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After writing and reading about Joyce’s own past and upbringing, it is very clear that The Sisters contains many similarities to James’s own life. Like Araby, this story also contains an interesting dialogue pattern and also raises some key questions about Catholicism and the Catholic faith. It is interesting to consider whether or not these questions about religion and faith set in a story so similar to James’ own childhood, are Joyce’s own questions and concerns about the Catholic faith and church.
After reading about Joyce’s life up until the point that he wrote Dubliners, it is very obvious the many references to Joyce’s own life. For example, a few similarities that jumped out at me were the fact that the Cobbler is a distiller, “but I soon grew tired of him and his endless stories about the distillery,” Joyce’s father was himself a failed distiller. Additionally, Joyce was educated by Jesuits, and in the story the main character was under the tutelage of Father Flynn, the deceased priest. “The old chap taught him a great deal.” Also the main character reflects, “Sometimes he amused himself by putting difficult questions to me …” Although the details to not match exactly Joyce’s own life, it is clear that they are drawn from his own experiences.
Two interesting observations about the structure is that in this story, the main character never gets a name, and also never speaks. As readers, we are privy to his thoughts, which serve as direct dialogue with the reader, so this may be the way in which Joyce addresses the major thinking and themes of the story without including a clear cut epiphany at the end of the story.
Unlike Araby, which has underlying tones about religion and faith, Joyce addresses Catholicism and faith head on in The Sisters. In the beginning of the story especially, Joyce is addressing belief and blind faith. In a similar mold of ‘doubting’ Thomas in the Bible. The main character does not believe Father Flynn is dead until he sees the evidence in front of him, and even then he still has trouble believing. Perhaps the main character has such a hard time believing because at the beginning of the story, he saw evidence, or what he thought to be evidence, that the father was still alive. “If he was dead, I thought, I would see the reflection of candles on the darkened blind for I knew that two candles must be set at the head of a corpse.” Later when he hears from the Cobbler that Father Flynn is dead, the main character pretends not to hear or care. “I knew that I was under observation so I continued eating as if the news had not interested me.” Later in bed, the main character would forget that the priest was dead and then later catch himself. “It began to confess to me in a murmuring voice and I wondered why it smiled continually and why the lips were so moist with spittle. But then I remembered that it had died of paralysis.” Only after he sees a card describing the death of Father Flynn, does the main character begin to believe, “The reading of the card persuaded me that he was dead …” But even still, the main character would later remark about his disbelief, “I found it strange that neither I nor the day seemed in a mourning mood.” Finally when the main character sees the priest in his coffin he realizes that the priest is dead.
There are two explanations for the disbelief on the part of the main character. The first would be a common example of denial, simply not accepting that a person has died. The fact that Joyce goes out of his way to mention that this was the priest’s third stroke, and the air of anticipation or expectance of death in the first paragraph of the story, make simple denial unlikely. So it is more likely that in discussing this issue of the main character not believing in the death of the priest, the issue of faith is addressed. The similarities to the ‘doubting Thomas’ story in the Bible are uncanny, except at the end of this one, there is no resurrected priest to tell the main character that faith is believing without seeing, there was no priest to tell the main character that this was just another one of Father Flynn’s hard questions. By addressing this issue in a context so similar to Joyce’s own life, it is easy to believe that Joyce may be addressing his own questions with the Church, and the reasons that led to his own loss of faith, perhaps because he could not see the evidence in front of him.