The Sisters by James Joyce, 1904
The magic trick:
The narrative handoff near the end of the story
Today begins something a little different for the SSMT site. We’re going to do 15 straight days of James Joyce. Not only that – it’s 15 days of Dubliners. Each story, in order, sorted for you with the casual ignorance you’ve come to expect from yours truly. Let us begin then…
This book changed my life. Let’s start there. There are only a few cultural experiences I can look back on and say, “Yeah, that was immediately significant.” The list off the top of my head? Flannery O’Connor, the Velvet Underground, Dubliners, and maybe “The Wonder Years.” I really, really liked that show when it was on.
“The Sisters” starts the collection off in fine form, as it is both an excellent representative of what the book is all about and one of its very best stories. Joyce uses a strange kind of narrative handoff in this story. The first two-thirds or so are told from the first-person point of view of a boy. He’s too young to really understand quite what is going on, and the defiance of youth is blocking him for making much progress on the case. Because he’s our only window into the story’s world, we, too, feel a little confused about just what is happening.
Then comes the magic trick. About two-thirds in, as I said, things switch. Joyce still employs the first-person narration, but throughout the final scene in the house of mourning, the boy talks less for himself and more as a impartial reporter. It’s nearly a third-person narrative feel now. What he reports is the conversation between the two sisters. It’s in this section that the reader is able to really analyze what in fact has happened in this story.
It’s a very cool device, and one that sets the tone for Dubliners. These stories are going to rely on us, the reader, to interpret the action. Very little is obvious or certainly didactic here. So in that sense, the reader can dig into these stories with a tremendous sense of freedom to analyze and explore. But at the same time, Joyce is going to control your point of view, word for word. Even as the narrative seems to switch to a third-person feel at the end of “The Sisters,” we’re still reading the story through the boy’s perspective.
So, Dubliners offers a very controlled freedom. A labored subtlety. A mannered ambiguity.
And that’s quite a trick on Joyce’s part.
Eliza took out her handkerchief and wiped her eyes with it. Then she put it back again in her pocket and gazed into the empty grate for some time without speaking.
“He was too scrupulous always,” she said. “The duties of the priesthood was too much for him. And then his life was, you might say, crossed.”
“Yes,” said my aunt. “He was a disappointed man. You could see that.”
A silence took possession of the little room and, under cover of it, I approached the table and tasted my sherry and then returned quietly to my chair in the comer. Eliza seemed to have fallen into a deep revery. We waited respectfully for her to break the silence: and after a long pause she said slowly:
“It was that chalice he broke…. That was the beginning of it. Of course, they say it was all right, that it contained nothing, I mean. But still…. They say it was the boy’s fault. But poor James was so nervous, God be merciful to him!”
“And was that it?” said my aunt. “I heard something….”