In “The Sisters” and “The Dead” from Dubliners, James Joyce explores the symmetry between absence and presence. The author employs these mutually dependent devices both in the structure of the narrative as well as a force to articulate aesthetic qualities of the stories. In these two stories specifically as well as much of Joyce’s work, absence conveys a presence in a way that compels the reader to participate in the interpretation of meaning.
“The Sisters” begins with a young boy thinking of death. He walks by a window “night after night” looking for the two candles that would signify an Irish wake. The boy contemplates the paralytic condition of his friend, the Catholic priest Father Flynn, after sustaining his third stroke. Remembering Father Flynn’s recurring statement, “I am not long for this world,” the boy thinks the words of the phrase to be “idle” and knows these words are now “true.” How this truth has evolved from the phrase is not immediately revealed, though Joyce allows for his audience to consider its tacit meaning to the progressing narrative with subsequent references to forms of inertia. The boy’s thoughts move on to the audible sounds of the words; paralysis, gnomon, and simony. Under the circumstances the boy feels that paralysis in particular sounds like “the name of some maleficent and sinful being.” The direction of thought, all contained in the first paragraph, conveys a young mind attempting to understand a potential loss.
Later at home, the boy finds out Father Flynn has in fact died and chooses reticence in the presence of his uncle, aunt, and family friend Mr. Cotter as they voice their concerns about the relationship between the old priest and himself. Joyce has Mr. Cotter speaking of the priest in an elusive, mumbling manner in which he doesn’t complete his thoughts; “--No, I wouldn’t say he was exactly ...... but there was something queer ...... there was something uncanny about him. I’ll tell you my opinion. ...” The boy thinks these people have misunderstood, and believes he alone knows the true ecclesiastic and learned nature of Father Flynn. Here the reader is made aware of the boy’s frustration with his dismissive silence. It is the reticence that speaks of the boy’s certainty toward his emotionally and literally disconnected family. Mr. Cotter’s objections are also spoken as though he’s nervous or it’s the first time a negative sentiment concerning Father Flynn’s behavior has been vocalized. The scene renders the priest a powerful presence of the past that still exists in his absence.
That night in his bed, the boy has the beginnings of a dream in which he tries to extract meaning from Mr. Cotter’s unfinished thoughts but is interrupted by the image of a paralytic;
In the dark of my room I imagined that I saw again the heavy grey face of the paralytic. I drew the blankets over my head and tried to think of Christmas. But the grey face still followed me. It murmured, and I understood that it desired to confess something. I felt my soul receding into some pleasant and vicious region; and there again I found it waiting for me. 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 and I felt that I too was smiling feebly as if to absolve the simoniac of his sin.
The audience and young narrator are reminded of the priest’s paralytic condition, and are thus compelled to think of death, paralysis, fear, and an ecclesiastic crime as one entity. Father Flynn is now known to be a figure of binary possibilities; from friend to “maleficent and sinful being” that exist in the boy’s mind. What’s confessed by the priest’s likeness in the dream is never made clear by Joyce. The reader knows something was imparted to the boy but can only speculate on its content. The reason for his mentor-like relationship with Father Flynn, the absence of the boy’s biological parents, or any backstory informing of the general circumstances of the story, are all communicated to the reader by way of an absence of information. These facets of the story are clear because, like the paralytic nature of a fearful and reticent environment, they are unmentionable, yet felt.
The next day the boy visits the house and shop where Father Flynn and he had spent time together. The place is named “Drapery” and consists of umbrellas and children’s bootees. The reader and narrator simultaneously read an official notice of Father Flynn’s death, respectively in the story’s text and as part of the boy’s narrative discovery;
“July 1st 1895
The Rev. James Flynn (formerly of S. Catherine’s
Church, Meath Street) aged sixty-five years.
