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Dubliners | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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In Dubliners how does the child narrator in "The Sisters" feel about death and dying?

The child narrator is interested in Father Flynn's death, but only from a distance. He mulls over the implications of the word "paralysis" and wants to see Father Flynn's condition for himself, but his fear of death prevents him from approaching the house. He is curious when the death notice appears on Father Flynn's door, but again, he is afraid to approach the house alone, even though Father Flynn's sisters undoubtedly know who the narrator is from his previous visits. He feels safer visiting the house in his aunt's company, and he goes into the room and pays his respects to Father Flynn's body without hesitation. He hopes to see Father Flynn smiling in his coffin but when he pays attention to the corpse's face, he describes a "truculent" expression and the gray complexion. The narrator has already seen this gray face in a disturbing dream, which indicates he feared this sight before he actually saw it.

In "The Sisters" in Dubliners, how does the child narrator's experience with Father Flynn relate to Mr. Cotter's ideas about the priest?

Mr. Cotter makes the child narrator angry with incomplete and broken insinuations about Father Flynn's character. The story never makes clear whether Mr. Cotter is alluding to Father Flynn's documented unusual behavior—dropping a chalice, giggling in a confessional in the middle of the night—or more sinister, even predatory, behavior around children. It is possible Mr. Cotter just does not think a child should spend significant time with someone who is clearly dying. At any rate, the narrator has come to like Father Flynn and believes he has learned a lot from the priest. He does not like Mr. Cotter saying these things about him. However, the narrator also seems to confirm some of Mr. Cotter's possible theories. The child narrator confesses he found it unsettling when Father Flynn "used to uncover his big discoloured teeth and let his tongue lie upon his lower lip" when he smiled. He also describes Father Flynn's habit of dribbling snuff down his robes. There is nothing particularly sinister about these observations, either, but they indicate the boy has felt uncomfortable in Father Flynn's presence on occasion. The dream the child narrator recounts of Father Flynn's gray face whispering a confession to him also mirrors Mr. Cotter's implications because the dream, like Mr. Cotter's statements, is incomplete in the narrator's mind. The presence of nightmares also serves as evidence that the child narrator's relationship with a dying man has not been entirely good for his childhood development.

What is the significance of the title "The Sisters" in Dubliners?

The title "The Sisters" refers to Father Flynn's two sisters, Eliza and Nannie. Father Flynn left the clergy in an official capacity as his health has declined from repeated strokes, and Eliza and Nannie have been his primary company and caretakers ever since. They have some uncertainty about what they will do now that he is gone, and the title highlights their grief. Eliza says Nannie is "wore out" from caring for their brother and then tending to his body after he dies. The word "sisters" also evokes an alternate meaning of the term, often used as the honorific for nuns. Like actual nuns, Eliza and Nannie have lived their lives in service to someone in need of their help and serving the church by taking care of a priest, a job often assigned to nuns. They have made many of the same sacrifices nuns make when they take their vows. Reflecting the vow of poverty, they have made financial sacrifices for his care, as Eliza says, "as poor as we are—we wouldn't see him want anything while he was in it." Neither woman has married, which reflects the vow of chastity, and like nuns they live a fairly isolated life, confined to the house and devoted to their brother's care.

Why does the child narrator of "An Encounter" in Dubliners decide to "milch" or skip school?

The child narrator of "An Encounter" is driven by a number of seemingly contradictory motivating factors. He has been impressed by an older boy, Joe Dillon, who had "a little library" of Wild West books, but he is also intimidated by the rough way in which he plays. He admits that he, like some of the other boys, is motivated largely by a fear of what others will think of him if he does not participate in such games. These fears are confirmed when their school teacher, Father Butler, catches Joe's little brother, Leo, with some reading material from Joe's library. Everyone is shamed by Leo's berating, but over time, the narrator "began to hunger again for wild sensations."

How does their day out meet the boys' hopes, and how does it disappoint them in "An Encounter" in Dubliners?

Most of the day goes very well for the child narrator and Mahony. They are free of rules and move about unimpeded through the city. They get to do a little fighting when they encounter a band of children who thinks they are Protestants. They get to see interesting things, such as a Norwegian ship and its crew, but the narrator is disappointed that the men do not conform to type. He had thought all Norwegians would be tall and blond with green eyes; instead, they have a variety of eye colors. They meet people from other cultures on the ferry ride across the river, but they are serious and hardworking. The boys also get to eat the things they want, which mostly means sweets. They have currant buns for lunch and chocolate and biscuits with raspberry lemonade in the afternoon. The day reads like a young boy's fantasy come true. Unfortunately, they also discover that their plan was too ambitious; the Pigeon House is too far for them to reach on a hot day. Leo does not even bother to show, and they do not find anyone they can pelt with Mahony's catapult. These minor disappointments culminate in the encounter with the old man, of course, because this encounter is not at all the type of adventure they had in mind. It also reveals how far removed they actually are from the heroes in the books they read, who are always prepared for dangers and adventures and overcome them easily.

What does the child narrator find most threatening about the old man in "An Encounter" in Dubliners?

