"The Sisters" and the Case of the Broken Chalice

By Faith Steinberg

As Fritz Senn states, "even in his earliest published prose Joyce wrote in a most complex, heavily allusive style, different from its later convoluted intricacies in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake in degree only." (1) Many critics have examined and scrutinized the religious symbolism and the psychosexual aspects of "The Sisters," and commentaries on this story far outweigh in volume the story itself. (2) This paper will explore "The Sisters" in light of a question asked by Adeline Glasheen: "What about Father Flynn of 'The Sisters', who was up to something funny with a chalice and a little boy?" (3) This question has perhaps not been fully answered.

Father Flynn. From the descriptions of his idiosyncratic behavior by the boy, by Cotter, by his sister Eliza and by the boy's aunt, we quickly learn that Father Flynn has many problems. The boy recollects Father Flynn's "tongue [lying] upon his lower lip"(D 14) (4) which is suggestive of sexual perversion. (5) Cotter's snide and elliptical remarks regarding the priest tell of something awry sexually (D 9-10).(6) Eliza talks of her brother's life as "crossed" (D 17), and the boy's aunt adds that "He was a disappointed man" (D 17).
Father Flynn had been accepted for study at the Irish school in Rome and was apparently widely read and knowledgeable and possibly had a promising future. But I contend that Father Flynn was a repressed pederast, possibly an active masturbator, (7) very likely from early in his career. This resulted in a guilt-ridden secret internal life filled with the fear of discovery, which in turn hindered his performance as a parish priest. This inner life may have manifested itself in a multitude of mannerisms, possibly effeminate behaviors, which did not go unnoticed (Joyce points to one, the tongue on the lower lip).
The boy in "The Sisters" recalls: "Sometimes he had amused himself by putting difficult questions to me, asking me what one should do in certain circumstances or whether such and such sins were mortal or venial or only imperfections" (D 12). Eileen Kennedy points out that, "Education in the myriad possibilities of sin is not [part of a schoolboy's instruction]." Such details are reserved for older seminarians. Kennedy further suggests that this is a reflection of Father Flynn's mental health. (8) Florence L. Walzl concurs, "[H]e cannot refrain from taking a rather sadistic pleasure in confusing the boy with moral scruples reflective of his own psychological state." (9) The priest is obsessed with his own mortal sin. Why else would he be questioning an eight or nine year old on such matters? (10).
In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, (11) Joyce writes, "From the evil seed of lust all other deadly sins had sprung forth" (P106). The priest's pederastic predelictions, which overpower him, conflict with his strong priestly obligations and beliefs. One can imagine the famous sermon from Chapter III of Portrait torturing the priest and the meanderings reverberating, rattling and swirling in his head, making him ill, as they did for Steven Dedalus. (12) The gravity of this mortal sin (lust) according to the Church tenets is expressed by Steven in his torment: "Had it been any terrible crime but that one sin! Had it been murder!" (P 142).
Further, the confessions of young boys regarding their sexual fantasies and/or exploits would very likely exacerbate the problems of this sexually repressed man, and visions of fire and brimstone in eternal Hell would rage as his sexual urges increased. The inner turmoil rendered the priest sadistic, inept, awkward and perhaps incompetent as he retreated into himself, finally leading to paralysis. That he did not overstep the bounds of priestly propriety is unwittingly stated by Eliza: "He was too scrupulous always...The duties of the priesthood was too much for him" (D 17)(13). Father Flynn could not function fully under the stress of his enormous secret and was never promoted within the priesthood. He was indeed a "disappointed man."
In "An Encounter," the story directly following "The Sisters," in Dubliners, Joyce has a clearly developed portrayal of a sadistic pederast, the priest of "The Sisters" without the restraints of the Church. Both are well-educated and well-spoken and the descriptions of the priest and the pederast are similar; the "ancient priestly garments" were a faded green (D 12) and in "An Encounter" the pederast was "shabbily dressed in a suit of greenish-black" (D 24) [emphasis added]; both have "discoloured" (D 13) and "yellow" teeth (D 25) conjuring up images of mold and decay.