For the reader, this is new information regarding James Flynn, though for the boy, it is merely a confirmation of death which then prompts him to think of the “little dark room behind the shop” where he would’ve been with Father Flynn if he had still been alive that day. The narrator recollects and informs the reader further on some details of the priest’s life and education while then confessing; “I found it strange that neither I nor the day seemed in a mourning mood and I felt even annoyed at discovering in myself a sensation of freedom as if I had been freed by something by his death.” Here Joyce conjures the boy’s dream again and reminds the reader that something was said by Father Flynn but he still cannot remember what. Nonetheless, the boy leaves and comes back with his aunt to view his friend in his coffin and pray. Later that night he listens to his aunt talk with Father Flynn’s sisters. One of the sisters tells of her brother’s later struggles: “The duties of the priesthood was too much for him. And then his life was, you might say, crossed.” After a long silence she goes on to mention a chalice he broke during a service that “contained nothing.” and how he could sometimes be found alone “talking to no-one.” Finally she tells them of the night two other priests found Father Flynn “sitting up by himself in the dark in his confession box, wideawake and laughing-like softly to himself.”
Joyce propels “The Sisters” with the silence of negative space. A literal silence is displayed in the narrator’s reaction toward Mr. Cotter’s unfinished sentences, as well as the lull in the aunt and boy’s astonishment regarding the sister’s description of her brother’s deteriorated state. Also, the reader follows the narrator’s young mind in his misunderstanding of circumstances around him. The boy superficially perceives Father Flynn to be solely a man of the church without moral fallibilities or a degenerating mind, but grants the possibility of something foreboding in his friend. In this way, Joyce uses the boy’s undeveloped mental grasp to communicate misunderstanding through a lack of knowledge. Similarly the reader is also without knowledge and perceives the circumstances differently by filling these information gaps with assumptions that point to ethical culpability on behalf of Father Flynn. Further concerning these lapses of information to be transgressive or a kind of censure that’s only known to the reader, and hence entangled in a larger truth, Margot Norris writes;
The holes in the Dubliners stories open up the possibility of transgressive reading in two senses or layers. First, the reader (like the characters, on occasion) entertains the suspicion that the gaps and ellipses in the narration hide or occlude evidence of transgression. Second, the suspicion itself becomes a form of readerly transgression by implicating the reader in imagined transgressive knowledge... In this way the reader confronted by the gaps and ellipses of “The Sisters” shares the vulnerability of the boy who risks a loss of innocence by the very fact that he must confront gnomic language (Norris, 19).
Joyce of course, does not reveal any truths close to literal or absolute, and instead evokes a feeling of complex ambiguity that sits in the mind of his reader.
James Joyce uses absence in both the structure, and as as a narrative element in “The Sisters.” The artistic form and musical nature of the story are dependent on the breaks of knowledge that intersect with the reader’s imagination. The effect is reminiscent of rests or breaks in melodic lines over an undercurrent of rhythm. Father Flynn’s influence on the narrator as well as his significance in the lives of all the characters is especially disquieting since he is never alive in the story. Just as silence and absence echo throughout “The Sisters” in the physical non-presence of Father Flynn, emotional absence looms within the characters in “The Dead.”
Joyce begins “The Dead” at the turn of a new year in the shadow of a previous year. It’s cold outside with a rare Dublin snowfall making an impression on the characters of the story, “we haven't had snow like it for thirty years, and I read this morning in the newspapers that the snow is general all over Ireland” remarks the main character, Gabriel Conroy. The setting is an annual Christmas and New Year’s themed party hosted by two aged sisters, Kate and Julia. The sisters are worried as their favorite nephew, Gabriel and his wife Gretta, have not yet arrived while Freddy Malins is most likely late due to his drunkenness. Almost immediately Joyce tells of three literal absences and hints at their respective importance to the subtext. When the anticipated young couple do arrive, Gabriel blames his wife for their lateness. The housemaid, Lily, asks Mr. Conroy if it’s still snowing as she takes his coat and he scrapes snow off the bottom of his shoes. He answers and then patronizes her with an attempt at small talk: “I suppose we'll be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man, eh?” Lily retorts and consequently Gabriel offers amends in the form of a gratuity, which is misunderstood as an act of charity. This initial scene establishes a lack of depth in the personalities of Gabriel and his elderly aunts. Gabriel’s superficial remark about his wife, the bungled conversation and redemptive pay off to Lily, display an insecure man with a crude awareness of social caste. Even though Freddy Malins turns up intoxicated every year, Kate and Julia routinely invite him anyway but then worry of the potential problems he will cause to their gathering and reputation. Joyce establishes the two aunts as charming, yet a bit overbearing and shallow.
