Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Not "Too Much Noise": Joyce's "The Sisters" in Irish Catholic Perspective

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Not "Too Much Noise": Joyce's "The Sisters" in Irish Catholic Perspective

Article excerpt

The famous first story of Joyce's Dubliners is a triumph of "technique as discovery."(1) All aspects of "The Sisters" delineate theme. Imagery, irony, structure, point of view, tone, archetypes, and underlying myths: they unite to delineate a human relationship distorted by inadequate love. Interpreters of the story have tended to take their lead from the three words that preoccupy the boy at the start: paralysis, gnomon, and simony. Of these, the term most often discussed is "gnomon," a parallelogram from which a section is missing. Most discussions of the word emphasize the missing section, often by way of morally criticizing the retired priest whom the boy, the narrator of the story, has been visiting. But a gnomon is not its missing section; it is what remains after the section has been removed: an irregular geometrical shape in which all lines have parallels. The term "gnomon" may illuminate the structure of Joyce's story, which is a kind of parallelogram--or, at least, a constellation of parallels or correspondences.(2) These involve structure, imagery, and character. All the suggestive parallels in the story ultimately illuminate the central correspondence between the boy and the priest. This correspondence derives its meaning from a subtle interrelationship of psychology, Catholic liturgical form and theology, scriptural myth, and Irish colloquial idiom--an interrelationship that must be appreciated if the story is to be fully understood.

The obvious initial parallel is between the priest and the distillery worker, "old Cotter," who is talking with the boy's uncle when the boy learns of the priest's death. Cotter and the priest are both old. Both tell stories. The priest is a spiritual man by profession and no doubt to some degree personally. So is Cotter, but in a secular sense. He works or worked in a distillery producing 'spirits' and is "red-nosed," a drinker (11). Redness is an association shared with the priest, whose surname, Flynn, is Gaelic for 'red.' The two men have been rivals for the boy's attention. Formerly, old Cotter's distillery stories had been "rather interesting" to the boy, who now considers Cotter a "tiresome old fool" (11). Recently the priest has enjoyed the boy's attention and companionship. Cotter may resent having lost the boy as audience to the priest.

For that reason, Cotter's hesitant criticism of the priest and the boy's relationship with him is initially suspect. In retrospect, however, Cotter's criticism seems based on sound intuition. To the boy's uncle he says of the priest, "I wouldn't say he was exactly . . . but there was something queer . . . there was something uncanny about him. I'll tell you my opinion. . . . " (9-10). Ellipses may indicate pipe-puffing but also the breakdown of language colliding with the conventional respect due a priest and a person recently dead. "'I have my own theory about it,' he said. 'I think it was one of those . . . peculiar cases. . . . But it's hard to say. . . .'" and "'What I mean is, . . . it's hard for children. My idea is: let a young man run about and play with young lads of his own age and not be . . .'" (10). Other hesitations to speak and awkward, respectful silences recur significantly, as we shall see, at the priest's wake. Cotter never manages to articulate precisely what his objection is. And because we know only that the priest has been paralyzed by strokes, we suspect Cotter of ridiculous bias against paralytics, a bias shared apparently by some Joyce critics who see the physical ailment as symbolic of some moral distortion.(3) Not until the end of the story does the reader discover that "something had gone wrong" mentally with the priest (18).

When Cotter makes his criticism, he may seem to suggest that he thinks the priest is homosexual.(4) It is a suggestion heightened by the lustful connotations of the priest's smile--"he used to uncover his big discoloured teeth and let his tongue lie upon his lower lip" (13)--but of course the grotesque smile is merely a consequence of physical paralysis. …

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