The Boy. The boy's words, from the very opening line, "There was no hope for him this time..." evoke Dante's caution, "Abandon hope ye who enter..." (Inferno III. 9).(14) Joyce is leading the boy (and the reader) into a descent to an unknown region, namely the unconscious. The boy's sexual awareness is slowly being awakened by his proximity to the priest whose mannerisms are suggestive of a sexually predatory nature.
In the chapter "Epiphanies and Epicleti," Scholes & Litz write: "[T]he epicleti may be considered the accused, summoned up by Joyce to stand trial as specimens of Irish paralysis" (D 258). "The Sisters" may be the boy's (and Joyce's) bringing up the priest for trial for the discomfort and frightening sensations he is experiencing. But his feelings toward the priest are ambivalent. The boy is enthralled with the education he is receiving from the priest; an extensive vocabulary and Latin, learning of the catacombs of Rome and Napoleon Bonaparte, the world of the past and a world beyond Dublin.(15) But the tongue lying on the lower lip makes the young boy uncomfortable although he doesn't understand why. He has an instinctual, but not a conscious understanding of the sexual implications of his interchange with Father Flynn. The word paralysis goes round in his head, "But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being" (D 9) [emphasis added]. The word "paralysis" in the narrow physical sense has no moral value attached to it. The boy (Joyce) is using "paralysis" in terms of his complex relationship with the priest, an underlying unwholesomeness which spreads like a disease and which represents the pall that the Church has cast over Ireland. This might clarify the boy's enigmatic reaction to the priest's death: "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 from something by his death" (D 12). He has already distanced himself from the priest by referring to the corpse as "it." In his ruminations the boy senses something disagreeable.

It murmured; and I understood that it desired to confess something. It began to confess something to me in a murmuring voice and I wondered why it smiled continually and why the lips wereso moist with spittle. But then I remembered 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" (D 11) [emphasis added].

Later the boy tries to recollect the last part of the dream and remembers "that I had noticed long velvet curtains and a swinging lamp of antique fashion. I felt that I had been very far away, in some land where the customs were strange -- in Persia, I thought... But I could not remember the end of the dream" (D 13-14). The "smile" and the "moist with spittle" lips are provoking troubling questions. The boy is struggling to come to terms with his own developing sexuality. The velvet curtains (sensual) and the swinging lamp (erotic) in this exotic atmosphere are sexually charged images (16). As Walzl observes the boy has had an epiphany; he "has experienced an intuitive perception, that the root cause of Father Flynn's physical breakdown is simoniacal guilt" (17).
But efforts to apply the sin of simony to the priest, to my thinking, are convoluted and a stretch. Simony is the selling or exchange of favors for money or "money's worth" (18) and there is no evidence that the priest sold either monetary or spiritual favors (19). Joyce's use of the word simony in the story is twofold. Firstly to establish simony as a theme for the Dubliners, and secondly to show the boy's love of words. He enjoys mouthing words, (20) but his usage is, at times, wobbly. Further, Marilyn French makes a relevant observation regarding the boy's use of simoniac: "[I]t is heightened by the mystery and ellipses to something dark and fascinating and corrupt, something containing overtones of perverse power and sex" (21). Smiling and "spittle on the lips" is more akin to sexuality than simony. Just as Eliza is prone to malapropisms, (23) I would argue that the use of the word simoniac is a malapropism. What the boy means to say is "sex maniac;" the two words have the same number of syllables and sound almost the same particularly with a brogue in which the "e" and "i" of sex and simony sound virtually the same. It is an expression the boy may have heard on the streets. One of the ironies of this story is that the boy may be the only person who has a clue, even subliminally, as to why the priest went "off."