The odd combination of insecurity and shallowness continues as Gabriel becomes distressed and increasingly anxious about the impression he will make on others:
He was still discomposed by the girl's bitter and sudden retort. It had cast a gloom over him which he tried to dispel by arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie. He then took from his waistcoat pocket a little paper and glanced at the headings he had made for his speech. He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they would recognize from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better. The indelicate clacking of the men's heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his. He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would think that he was airing his superior education. He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry. He had taken up a wrong tone. His whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure.
While Gabriel is not confident in his social abilities at the party, Joyce manages to channel a supreme sense of confidence in his life outside of the narrative. In the excerpt above, Gabriel is insecure in the text but is known to have made choices that reciprocate his anxiety as arrogance. He has the gall to choose the subtle poetry of a Victorian Englishman for his oration. In the climate of Irish nationalism in which the story takes place, it could not have been lost on Gabriel that his choice of poetry might not be properly understood, but the poet’s native ties to Pax Britannica would. Still at his moment of indecision, he feels his listening audience to be comprised of simple-minded philistines and further in the story refers to them as “vulgarians.” In this instance of superior air, Gabriel feels he needs to dumb down his choice to recognizable names and familiar Irish sung poems. Joyce then dismantles the edifice and shrinks Gabriel back to the apprehensive personality the reader encountered earlier when he acknowledges himself to be a failure that will only continue on a path of disappointment.
Like Father Flynn, Gabriel is a complex character that inhabits polemical areas. Joyce has crafted dialectical contradictions in his stories and characters to reflect their moral complexities. Thus in Gabriel’s case, the man is capable of denouncing a crowd of lowbrow “vulgarians” for their assumed misunderstanding, while at the same time feeling that he has failed them and is an “utter failure” himself in his misunderstanding of the situation. One aspect of Gabriel’s personality is visible to the reader while the other is not. However, the absent side of his personality is also known because it too alternates and becomes present in the story. This dynamic can be likened to the early 20th century philosopher of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl and his “transcendence within immanence” concept using a cube as a metaphor for Joyce’s Gabriel Conroy. If one is to hold a cube, “one can never see more than three sides at one time, although we know there are in fact six sides... there is no such thing as omniscience, no absolute knowledge, since everything that is visible (the visible symbolized by the three exposed faces of the cube) rests on the foundation of invisibility (the three hidden faces of the cube)” (Ferry, 234). In this example, both Gabriel and Father Flynn are explained as to how other characters see and interact with them in Joyce’s stories as polemical individuals. Thus, the reader has the benefit of omniscience and is able to see the full multifaceted characters, or six sides of the cube at once. The dialectic of an absent character would provoke the notion of a present character. The knowledge of both instances in the reader gives a construction of a knowable unknowable. In “The Dead” this phenomena is experienced by Joyce’s audience progressively into the stories of Gabriel the individual, as well as Gabriel and Gretta as a married, dialectical unit.
Kate and Julia’s party continues with more guests arriving, including the not-yet intoxicated Freddy Malins. The niece of the two aunts, Mary Jane, plays the piano but Gabriel finds the music irritating and moves around until he sees a photograph of his deceased mother. He recalls his two aunts always looked up to their older sister even though she didn’t have the musical ability they possessed. Aunt Kate tells Gabriel she referred to her as the “Brains-carrier” of the family. Gabriel remembers his mother Ellen being dignified and traditional, and made it possible for his brother Constantine and himself to receive an education. Even though she’s physically gone, Gabriel’s mother has a strength over him that he appreciates and then distains as his memories of her turn dark;
A shadow passed over his face as he remembered her sullen opposition to his marriage. Some slighting phrases she had used still rankled in his memory; once she had spoken of Gretta as being country cute and that was not true of Gretta at all. It was Gretta who had nursed her during all her last long illness in their house at Monkstown.
