reading of "The Sisters," the first story of Joyce's collection, as well as the first piece he ever published.

Aside from synesthetic pleasure, I was--and to coin the noisome gobbledygook--underwhelmed, and that despite getting it all the more (though certainly not completely) upon the second go 'round, at which point I was still underwhelmed, though less so (good sign).  Thus the problem of unrealistically elevated expectations.  See, when I read All the Pretty Horses (which is still too close to my heart to objectify for a decent review), I started thinking, "Come on, it can't really be as good as all that!"  I was wrong.  Woefully, pathetically, dismally wrong.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I read the introduction to the collection before I read the first story.  Usually this is a good thing, and at the very least I did gain some perspective on Joyce and Dublin, but man!  Either this lady totally hero-worships Joyce, or Joyce truly is the greatest writer ever to put pen to paper.  Blindly, and with mounting excitement hell-bent for certain disappointment, I turned to the first story, "The Sisters."

At its most basic: a boy's Catholic priest mentor dies, the boy's unsure whether to be sad or not, he has a dream where her flits off to Persia, and the next day goes, under escort of his aunt, to the dead priest's place to pay his respects, where the priest's two sisters talk about the deceased, who apparently went a little off plumb toward the end of his life.

Despite the story's size--or lack thereof--there's a heck of a lot here, the problem is I don't know how to put it all together, nor do I have a context, generally lent by a title, with which to frame it. The context of the whole thing is Dublin, the place, about which I should be able to draw a mental landscape (indication of needed research!) for the stories; one story isn't enough, but I should be able to gain something of the city--or potentially so--from these eight pages.  Not much.  But if so, then, well, it's unlikely Joyce thought much of his hometown, especially if Charlie Bucket's pathetic Dahl-ian home is my first point of comparison.

For example, the whole story smells like crap.  Really.  It's dirty--brown and yellow--and redolent as the old priest's snuff-laden teeth and for-surely charnel-house breath.

While the overall significance of this story is, to me, ambiguous--especially the title, which, for crying out loud, references two entirely ancillary, or so-seemingly, characters--there are two particularly telling elements:

The Dream: After a long walk, during which the boy reminisces at length ("length," anyway, compared to the overall brevity of the story) on the dead man, and wondering why he "felt even annoyed at discovering in myself a sensation of freedom as if I had been freed from something by his death," he goes to bed and dreams of the old man's gray face, swinging lamps, and Persia.  And perhaps here we get an early glimpse at the great skill involved in the story's composition: this dream is told in two segments.  In fact (and it's only in looking back for the sentence referring to the gray face that I make this separation), it's the previous night and before he goes for the walk that he dreams; it is toward the end of his walk that he remembers the dream, including portions he'd earlier forgotten.  All of this, flashbacks, etcetera, flow together seamlessly, as if the entire story were also, surprisingly, a dream--a really morbid dream.

The Priest's Decline:  I get the sense that Father Flynn (made me think of Doubt, by the way, and I wonder if there's a tribute there from Shanley to the one-eyed author) wasn't much of a priest; and the sisters say this outright in the end, and that he was nervous....  The family friend, Old Cotter, speaks poorly of Flynn and no one--not a soul--attends the funeral, not even Father O'Rourke, who came to help the sisters clip off the loose ends, which he likely did not for the good of the deceased by for the sisters.  It turns out that Flynn's gone a bit off the twist, which started, apparently, with the dropping and breaking of a chalice, which he happens to hold on his chest now in death.  I'm guessing he dropped it during the throws of an early stroke, the same ailment that ended up doing him in.  The last sentence we get in the story includes the puzzling information that one of his last appearances in the church was sitting in his confessional laughing.  Death and paralysis indeed!  And he was a simoniac to boot, apparently.  Hmm....  Perplexities....  (Pointedly placed ellipses....)

A couple other tidbits:  1, Both the sisters and Old Cotter have a tendency, deplorable to the boy in Old Cotter, though left unmentioned regarding the old girls, to drop their sentences off in ellipses; and 2, three words the boys mulls over as he watches Father Flynn's window in the opening: gnomon, simony, and paralysis, all of which sound "strangely in his ears."

I don't have any great "therefore-what."  I've got a lot of thoughts--and more than what I've got put down here--but I can't draw a conclusion, not without putting it in context of the rest of the book, or at least another story or two.

Interesting, though: just the effort and second/third looks it's taken to write out this little entry has piqued my curiosity and interest--both appetizingly held at bay against a future read (during which time some nostalgia might even set in?) --for what more there might be between the lines here that I haven't seen, let alone comprehended, yet.  Like I said before, there's a lot here, most of which I can't even see; but I just don't know how in the world to put it all together.  What's my context?  My framework?

And I'm not going to cheat!  I will discover it for myself!

One story down, fourteen to go.


  1. This does not mean I'm against comments and suggestions--just that if you happen to be an expert, don't go giving it all away!