The Chalice. "The Sisters" was first published in the The Irish Homestead (24) in 1904 and before final publication went through many revisions. It is worthy of note that in the Homestead version the priest in his coffin has a rosary on his chest; in an early text printed in the Scholes and Litz edition, there is a cross (D 249) rather than a rosary; and in the final version the rosary and the cross are replaced by a chalice (D 14).
Very near the end of the narrative, Eliza, after a long silence, slowly says, "It was the 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!" (D 17) [emphasis added]. What was this experienced priest so nervous about? The chalice was not heavy with the wine for the Eucharist. The presence of a boy might have triggered the priest's carnal urges. Some sort of clumsy exchange arose out of the priest's preoccupation; perhaps brushing up a little too closely to the boy (accidentally on purpose) caused an abrupt reaction from the boy and the dropping of the chalice from the overwrought priest's hands. It can only be conjecture.
The chalice (26) is the most important vessel in the Catholic Church used in the Eucharist and according to church dogma holds the blood of Christ. It must be consecrated by a bishop and is closely associated with the parish priest. Kennedy highlights the importance of the chalice. After administering the Eucharist "the priest prays that 'no stain of sin remain on me...whom these pure and holy sacraments have refreshed" (27) Walzl, mentions that "Joyce...was... thoroughly conversant with traditional symbols in art and religion" (28). My contention is that the broken chalice is akin to the broken pitcher in paintings -- a symbol of the lost virginity of a young maiden (29). The priest has broken his vows by even thinking of young boys in sexual terms. In essence, the chalice had been broken in long years past and finally in fact. The symbolism of the broken chalice (i.e., broken pitcher) reinforces the argument of the sexual implications in the priest's case.
The boy later refers to this latter object as the "idle chalice" (D 18) the inference of the word "idle" being that this object/symbol of the priesthood is now "empty of meaning" (30). The priest's chalice, the vessel of Christ's blood, has been violated. All is not well within the hallowed sacraments of the Church.
William York Tindall notes that "Father James Flynn...is what Joyce might have been as parish priest" (31) reflected in the name James as well as Flynn -- the family name of one of Joyce's maternal ancestors (32). The boy may readily be associated with the young Joyce, particularly in his love of words and certainly in his religious schooling. On one of many levels, "The Sisters" may be a story of the young impressionable Joyce who meets a hapless older Joyce had he undertaken the priesthood. I do not mean to imply that Joyce was a pederast; rather that he might have imagined himself (sardonically) becoming one had he been a celibate in the atmosphere of a boys' school. It is not too far-fetched to assume that the young Joyce encountered behavior such as Father Flynn's among the priests.
In this opening story of Dubliners, Joyce has set the stage for the stories to follow, giving a harsh and condemnatory picture of his native city. Except for Cotter, and finally the boy, all are blind to the priest's ailment. Cotter's interpretation is narrow-mindedly contemptuous, maliciously gossipy and anti-intellectual; the boy's like Joyce's, is more far-reaching. Blindness to the prohibitively restrictive Church as symbolized by the priest (who himself caves in under the constraints) leads to a paralysis which permeates Dublin and Ireland and ultimately to Joyce's exile.


This essay was inspired by a discussion following a panel at the 2002 International James Joyce Symposium in Trieste, Italy. The panel dealt with several stories from Dubliners, including "The Sisters." Many thanks to JMW for all his help.

(1). Fritz Senn, "'He Was Too Scrupulous Always' Joyce's 'The Sisters,'" JJQ, 2 (Winter 1965) 66.

(2). Florence L. Walzl , "Joyce's 'The Sisters' : A Development," JJQ, 12 (Summer 1973) 375-421, gives a comprehensive bibliography of the articles (through 1973) dealing with "The Sisters," pp. 417-18, note 1.

(3). Adeline Glasheen "Queries About Mulligan as Heretic Mocker and Rhetorician" A Wake Newslitter, XIV 5 (October, 1977) 76, note 2.

(4). James Joyce "Dubliners; Text, Criticism, and Notes, eds. Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz, (New York: The Viking Press, 1969). This text was used in preparation of this paper and references within the text will be made by (D).

(5). Critics interpreting religious symbolism throughout the text have noted that this is the position of the tongue for receiving the communion wafer. No doubt, but the priest is teaching the boy in this instance.

(6). Eileen Kennedy, "'Lying Still': Another Look at 'The Sisters'," JJQ, 12 (Summer 1975), 363, proffers a definition of the name Cotter, "a pin, key, wedge, or bolt which fits into a hole and fastens something in its place" (OED). Not only does this imply that he (Cotter) has hit the nail on the head but with a little imagination summons up sexual imagery appropriate to the thesis being presented.

