Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 29, 2017

‘The Sisters’ and ‘An Encounter’ from Dubliners (1914), by James Joyce

I’m still having  a bit of trouble with my eyes – because just as soon as they improve I stop with the annoying bedtime cream and then the grittiness comes back and then I have to start over again. This means I have to read first until I get sleepy and then use the cream – and that wakes me up all over again and I can’t read myself back to sleepiness because #TooMuchInformation of the gunk in my eyes.  So the audio book of Dubliners seemed like a good idea, because I’ve read the collection before and I liked the idea of a soft Irish brogue lulling me off to sleep.

But no.  James Joyce is too good for that.  The first story ‘The Sisters’ sent my mind racing, and ‘An Encounter’ even more so.  So the light went back on, and I dug out my ancient copy of The Essential James Joyce edited by Harry Levin, which is a compilation of all of Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Exiles, some poems and also excerpts from Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.  And #DefeatingThePurpose I got the gunk out of my eyes and read these two stories properly.  From the book.  And while I was at it, I read the introduction as well…

Short stories, as my regular readers know, are not my forte, but Levin has some interesting things to say.  In the general introduction he talks about how everything Joyce writes derives from his preoccupation with nationality, religion and language, (and part iv of this intro has interesting things to say apropos my current reading of Finnegans Wake, about which more later, maybe tomorrow if I read the next chapter as planned).  But in his intro to Dubliners, Levin has this to say:

The book is not a systematic canvas like Ulysses; nor is it integrated, like the Portrait, by one intense point of view; but it comprises, as Joyce explained, a series of chapters in the moral history of his community; and the episodes are arranged in careful progression from childhood to maturity, broadening from private to public scope.  The older technique of story-telling, with Maupassant and O. Henry, attempted to make daily life more eventful by unscrupulous manipulation of surprises and coincidences.  Joyce – with Chekhov – discarded such contrivances, introducing a genre which has been so widely imitated that nowadays its originality is not often detected.  (Levin, in the Editors’s Preface to Dubliners, in The Essential James Joyce, p.21)

I was rather charmed by this idea that those 19th century ‘manipulators of surprises and coincidences’ were tweaking their plots just to liven up the dreary lives of their readers.  No different, I suppose, to Game of Thrones, which (much as I enjoy it, so far anyway) has long since parted company with any thematic coherence but simply tweaks its plots to keep us watching.  (BTW #Warning #Digression I will unfriend anyone revealing plot spoilers from Series 7.  We refuse to buy Pay TV with ads, so we wait for the DVD.  The assumption, even at the ABC, that everyone is watching it right now is driving me crazy, but I am resolute.)

Anyway, JJ eschewed such *chuckle* old-fashioned contrivances:

The open structure, which casually adapts itself to the flow of experience, and the close texture, which gives precise notation to sensitive observation, are characteristic of Joycean narrative.  The fact that so little happens, apart from expected routines, connects form with theme: the paralysed uneventfulness to which the modern city reduces the lives of its citizens.  (ibid.)

Which is a long-winded way of saying that Joyce brings us detailed observations of people psychologically marooned because of the stultifying atmosphere in which they live.

The paralysed uneventfulness of a dominant religion is certainly the preoccupation in ‘The Sisters’.  This is how it begins:

There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke.  Night after night I had passed the house (it was vacation time) and studied the lighted square of window: and night after night I had found it lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly.  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 the corpse.  He had often said to me, ‘I am not long for this world,’ and I had thought his words were idle.  Now I knew they were true.  Every night as I gazed up at the window I said to myself the word paralysis.  It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomen in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism.  But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being.  It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.  (‘The Sisters’, from Dubliners in The Essential James Joyce, p.22)

The rhythms of the story reinforce the predictability of the dialogue.  The unnamed narrator, a ‘youngster’ old enough to know Euclid and to take a sip of sherry, has heard it all before.  He knows to expect those candles as a ritual of death, and he knows that he is under observation because he was a friend of the Rev. James Flynn who they say had a great wish for him (i.e. a vocation for the priesthood).  He knows that Old Cotter, visiting his uncle’s home with the news, is going to ramble on about what’s good for children, and he knows that Old Cotter refusing the offer of a pick of that leg of mutton is just as much a ritual as the candles are, and his aunt will bring it out anyway.  It infuriates him:

I crammed my mouth with stirabout [i.e. not the tasty leg of mutton being scoffed by Old Cotter] for fear I might give utterance to my anger.  Tiresome old red-nosed imbecile! (p.23)

The priest’s death is a release from a destiny he didn’t want.