The symbolic shadow that moves over Gabriel’s face, impels the reader to feel the presence of his mother. Nothing more of Ellen is said in the story, but it is obvious she has a sway over her son’s life. She is always with him in a stark fashion. There’s also a sense that something about Gretta is unknown to both parties. Gabriel feels his mother was ungrateful and could not have understood his wife’s nature. Likewise, Ellen’s essence seems to know a truth about Gretta that Gabriel does not, and she speaks to him in silence. He feels this and the absence of knowledge only angers him further into a fear of sadness that might come to be.
Gabriel then allows himself to be drawn back to the dance. He gets partnered with the “frankmannered talkative young lady” Miss Ivors. She promptly toys with Gabriel by saying she has a “crow to pluck with [him]” and then confuses him further over his gullibility. Next Miss Ivors outright attacks him with a rhetorical question, “I have found out you write for the Daily Express. Now aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” As a result of this, she goes on to associate him as a “west Briton” or specifically an Irish citizen with sympathies toward Britain’s colonization of Ireland. Gabriel is blindsided by her accusation as he considers himself a book critic: "He continued blinking his eyes and trying to smile and murmured lamely that he saw nothing political in writing reviews of books.” Again, Joyce reduces Gabriel to a victim, incapable of understanding why he is being admonished. He thinks of the potential words of his defense, but they only remain in his imagination. He fears any defensive response might adversely affect his professional standing being that Miss Ivors and he are contemporaries. She then aggressively suggests he vacation on a remote isle in western Ireland where Old Irish, or Gaelic, is still spoken. Here Gabriel is at a total loss because he feels minimal to no connection to his native country and has concentrated on a worldly education primarily on the European continent. He pathetically maneuvers with weak excuses not to go, but then as she continues to press, and upon seeing the reaction of others on the dance floor he shouts, “--O, to tell you the truth, retorted Gabriel suddenly, I'm sick of my own country, sick of it!” Joyce puts Gabriel outside of belonging. With no close family left other than Gretta, he has no mooring to any kind of home and has thus focused his energies in greater European studies:
He also feels an alien in his own country, because he is trained in modern European languages and is primarily interested in the international literary movements of the Continent instead of the revival of Gaelic, a dead language for Irishmen... in his personal life, he is timid, fearful, and ineffectual... Such details are merely outward signs of the deep, basic self-distrust and timidity he feels (Bowen and Carens, 211).
After the incident, Mary Jane begins to sing as the other guests migrate toward the dinner table. Miss Ivors announces she’s leaving early and weathers the gentle protests of all but Gabriel when he politely asks, “--If you will allow me, Miss. Ivors, I’ll see you home if you really are obliged to go.” After some mannerly goodbyes, she answers with, “--Bleannacht libh” a Gaelic farewell. In this exchange Joyce manages to force each of their impending absences on each other with a drastic kindness.
For Gabriel, his assurance expands when he is asked to carve the holiday goose. He takes pride in being at the head of the table, customizing food portions “--Now, if anyone wants a little more of what vulgar people call stuffing let him or her speak.” At this point Joyce directs the reader away from Gabriel and toward Mr. Bartell D'Arcy, a tenor vocalist that debates the nature of singing with the two aunts, Mary Jane, Freddy Malins, and the lone Protestant of the group Mr. Browne. The conversation moves to Mr. Browne’s inquiring on the nature of Trappist Order;
He was astonished to hear that the monks never spoke, got up at two in the morning and slept in their coffins. He asked what they did it for.
--That's the rule of the order, said Aunt Kate firmly.