(7). I hesitate to refer to Father Flynn as an active pederast. What I do suggest is that the priest may have had a very active fantasy life starring little boys, possibly leading to masturbation which is considered among the mortal sins. I have never come across personal or public writings of Joyce's which refer to pederasty among the clergy. The literature on Ireland of the period (late 19th -early 20th centuries) suggests that the Catholic Church had a firm grip not only on its parishioners but the clergy as well. There are examples of heterosexual transgressions between priests and parishioners but they are far and few between and are the exceptions. What does seem to have been a problem were alcoholism and contentiousness. The worst vice that Father Flynn exhibits is his use of snuff. See Sir Horace Plunkett, Ireland in the New Century (Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition: E900004.001); Rev. M. O'Riordan, Catholicity and Progress in Ireland (St. Louis, MO: B. Herder, 1906), pp. 271-275; Desmond J. Keenan, The Catholic Church in Nineteenth Century Ireland (Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1983), pp. 66-72; Tom Inglis, Moral Monopoly; The Rise and Fall of the Catholic Church in Modern Ireland (Dublin: Univ. College of Dublin, 1987, rpt. 1998). p. 217. Of course the Church may have concealed pederastic behavior but one can only go by the evidence.

(8). Kennedy, 365.

(9). Walzl, 398.

(10). The age can only be a conjecture. Joyce himself was at Clongowes Wood School, a Jesuit school, from the ages of six to nine. Were the boy an adolescent it seems unlikely that Cotter would refer to him as "child."

(11). James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: Viking Press, 1959). References in the text will be indicated by (P).

(12). Marilyn French, "Missing Pieces in Joyce's Dubliners," Twentieth-Century Literature, 24 (Winter 1978) points out "For him [Joyce] transcendence of body, desire, and ego was impossible, and the effort to achieve it destructive" (444).

(13). Eliza's observation has an ironical ring to it. His sexual appetites made his priestly duties too much for him.

(14). Cited by Jackson & McGinley, 2a.

(15). This would explain his strong reaction to Cotter's remarks (D 9, 10, 11).

(16). David Norris, "The 'unhappy mania' and Mr. Bloom's Cigar: Homosexuality in the Works of James Joyce," JJQ, 31 (Spring 1994), discusses pederasty in terms of "The Book of a Thousand Nights" in the Richard Burton edition "with its preface detailing the sexual habits of the Arab and in particular, the addiction of the Arab male to sodomitic practices with boys and youths. Joyce owned a copy of this work" (362).

(17). Walzl, 391.

(18). Catholic Encyclopedia (1912), s.v. Simony. Jackson & McGinley supply further insights. In response to a catechism regarding the first Commandment, one of the responses is simony which is elaborated further: "He who buys or sells spiritual things, preferments and the like, for money or money's worth, as Simon, the magician, intended to do" p. 2b.

(19). Bernard Benstock, "'The Sisters' and the Critics" JJQ, 4 (Fall 1966), corroborates this view: "Surely he [the priest] is no simoniac" (33).

(20). In Portrait, Joyce writes of the young Stephen: "Words which he did not understand he said over and over to himself till he had learnt them by heart" (P 62).

(21). French, 448.

(22). For example, Eliza refers to the "Freeman's General" (D 16) rather than the Freeman's Journal and "them new-fangled carriages" with "rheumatic wheels" rather than pneumatic wheels (D17) [emphasis added].

(23). Leonard Albert, "Gnomonology: Joyce's 'The Sisters' " JJQ, 27 ( Winter 1990) believes the boy means to say "sodomy" rather than "simony" (360).

(24). The Irish Homestead (Dublin, August 13, 1904) 676-677. The story was signed by Stephen Daedalus.

(25). Jackson & McGinley state that the boy refers to "the server at the Mass, not the young narrator, but implicating him by association. At Clongowes, Joyce, aged 7, had been an altarboy" (9b).

(26). Catholic Encyclopedia (1908), s.v. Chalice. A chalice has a large bowl, with a base and sometimes two handles. It is made of either gold, silver or pewter, depending on the financial circumstances of the church. If the base were defectively joined to the bowl, it might break if it were dropped.

(27). Kennedy, 365.

(28). Walzl, 400.

(29). Two examples of the "The Broken Pitcher" are by Adolphe-William Bouguereau (c.1891), DeYoung Museum of Art, San Francisco and Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1763), Louvre.

(30). Senn, 67.

(31). William York Tindall, A Reader's Guide to James Joyce (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1959, rpt. 1967), p. 6. Albert concurs with this notion (357).

(32). Peter Costello, James Joyce, The Years of Growth, 1882-1915 (London: Kyle Cathie, Ltd., 1992), Table II, The Flynn Family.

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