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 The theme of paralysis in ‘The Sisters’

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تاريخ التسجيل : 21/02/2012

مُساهمةموضوع: The theme of paralysis in ‘The Sisters’   الإثنين مارس 26, 2012 1:31 pm

[The theme of paralysis in ‘The Sisters’
Trinity College/Dublin, School of English
Course: Anglo-Irish Literature
1993/94
(Revised essay)
Author: Carsten Blauth
In this essay, I will focus on the dominant theme of paralysis in ‘The Sisters’ and
illustrate the several kinds of inertias as experienced or demonstrated by the
characters.
The theme of paralysis that pervades the stories of Dubliners is introduced to the
reader in the opening story “The Sisters”. Since this was also the very first story
written for Dubliners in August 1904, the theme was present right at the moment of
conception of the book. Therefore, it is important to first take a closer look at the
conception of Dubliners.
In July 1904, George Russell proposed to Joyce that he should write something
“simple, rural?, livemaking?, pathos?” (R. Ellmann, James Joyce, p.163) which was
to be published in the Irish Homestead. But judging from the result, Joyce had
something quite different in mind. The stories written after Russell’s proposal appear,
in fact, to be written in simple and rather straightforward prose, but only at first
glance. Underneath the literal surface of the text, one can discover many layers of
symbolic meaning, pointing towards religious, political, social, sexual, psychological,
physical and other forms of paralysis. But what about the proposed rurality, then?
Joyce did not follow this particular suggestion, either, since he intended to focus on
urban middle-class Dublin as a paralyzed society. In a letter to C.P. Curran, Joyce
frankly declared his intention to “betray the soul of the hemiplegia or paralysis which
many consider a city” (R. Ellmann, James Joyce, p. 163). This leaves us with the
point of the stories being livemaking, as proposed by Russell.
2
‘The Sisters’ is, in fact, one of the least livemaking stories on can imagine. Indeed, a
young boy of about ten years of age recounts how he encountered death and
paralysis in the shape of a befriended paralytic priest - Father James Flynn - who
died after his third stroke. The boy’s father is not mentioned at all; other male figures
like Old Cotter and Uncle Jack are characterized as being unfit as role models.
Despite the fact that the priest was affected mentally after having broken an empty
chalice, he had become a father figure for the boy. The two seem to have been
friends for a period unknown, and “the old chap taught him a great deal” (Dubliners,
p.Cool. But, strangely enough, the encounter with his friend’s death – his first encounter
of that sort ever – leaves the boy only puzzled, with a slight sensation of a strange
freedom, but not mourning. Why? On the one hand, the boy recognizes that the
priest has taught him a lot of things about the church, like the “meaning of the
different […] vestments worn by the priest”. In their regular conversations, they also
touched upon rather sophisticated subjects (history, Latin, theology). But on the other
hand it is through general innuendo and the discussion of the deceased by the boy’s
aunt and the priest’s sisters that he gradually becomes aware of the appalling story
behind Father Flynn’s grey face, the trembling hands and the idiotic smile. He
encounters the priest’s spiritual paralysis, and the sensitive boy is confused, repulsed
and disappointed.
But why is the story entitled ‘The Sisters’, if it is for the most part about a boy’s
recollections of a paralytic priest and his first encounter with death? Are the priest’s
sisters affected by this Irish paralysis as well? I think that they experience paralysis in
three different ways: sexually, spiritually and socially. These inertias all relate to one
common cause: their brother’s church career. We know, for example, that Father
Flynn had been educated at the Irish College in Rome, which means that he must
have been a very bright and promising child. But it also suggests that the education
must have cost the family a good deal of money. We can presume that, since the
hopes of this poor Irishtown family focussed entirely on James’ prestigious church
career, neither thought nor money was spent on the education of James’ sisters. For
example, they speak of the “Freeman’s General” instead of Freeman’s Journal and
“rheumatic wheels”. Nor could the family afford to supply an adequate dowry. As a
result of these shortcomings, the sisters experienced a kind of sexual paralysis: the
3
moral standards at the time, dictated by rigid Catholic doctrine and the fact that they
were the sisters of a future priest, almost certainly prevented them from becoming
sexually active without the blessing of the Church, i.e. the sacrament of marriage. But
it seems like they never married at all. As a consequence, the sisters most certainly
started working in order to earn a living in case of their parent’s death. The drapery
store evidently never got them any fortunes, and Eliza and Nannie seem weighed
down by the burden of their lives and “God knows we done all we could [for him], as
poor as we are” (Dubliners, p.14). Thus, being barred from marriage and education
by poverty, the sisters experience a social paralysis insofar as they cannot, by any
means, improve their situation, a feature not uncommon for women in these days.
Their fate is worsened by the fact that they have to take care of their brother and
support him. But do they rebel against their fate? No. Joyce did not link these
characters with the theme of angry but unsuccessful revolt that is omnipresent in
Dubliners. The sisters have come to accept their burden just like Jesus Christ
accepted the cross to which he was to be nailed to. It is not only Father Flynn’s life
that is “crossed”. One might say that the sisters’ lives are crossed, too, and that they
are ‘nailed’ to a paralytic church, symbolized by their paralytic brother-priest, while
their own paralysis is symbolized by their “great sacrifices […] to maintain a defective
church.” (Z. Bowen, Companion to Joyce Studies, p.174). There is no sign of escape
or redemption - actually “there [is] no hope” (Dubliners, p.7).
Joyce clearly does not veil his opinion that the Catholic Church is responsible for a
large portion of Irish paralysis. But he also quietly hints at another malefactor:
England. The death notice on the door lets us know that the priest died on 1st of July
1895. This hints at a very important and at the same time traumatizing event in Irish
history: the Battle of the Boyne (July 1st 1690). The date is also that of the Feast of
the Most Precious Blood which can be associated to Father Flynn, his strokes, the
broken chalice and the sherry served in the death-room. But in this context, the
historic reading is more important. The historic defeat of Catholic forces loyal to
James II. by Orange forces supporting William III. eventually led to the establishment
of English Protestant Ascendancy and further oppression of the Catholic faith. This
date, with all its emotional and historical connotations, gives the story its historic
dimension and blames England for a considerable proportion of Irish paralysis.
4
Furthermore, all the different forms of paralysis as experienced by the priest and his
sisters, centre on that “little house in Great Britain Street” (Dubliners, p.10). It is there
that the paralytic priest is cared for by his apathetic sisters who never married, who
are poor and uneducated but still support him devotedly. It is there where the priest
dies on the day of the Battle of the Boyne and where he experiences, so to say,
eternal paralysis.[/left]
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