It is 1895 in Dublin, Ireland when an unnamed boy comes down to supper one evening. Family friend Old Cotter is telling the boy's aunt and uncle that the boy's mentor, Father James Flynn, has passed away after a third stroke. The two men share the opinion that spending time with Father Flynn was unhealthy for the boy, who should have been playing "with young lads of his own age." In bed later, the boy tries to understand why Old Cotter and his uncle would not want him to associate with Father Flynn; then he imagines or dreams about the priest trying to confess something to him.
The following morning, the boy visits Father Flynn's house and finds a card displayed outside announcing the man's death, but he does not knock on the door. He feels less sad than he would have expected; in fact, the boy experiences "a sensation of freedom" as a result of his mentor's death. That evening, the boy's aunt takes him on a formal visit to the house of mourning. He sees the body of Father Flynn lying in an open casket, after which the boy's aunt and the priest's two sisters converse cryptically about the deceased, implying that he was mentally unstable for some time before dying and that he may have been involved in some scandal or other.
This, the first story in Dubliners, introduces many of the themes and motifs that will recur throughout the book, linking its component parts together into something that is not quite a novel but more than a mere collection of short stories.
The first theme is paralysis. James Joyce believed that the Irish society and culture, as well as the country's economy, had been paralyzed for centuries by two forces. The first was the Roman Catholic Church, the teachings of which most Dubliners of Joyce's day adhered to passionately. The second was England, which had conquered Ireland in the seventeenth century and resisted granting the country its independence until 1922.
In the first line of "Sisters," Father Flynn has suffered a third and fatal stroke — a malfunctioning of blood vessels in the brain that can cause paralysis, if not death. In fact, it may have been a stroke that resulted in the scandalous dropping of the chalice revealed near the end of the story. And of course, the gray face in the boy's dream that "had died of paralysis" is that of Father Flynn himself.
Clearly Father Flynn represents the paralyzed Catholic Church in this story — and the church's ability to paralyze others. The time spent with the priest prevents the boy from having fun with his peers. Father Flynn, in turn, lives on Great Britain Street and dies on the anniversary of England's victory over Ireland in 1690.
The second theme that Joyce introduces is corruption. In the second paragraph of this story, the narrator (storyteller) mentions the word simony, the selling of blessings, pardons, or other favors by the Roman Catholic Church to its members. Later, Father Flynn will be referred to as a simoniac, one guilty of this offense. Because corruption prevents progress, it is closely related to the theme of paralysis.
The third theme is death, whether that death be physical or merely spiritual. Joyce's attitude toward death is complex. In "The Sisters," for example, physical death is not entirely bad, as it frees Father Flynn from what sounds like a miserable life. Indeed, the last image of the priest shows him "sitting in the dark in his confession box, wide-awake and laughing-like softly to himself." The priest's death liberates the boy, too — from the paralysis, corruption, and death that Joyce clearly felt would come to him if his association with the church continued. "I found it strange," the narrator says, "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 from something by his death." On the other hand, Father Flynn seems to have been suffering a kind of spiritual death long before he actually passed away. (Note: Dubliners not only begins with a death, it ends with one, too — the remembered death of Michael Furey, in "The Dead.")
Finally, notice Father Flynn's "big discoloured teeth" — yellow or brown, presumably. Yellow and brown are the colors symbolic of decay and paralysis throughout the work of James Joyce. Much more of this color scheme is to be found in the other stories of Dubliners.
gnomon a column or pin on a sundial that casts a shadow indicating the time of day.
simony the buying or selling of sacred or spiritual things, as sacraments or benefices. Roman Catholic teaching defines simony as an infringement of natural law.
Catechism a handbook of questions and answers for teaching the principles of a religion.
faint the crude, impure spirits given off in the first and last stages the distillation of liquor.
worm the coil of a still.
Rosicrucian any of a number of persons in the seventeenth or eighteenth century who professed to be members of a secret society said to have various sorts of occult lore and power. The boy's uncle is implying that his relationship with Father Flynn was secret and possibly dangerous.
simoniac a person guilty of simony.
Drapery a shop selling cloth.
July 1st the date, in 1690, of the Battle of the Boyne, in which the Protestant forces of William III of England defeated the Roman Catholic Jacobites of James III, resulting in the downfall of Catholic Ireland.
High Toast a brand of snuff.
catacombs any of a series of vaults or galleries in an underground burial place. During the first and second century, persecuted Christians hid in the catacombs beneath Rome.
vestment an ecclesiastical garment worn by a priest, choir member, and so forth during services.
venial not causing spiritual death; said of a sin either not serious in itself or, if serious, not adequately recognized as such or not committed with full consent of one's will.
And everything . . . ? apparently the boy's aunt seeks to establish that last rites were bestowed upon Father Flynn by a priest before death; only a profoundly disgraced priest would be refused last rites, so the fact that she has to ask implies much about Father Flynn's misbehavior.
Freeman's General here, the Freeman's Journal and National Press, an Irish newspaper.
breviary a book containing the Psalms, readings, prayers, and so on of the Divine Office.
rheumatic wheels a malapropism for pneumatic wheels.