  2. Oh, I think "Doubt" is totally a modern American spin on this. I suspect that, like in the play/movie, there may be a rather inappropriate relationship with the boy and the priest, or at least there is suspicion that there may have been one. I think that Joyce has to be subtle about it, though, because it may have been harder to countenance an attack on the church at the time.

    For one, at the beginning, the Old Cotter's talking about how he doesn't think it's good that a boy should hang around an older man like that. The boy is conspicuously silent the whole time, and we later find that he has ambivalent feelings about the priest. Then, you brought up the way that they don't finish their sentences. There was this quote, "And everything...?" to which the response suggests that this question was about the Last Rites and that they were performed. There is an endnote in my addition that says that the Last Rites would not have been performed had there been some sort of inappropriate action. But I don't think this exonerates him because the question asked means Joyce wants us to know that people SUSPECT that there was something inappropriate (just like in "Doubt"). Finally, he is going mad in Confessional. Well why has he cracked? Is it guilt? We don't really know. The whole thing reminds me very much of "Doubt" and I don't think it's just because I loved the movie.

  3. These are all suspicions that I had as well, and it also all corroborates Joyce's general feelings for the Catholic church, from what I understand. The more I think about it, the more it really does seem like "Doubt." And that just seems to make the whole story better, not to mention a little less opaque.

    From what I read in the intro, the collection is self-divided into periods of age, and the first two or three stories are built around youth. I'm interested and eager to see how the other two stories play against this first one, especially where it concerns the questionable relationships between youth and adults, which is such a common theme from this period--and all periods, really.

    It's quite a story just as a stand alone, but I'm still withholding an overall conclusion, especially where concerns its difficult title.

  4. True. My initial reaction to the title is possibly it's a play on words: "sisters" as in nuns, but I'm not sure how it plays in yet. It's a tough cookie to crack.

    I agree with you on not being absolutely certain it's what Joyce is trying to write, but it also fits in with what we know about his other writings, which are often pretty sexual/anticlerical.

  5. As anti-clerical and sexual as joyce may be, I don't think that kind of relationship existed between the boy and Father Flynn. I didn't want to believe it possible at first namely because it's become easy to dump the "hidden meaning" of priestly inuendo on anything involving a priest. Especially when a priest and young boy are concerned, it's become reflex to say, "Oh, priest banged the boy. Mystery solved." While there is some allusion to the suspicion of such an affair, Joyce is pretty clearly telling us that it is nonexistent.

    Religion and science have never really played nice together (see: Copernicus, Galileo, et al.) So why then, in a story so clericly centered, did Joyce use the word gnomon in such close proximity to catechism? He's trying to show us something. Gnomon, as defined by Euclid, is the plane shape formed by removing a similar parallelogram from the corner of a larger parallelogram. What you end up with is a small piece that reflects the entirety of the piece from whence it came. Joyce uses it here to show us that the entirety of a charachter (specifically Fr. Flynn) is revealed by a small part of it. The only trait of Fr. Flynn that we explicitly know about is his simony, which is most likely what he is confessing to our narrator, and to himself in the confessional.

    Therefore, while people may suspect a torrid affair, he is merely a simoniac. Mystery solved.

  6. Addendum: the proximity (textual and contextual) of gnomon and simony is arranged to make the reader subconciously group the two together.

  7. I agree, Ben, that it could never be so simple with Joyce as the oh-so-stereotypical priest/boy innuendo issue, and not because it was not a stereotype when and where this was written--at least not publicly (of course there have been problems of this nature, well, forever). I agree with you because simony is the sin. If anyone, including characters AND readers, believes there's something torrid going on between priest and boy, then it's the so-called grownups. Grownups are suspicious when they don't know something for a fact because grownups are suspicious.

    Apart from that, I really like your contextualization of gnomon. Well done. However, I can't one-hundred percent agree that this MUST BE THE CASE, though it is a distinct possibility. Joyce was not lauded, as was/has been, for example, Carroll, Pynchon, and Hulme, for proficiency in the sciences. This certainly does not disqualify him for making such an intentionalized paring. I'm just saying that we can't say FOR SURE that this is why he did pare them.

  8. Question reiterated: WHY IS IT CALLED "THE SISTERS"?

  9. Ben -- i was looking at gnomon just now and thinking particularly as its transalation/usage as "indicator." Mathematically this is obviously the case; literarilly in lit it's metonymy), this is exactly what each of Joyce's stories is--a small piece that fully indicates, if obliquely, a greater whole. Nowhere have I found someone who can say so much with so few words.

  10. That's pretty trippy. I hadn't thought about an entire story as gnomon. The collection, then is akin to Atwood's Moral Disorder collection: each story revolves around the same character and the stories (collected) reveal a much greater story.

    Thinking about it, it shares similarities in its episodic nature with Salinger's Glass family and even Tortilla Flat.

  11. Also, I have no clue why it's titled "The Sisters" I need to read it again.

  12. Episodes set to collect a picture of the greater whole are all over the place. Even "Dubliners," of course, would qualify, as Joyce intended each story to act as a piece of the whole of a description of Dublin.

  13. I suppose they are. I just never really stopped to think about it before.


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