--Yes, but why? asked Mr. Browne.
Aunt Kate repeated that it was the rule, that was all.
Mr. Browne still seemed not to understand. Freddy Malins explained to him, as best he could, that the monks were trying to make up for the sins committed by all the sinners in the outside world. The explanation was not very clear, for Mr. Browne grinned and said:
--I like that idea very much, but wouldn't a comfortable spring bed do them as well as a coffin?
--The coffin, said Mary Jane, is to remind them of their last end.
Joyce shifts the focus of Gabriel to the lack of information in Mr. Browne. The absence/presence effect is the same, albeit lighter and more comical. The void of Catholic know-how indubitably lies with the Protestant. Amazed at the behavior of the monks, Mr. Browne provides some comic relief that seems natural to the dinner party. The elderly Aunt Kate’s immediate answers are fittingly appropriate and funny. As is the extended confusion that’s answered by Mary Jane’s conversation ending response. The final answer Joyce gives to the discussion brings the reader back to a dinner table in Dublin in the early 20th century. The humor offsets the serious themes found in the rest of “The Dead” although it is no less artistic. The personalities in the back and forth exchange illustrate a certain, accepted Irish character; merriment, warmth, and dead seriousness.
In Gabriel’s speech, Joyce gives these Irish qualities a different treatment. The speech that unnerved him at the beginning now provides a platform for Gabriel’s command of eloquence and flair. He advocates for the preservation of certain traditional ways of the past while noting the benefits of enjoying the present. His oration acknowledges the musicianship and generous cheer of the three hosts; Kate, Julia, and Mary Jane. “As long as this one roof shelters the good ladies aforesaid - and I wish from my heart it may do so for many and many a long year to come - the tradition of genuine warm-hearted courteous Irish hospitality, which our forefathers have handed down to us and which we must hand down to our descendants, is still alive among us.” Through Gabriel’s character, Joyce communicates the importance of recognizing the naïveté of youth and how it is irreplaceable. The changes that constantly work the human spirit are to be appreciated in even in the saddest of times. He moves to his fear of over-education and the skepticism it sometimes produces in a false enthusiasm stemming from “a thought- tormented age.” Gabriel tells that the memories of the dead should be cherished, but then he warns of an inability to perform a human duty to life in the present when mourning the dead of the past. And of the silence and emptiness of absence, Joyce writes; “of absent faces that we miss here tonight. Our path through life is strewn with many such sad memories.” The scene ends with a toast to the hospitality of the three ladies of the house. All the guests sing; “For they are jolly gay fellows, For they are jolly gay fellows, For they are jolly gay fellows, Which nobody can deny... Unless he tells a lie, Unless he tells a lie.”
The last section of “The Dead” involves Gretta and Gabriel as the dialectical unit. Before this, her role has only been on the surface of Gabriel’s story. She is ample and supportive, as well as sweet and understanding toward her husband and everyone in general. However, she is mostly absent throughout the story. Gretta remains silent and on the outskirts of the reader’s comprehension. Joyce makes her known through reminders filtered through Gabriel.
When the guests are preparing to leave the party in the early cold morning, snow is invoked again. Joyce uses the rare snowfall as a character in the same recurring way he stages Gretta. In the beginning, Gabriel wipes snow from his overcoat and galoshes, and answers Lily’s inquiry into the snowy weather as, “I think we’re in for a night of it.” Gabriel mentions to his hosts that though Gretta caught a cold at last year’s party, “she'd walk home in the snow if she were let.” When her husband is fretting about his impending speech before dinner, Joyce writes of Gabriel in a pensive mood gazing out into the night:
Gabriel's warm, trembling fingers tapped the cold pane of the window. How cool it must be outside! How pleasant it would be to walk out alone, first along by the river and then through the park! The snow would be lying on the branches of the trees and forming a bright cap on the top of the Wellington Monument. How much more pleasant it would be there than at the supper-table!
