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Dubliners | Study Guide

James Joyce

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The Sisters

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of "The Sisters" from James Joyce's short story collection Dubliners.

Dubliners | The Sisters | Summary



The child narrator, a young boy who lives with his aunt and uncle, learns his friend, a retired priest called Father Flynn, is dying after having suffered a stroke. The boy passes by Father Flynn's house each night after he hears this news, looking for the reflection of candles in the window that would indicate he is dead. He never approaches the house but stands outside and muses on the priest's paralysis.

Soon after this news, the narrator comes downstairs for dinner to find the neighbor, Mr. Cotter, sitting with his uncle. Mr. Cotter tells the narrator Father Flynn has died and speculates about the priest's odd quirks. The narrator's uncle tells Mr. Cotter that the boy considered Father Flynn a good friend, while the aunt prays for Father Flynn's soul. After a few moments of thought, Mr. Cotter says he would not want his children "to have too much to say to a man like that," and explains that he thinks boys should play with other boys. The narrator's uncle agrees. The aunt challenges Mr. Cotter's thinking but does not get a clear answer. Mr. Cotter remains vague, saying, "It is bad for children ... because their minds are so impressionable. When children see things like that, you know, it has an effect."

At this point the narrator digs into his dinner and tunes out Mr. Cotter's talk. At night the narrator has foggy dreams about Father Flynn's "grey face" trying to whisper a confession. The next morning, the narrator walks by Father Flynn's home and observes the death notice on the door. He thinks of the times his aunt would send him to Father Flynn's with a box of snuff that Father Flynn would dribble on his priestly robes, and he thinks about all the things Father Flynn taught him: Latin, European history, and church ceremonies and traditions. Then he thinks about Mr. Cotter's words from the previous evening and the dream he cannot quite remember.

In the evening the narrator goes with his aunt to pay his respects to Father Flynn and his two sisters. Nannie leads them upstairs to kneel by the body and pray. The narrator looks at the body, which is not smiling, but dressed in his priestly robes and "loosely retaining a chalice." The narrator and his aunt go downstairs to sit with Nannie and the other sister, Eliza, and have a small glass of sherry. The sisters also offer the narrator some crackers, which he declines.

Eliza and Nannie tell the aunt that Father Flynn died peacefully, and they marvel at how good his corpse looks. They talk about the work of taking care of their brother and how they will miss his presence in the house. Eliza speculates about her brother's decline, dropping his prayer book on the floor and "lying back in the chair and his mouth open." But he also talked about renting a car and taking a drive out to the house where the three of them were born. Then Eliza alludes to the end of Father Flynn's career as a priest, how he dropped a chalice during a service, which made him mopey and nervous. He would wander out alone at night, which became a problem one night when the other priests needed him to go out on a call. They found him in the chapel's confessional, "wide-awake and laughing-like softly to himself." Eliza concludes the story by saying, "So then, of course, when they saw that, that made them think that there was something gone wrong with him."


The child narrator is both afraid of and fascinated by the priest's paralyzed condition and the concept of death in general. He lives with his aunt and uncle, so there is a chance his parents are dead, but the narrator's age also implies this is the first time in his life he has been aware of someone dying. He waits for Father Flynn to die, in a state of paralysis of his own. He does not approach the house, nor does he go directly home. He just lingers in the street outside, waiting to see candles lit inside the house, a religious sign that he believes will release him from his paralysis.

When the narrator finally visits the house with his aunt, he discovers Father Flynn's sisters are experiencing a paralysis of their own, enduring grief and retelling old stories about their brother. They are unsure what they will do with their days now that he is gone, as his care has taken up much of their time. Nannie appears to have been his primary caregiver, but Eliza is trapped in memories about her brother's decline. She recalls the incidents that led to him leaving the church, starting with a dropped chalice—the large cup used to serve wine during holy communion at Mass—which made Father Flynn nervous and ashamed. She makes a point of saying the chalice was empty, clarifying that the communion wine treated as the blood of Christ in the ritual was not desecrated by touching the ground. The chalice is not supposed to touch the ground, either, but this is a lesser offense that everyone knows was accidental. The incident signals the beginning of Father Flynn's deterioration, perhaps indicating that a loss of motor skills might have been a precursor to his first stroke (he has three before he dies).

The image of Holy Communion emerges again when the narrator is offered crackers and sherry during his visit to the grieving household. Sherry is a wine-based product, and cream crackers are of a similar texture to communion wafers. The narrator accepts the sherry but refuses the crackers, fearing he will make too much noise by eating them. His refusal of the crackers echoes Father Flynn's fear of desecrating the communion ceremony by dropping the chalice, just as the narrator fears he will desecrate the peace of the household by crunching on crackers.

The incident from which Father Flynn cannot recover is having been found in the confessional laughing to himself. Eliza's last line, where she says "they" thought something was wrong with Father Flynn after this discovery reveals a level of denial on her part. A priest sitting in a confessional giggling in the middle of the night is not objectively normal behavior, but she seems to shift blame to the other church officials rather than acknowledge her brother may have had problems in his mind, either psychological or physical, before his first stroke. Furthermore, even though the pressures of his job clearly affected Father Flynn, he may not have accepted that he is no longer a practicing priest before he dies. He continues to wear his vestments, formal dress robes for the clergy, after he is debilitated enough to remain at home by the fire and dependent on others for his care—although it is possible the choice of dress is another expression of his sisters' denial of his disgrace.

Other members of the community are more open about Father Flynn's shortcomings. Mr. Cotter makes multiple references to Father Flynn's odd behavior. He may be alluding only to the incidents Eliza explains later in the story, which would certainly be common knowledge in the community, when he says he does not think it is healthy for the narrator to be around Father Flynn. He could also be referencing Father Flynn's sickly appearance after his stroke and a desire to limit the child's exposure to death and the dying. Either of these conditions would be sufficient to limit a child's exposure, but there is also an implication in the way Mr. Cotter speaks in fragments and indirect implications that Father Flynn represented a more sinister danger to a child.

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