When the old man first sits down with the child narrator and Mahony, they think he is a bit strange, even creepy, with his talk of little girls and sweethearts, but they do not sense any malice from him. When he walks away from the boys and does his unspecified activity—which may be masturbation, but the details are not clear—the boys are surprised but not frightened. Mahony's comment, "he's a queer old josser," almost reads as a joke about the situation. While they feel uncomfortable enough to give the man fake names, they do not feel uncomfortable enough to leave the field and be on their way. This may be the result of naïveté or false bravado. Perhaps they feel safety in numbers, because the narrator only becomes nervous when Mahony leaves him alone with the man. At this point, the man also talks at length about whipping young boys, which is threatening on two levels. It expresses thoughts the boys might take as perverse, because the man seems to find some pleasure in the idea of punishing boys. On a practical level, it also means these boys in the field might receive a beating; as truants, they are precisely the kind of boys the man thinks deserve a whipping. Only when the man's words represent a direct and present threat to them do they feel threatened enough to make them want to leave.

Why does the child narrator not reveal Mangan's sister's name in "Araby" in Dubliners?

Mangan's sister is a real person only in the sense that she exists and is not a figment of the child narrator's imagination. However, she is not a real person to the narrator in the sense that he does not interact with her, learn her likes and dislikes, her flaws, her dreams, or anything meaningful about her personality at all. He idolizes Mangan's sister and fixates on the details of her appearance, the fall of her hair, the curve of her neck, the somewhat intimate exposure of a petticoat peeking from beneath her skirt. She is literally on a pedestal for him, standing on the steps above him, illuminated by the light from her doorway. To give Mangan's sister a name would involve understanding her identity beyond these superficial aspects and turn her into a regular person, depriving the narrator of the escape he finds in idolizing her.

For what purpose is "Araby" in Dubliners filled with sensuous details that are not evoked by either the sister or the bazaar?

The child narrator finds several books in the former tenant's room. The one he likes best has yellow leaves. Also, he found the "late tenant's rusty bicycle-pump" in the wild tangle of a garden (the Irish equivalent of a yard) behind their house. He vividly describes the light and the sky on the evenings of their childhood play, "an ever-changing violet" in which "the cold air stung us." He remembers the smells "from the ashpits" and the "stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness." And he remembers being alone one day in the back room and hearing "the rain impinge upon the earth, the fine incessant needles of water playing in the sodden beds." All of these details indicate that the narrator has vivid memories of this time in his life. For the first time perhaps, his physical sensations have been awakened by the novelty of first love, by the onset of puberty, by the incessant boring routine of everyday life now broken by the possibilities created by adolescence. So these days, hours, moments take on a brilliant tinge in his memory. The fact that they remain so brilliant for him may hint at the fact that they were never replaced by anything quite so wonderful.

Why does the child narrator not buy anything at the market in "Araby" in Dubliners?

When the child narrator gets to the bazaar, the place is nearly closed for the night and pickings are slim. Perhaps the bazaar was more lively and had more varied offerings earlier in the day, but at this point there are only ordinary objects available, such as tea sets and vases. The ordinary nature of the wares for sale crush the narrator's imaginings of an exotic bazaar filled with interesting objects. The narrator also seems intimidated by the scene. The girl manning an open stall speaks with an English accent and is impatient with him. Readers should remember that the English were considered both politically and financially higher in social class than the Irish were, so the encounter would have been intimidating for a young adolescent, who was also obviously not comfortable with young women. While the narrator never mentions the prices of any of the objects available for sale, he does mention the few coins in his pocket. It is possible he feels he cannot afford anything available for him to buy and is embarrassed by his lack of money. The wares at the bazaar are irretrievably out of his reach, just like Mangan's sister.

What connections exist between "Araby" and the other two childhood stories, "The Sisters" and "An Encounter," in Dubliners?

Parents are notably absent from all three stories. The child narrators in "The Sisters" and "Araby" live with their aunts and uncles, and the child narrator's parents in "An Encounter" are never mentioned. At any rate, the boys in all three stories have reasonably free range in their neighborhoods and around the city. The child narrator in "An Encounter" travels to the other side of the river near the Dublin port. The child narrator in "Araby" takes a tram late at night to the titular bazaar. A disturbing connection exists between Father Flynn in "The Sisters" and the old man in "An Encounter." Both men are described as having imperfect yellow teeth revealed in unsettling smiles. This connection may add credence to Mr. Cotter's theory in "The Sisters" that Father Flynn really was not fit to be around children. The narrator in "Araby" also makes an unwitting allusion to Father Flynn when he mentions a priest died in one of the rooms of his house before his family moved in. To complete the circle, the old man in "An Encounter" references books written by Sir Walter Scott and Lord Lytton. Scott wrote adventure novels and Lytton wrote horror and crime novels. In the room where the priest lived, the narrator of "Araby" finds a novel by Walter Scott and The Memoirs of Vidocq, the memoir of a criminal who became a detective in Paris. These references to adventure and crime stories reflect the boys' own thirst for adventure and escape, whether to the Pigeon House or a local bazaar. Each of the stories speak to a loss of innocence in childhood. The child narrator in "The Sisters" learns about the realities of death and grief. The child narrator in "An Encounter" learns about the menaces present in the real world away from the stories and playacting he loves. The child narrator of "Araby" learns how reality seldom measures up to the fantasies people construct.

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