Later when Mary Jane is playing a waltz on her piano and people are dancing, the narrative mentions the possibility of people outside in the snow wondering of the warm-hearted party inside. The rare Dublin snow covers everything in a cold beauty that weighs down living tree branches and blankets the Wellington Monument, all while reflecting west. This is the first mention Joyce makes of the snow’s connection to death. In this story, the dead are remembered memories that have passed westward with a symbolic setting Sun. At the conclusion of the party, the snow and wind whistle outside. It is mentioned that all of Dublin has a layer of snow, or what could be interpreted as a metaphor for paralysis. The paralytic condition of Father Flynn and the name “paralysis”, as well as its reminder that it is “the name of some maleficent and sinful being” extends to “The Dead” and most of the stories in Dubliners.
Gabriel asks for Gretta and is told she is still upstairs. He is anxious to spend a night with her in the hotel directly after they exit his Aunt’s house. While waiting he tells a ridiculous story of his grandfather’s horse riding in circles around a monument to the English conqueror of Ireland, William III. After he says goodbye to Mr. Browne, Gabriel goes back into the darkened house. He is now unattended and amid the sound of further goodbyes, he hears a quiet music:
A woman was standing near the top of the first flight, in the shadow also. He could not see her face but he could see the terra-cotta and salmon-pink panels of her skirt which the shadow made appear black and white. It was his wife. She was leaning on the banisters, listening to something. Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also. But he could hear little save the noise of laughter and dispute on the front steps, a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man's voice singing.
In Joyce’s eloquent prose, Gabriel sees a transformation in Gretta. She feels like a ghost to him. Gabriel is confused while the reader is intrigued. Here the absence and presence of the story meet. The reader feels Gretta evolve into a ghostly presence, though Joyce again leaves absences of information and lets the audience think. Gabriel is now removed from his previous place in the story. This leaves a void with no gravity while his new presence is unknowable:
He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.
The artistic invocations suit the lyrical prose and give the reader an aura of what Gabriel is feeling. Joyce writes of symbols rather than compelling his audience to create them. To Gabriel, this dream-like experience is his life in perfection. He is confused but also transfixed with his wife’s ghostly beauty.
In the hotel room that Gabriel was previously looking forward to, Gretta explains to him what happened at the house when she heard Mr. Bartell D'Arcy playing and singing The Lass of Aughrim. Joyce writes that Gretta is consumed with tears and resists any affection or comfort from her husband. Gabriel is baffled: “As he passed in the way of the cheval-glass he caught sight of himself in full length, his broad, well-filled shirt-front, the face whose expression always puzzled him when he saw it in a mirror, and his glimmering gilt-rimmed eye-glasses.” To the reader, this is the illusion Gabriel now faces – directly in the mirror. He knows what he is about to hear will undoubtedly change everything. Gretta now fills the absence with a confession. She tells Gabriel and the reader, that the song she heard tonight was once sung to her by a boy of 17, whom she loved when she was young. Gabriel politely implores and it is revealed he was of the Gaelic heritage of Gretta’s home in the west of Ireland – the area Miss Ivors told him to visit. Gabriel has the beginnings of anger that are quickly dashed when she tells him the boy’s name was Michael Furey and that he is deceased. She continues to explain that their relationship had ended and the boy refused to accept her absence. The prose assumes a free-verse quality and tells that he died of exposure to the rain and cold while in the presence of Gretta’s refusal.
Joyce ends “The Dead” with a soliloquy-like meditation. Gretta sleeps and Gabriel thinks of the past and his future. He thinks of his place in the absence and silence of Dublin; “A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward.” For the reader, Joyce’s ending is contemplative and complex. The story ends in this place, but the lives of the story continue without the presence of a reader.
Ferry, Luc. A Brief History of Thought. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2011. Print.
Joyce, James. Dubliners – Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton and Company, 2006. Print.
Bowen, Zack and Carens, James F. A Companion To Joyce Studies. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1984. Print.
Norris, Margot. Suspicious Readings of Joyce’s Dubliners. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Print.