The Sisters by James Joyce
In The Sisters by James Joyce we have the theme of paralysis and freedom. Taken from his Dubliners collection the story is narrated in the first person by an young unnamed boy and after first reading the story the reader realises that Joyce may be exploring the theme of paralysis. There is the obvious fact that Father Flynn has suffered a third stroke, which leaves him paralysed (Joyce may also be suggesting that not only is Father Flynn paralysed but that the Catholic Church too is paralysed). Also the narrator does not appear to spend any time playing with his peers, despite Old Cotter considering it important. Old Cotter feels that the narrator should be like other children, free to play rather than restricting or confining himself to the practices and teachings of the Church which the narrator spends his time learning from Father Flynn. By giving Old Cotter an opinion, Joyce may be suggesting that the narrator, because he is following the teachings of Father Flynn, is likewise paralysed. The reader also learns that the narrator had to prepare Father Flynn’s snuff for him, he was unable to do so himself. Again this inability or inaction of Father Flynn would suggest a sense of paralysis. There is also the fact that Father Flynn wanted (at some stage) to visit the old home where he was born (in Irishtown), though never got the opportunity. Again this inaction would suggest a paralysis.
The idea or theme of freedom also appears to be explored in the story. After reading the death notice on the door of Father Flynn’s home the narrator while he is walking away ‘found it strange that neither I nor the day seemed in a mournful mood and I felt even annoyed at discovering in myself a sensation of freedom.’ This statement is significant as it is through it that the reader realises that the narrator is no longer tied to the teachings of Father Flynn. It is also interesting that the narrator is annoyed with himself over his new sense of freedom. In essence he is not feeling as he is expecting to feel considering he had such a close bond with Father Flynn. However the important thing to note is that the narrator, despite Father Flynn’s death, feels a sense of freedom. Joyce may also be suggesting to the reader that people can reclaim their freedom by disassociating themselves from the Church.
Joyce also uses a lot of symbolism in the story. On several occasions he uses light or the lack of it to suggest the decline of the Church. At the beginning of the story the narrator describes the lighted window in Father Flynn’s house as being lit ‘faintly and evenly.’ To the narrator this symbolised that Father Flynn was still alive. If Father Flynn was dead the narrator expects to see ‘the reflection of candles on the darkened blind.’ It is also worth noting that on the occasions the narrator has visited Father Flynn he recalls Father Flynn in a ‘little dark room.’ Again this is significant as Joyce may be suggesting that the Church too is in the dark and just like Father Flynn is also dying.
Joyce also uses light again in the story to suggest to the reader the sense of freedom within the narrator. When he is walking away from Father Flynn’s home the narrator walks ‘slowly along the sunny side of the street.’ By using the word ‘sunny’ Joyce may be suggesting that people’s lives would actually improve should they separate themselves from the Church. Joyce also appears to be using Father Flynn’s teeth as symbolism. The reader learns that when Father Flynn smiled ‘he used to uncover his big discoloured teeth.’ This is significant as Joyce may be suggesting that the discoloured teeth ( yellow and brown, which suggest decay) also mirrors the decay of (within) the Catholic Church.
However the most significant symbolism in the story appears to be the chalice. It is mentioned on three occasions. It is first mentioned when the narrator sees Father Flynn in his coffin ‘he lay, solemn and copious, vested as for the altar, his large hands loosely retaining a chalice.’ It is also mentioned towards the end of the story when Eliza recalls the story of Father Flynn letting the chalice fall. Both of these occasions are important as Joyce may be suggesting to the reader that the rituals associated with the chalice (blood of Christ) may in fact be paralysing. Father Flynn after all, according to Eliza, went steadily downhill (if not mad) after the chalice fell. Despite the chalice being empty and as such being no more than that (an empty chalice). Father Flynn spent his time worrying about it which in turn Eliza believes assisted in his eventual madness.
The chalice is also mentioned at the end of the story when the narrator tells the reader that he knew ‘that the old priest was lying still in his coffin as we had seen him, solemn and truculent in death, an idle chalice on his breast.’ The fact that Joyce uses the word ‘idle’ may be important as it is possible that by doing so, Joyce is suggesting that the chalice serves no purpose, either as it lies on Father Flynn’s chest or as symbolism in the Catholic Church.
The incident in the confession box (as mentioned by Eliza) may also be significant. Though it is unclear as to what may have happened in the confession box, it is possible that Joyce by having Father Flynn sitting alone laughing is not only highlighting Father Flynn’s descent into madness but he may also be suggesting that the act or process of using the confession box to absolve oneself from sin, may like the chalice serve no purposeful role in society (or in the Catholic Church). It is possible that Father Flynn may have been seeking absolution for letting the chalice fall and on discovery that nothing happens (while seeking absolution), Father Flynn may also realise that everything that he had faith in (the Catholic Church and it’s practices) may not necessarily be as he thought.