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The short stories collected in Dubliners are mostly predecessors and characterizations of James Joyce's later works. "The Sisters" is no different. It, along with "An Encounter" and "Araby," are drawn from Joyce's personal memories and sentiments. The young boy and the characteristics of these short stories are an indirect sampling of Joyce's next published work, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a novel mostly written from his own memory. "The Sisters," by James Joyce, is a story that mingles unworldly associations with an aim to teach with realistic endeavor, revealing truths of life and death.
This short story revolves around a young boy's struggle to affirm and rationalize the death and insanity of an important figure in his life. The narrator arrives home to find that Father James Flynn, a confidant and informal educator of his, has just passed away, which is no surprise, for he had been paralyzed from a stroke for some time. Mr. Cotter, a friend of the family, and his uncle have much to say about the poor old priest and the narrator's relationship with him. The narrator is angered by their belief that he's not able, at his young age, to make his own decisions as to his acquaintances and he should "run about and play with young lads of his own age ..." That night, images of death haunt him; he attempts make light of the tormenting face of the deceased priest by "smiling feebly" in hopes of negating his dreadful visions. The following evening, his family visits the house of the old priest and his two caretakers, two sisters, where he lies in wake. There the narrator must try and rationalize his death and the mystery of his preceding insanity.
The title of "The Sisters" is in one instance a simple title, but it may also indicate a greater, more expressive intent. First, on a mundane level, the title "The Sisters" signifies the two sisters, Nannie and Eliza, who have taken care of the priest in his illness and have helped to arrange the formalities of his passing -- embalmment and documents of burial and insurance. The two sisters give sentiments of Father Flynn about the occurence in the months prior to his passing, helping to explain his stricken condition, always repeating, "Ah, poor James!" Secondly, on a more significant and symbolic level, the title may connotate the relationship of insanity to death of that of the close relationship between sisters.
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"Comparing The Sisters, An Encounter, and Araby." 123HelpMe.com. 25 Feb 2020
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Since this story is in the first person from the young boy's viewpoint, one can conclude much about his characteristics and disposition. The narrator is knowledgeable for his young age, since Father Flynn had taught him extensively about numerous corners of society, history, religion and literature. This knowledge is evident in his actions both to the reader and to the other characters in the story. His uncle refers to him as a "Rosicrucian" -- a member of a private organization of philosophy and learning whose purpose is to investigate the hidden secrets of nature and mysticism. He was angered by the scrutiny of Mr. Cotter and the ideas he forms about him. The narrator is more a thoughtful person than he is an overt one.
The narrator experiences a drastic change in this story. This passage displays this change and its cause:
"But no. When we rose and went up to the head of the bed I saw that he was not smiling. There he lay, solemn and copious, vested as for the altar, his large hands loosely retaining a chalice." -- p.14
Initially, the narrator represses the news of Father Flynn's passing, thereby requiring him to check his house the next morning just to confirm the truth of the grim tidings. He finally bears the fact of the priest's passing when he leans over his face, hoping to once again see his warm, friendly smile, but he sees a face of death, all the energy and life having been drained from his dear friend. The chalice lying in the priest's hands is a symbol of his insanity. The shattering of a similar chalice, months ago, was the beginning of Father Flynn's abnormal behavior. Most of the themes, symbolism, and change in this short story could be drawn from this brief passage.