I wished to go in and look at him but I had not the courage to knock.  I walked away slowly along the sunny side of the street, reading all the theatrical advertisements in the shop-windows as I went.  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.  I wondered at this, for as my uncle had said the night before, he had taught me a great deal.  (p.25)

He goes on to acknowledge that Flynn had taught him European history as well as the more arcane mysteries of the church – but those theatrical advertisements in the shop-windows seem more enticing!

It’s a measure of Joyce’s great skill even as an emerging writer that he can make his text flow even while deliberately focussing on the utter predictability of the dialogue between the priest’s sisters.  The banal ritual phrases trickle out, one after the other…

‘Ah well, he’s gone to a better world’ (p.26)

‘Well, Miss Flynn, at any rate if must be a great comfort for you to know that you did all that you could for him.’ (p.27)

‘Ah, there’s no friends like the old friends.'(p.27)

‘And I’m sure now that he’s gone to his eternal reward he won’t forget you and all your kindness to him.’ (p27)

‘The Lord have mercy on his soul.’ (p.28)

And then, just at the end, the meaning of Old Cotter’s half-finished utterances about there being something queer about the priest unfolds.  We learn that he had dropped a chalice during the mass, potentially a shocking thing because Catholics believe in transubstantiation, i.e. that the wine had become the actual body of Christ.  Of course, they say it was all right, that it contained nothing.  But although the altar boy is blamed, it affected the priest’s mind and after that he began to mope by himself, talking to no one and wandering about by himself.

The quiet tragedy of ‘An Encounter’ shows just how stultifying Dublin is.  It’s about two boys who wag school, but really, there’s nothing much to do.  The current craze for reading trashy stories about the Wild West has provoked a taste for adventure, even though there was trouble at school when clumsy Leo Dillon was discovered with a copy of The Halfpenny Marvel and everyone else assumed an innocent face:

This rebuke during the sober hours of school paled much of the glory of the Wild West for me, and the confused puffy face of Dillon awakened one of my consciences.  But when the restraining influence of the school was at a distance I began to hunger for wild sensations, for the escape which those chronicles of disorder alone seemed to offer me.  The mimic warfare of the previous evening became at last as wearisome to me as the routines of school in the morning because I wanted some real adventures to happen to myself.  But real adventures I reflected, do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad.  (‘An Encounter’ from Dubliners in The Essential James Joyce, p.30)

Alas, the nearest thing to excitement comes when Mahony witnesses an old man doing something much like Bloom’s misadventures down on The Strand in Ulysses (the Nausicaa chapter) but the narrator doesn’t respond, neither answering Mahony’s exclamation nor raising his eyes to see.

I wonder if creative writing schools suggest that students read these stories by a master of the art of short story? Amongst other things, I admire them for the intense sense of place, and for the beautiful rhythms of the prose.  They’re over a century old now, but they’re still really good to read.  Even for someone not very fond of the short story form…

Author: James Joyce
Title: Dubliners
Narrated by Frank McCourt (The Sisters), Patrick McCabe (An Encounters) and others
Publisher: Caedmon (Harper Collins, 2005, first published by Grant Richards 1914
ISBN: 9780060789565
Source: Kingston Library

Author: James Joyce
Title: The Essential James Joyce
Introduction by Harry Levin
Publisher: Triad/Panther, 1977
ISBN: 586044744
Source: personal library



  1. The most recent Joyce I’ve read is an early version of Portrait, I forget what it’s called, but between that and Portrait and Dubliners you get totally used to the voice of Joyce as a student. I like the idea that he was inventing a new type of story telling, without melodrama.


    • With Levin’s introduction fresh in my mind, I think that the early version of Portrait that you’re referring to is called Stephen’s Hero. I’ve never even come across it myself, and to be honest, I’m not sure I want to read it because I did so love Portrait and don’t want to spoil it.
      (My favourite chapters of Ulysses are the ones featuring Stephen).


      • I’m home now. Here’s what the back cover says …
        Joyce remains unique among novelists in that he published nothing but masterpieces.
        Joyce’s sister, Eileen… rescued it from the fire where it was thrown by Joyce during a crisis.
        Stephen Hero differs substantially from Portrait and includes characters and incidents omitted from the later work. A fascinating novel in its own right …
        Inside, the various forewords and introductions end with: “It is one of the best descriptions of a growing mind that has ever been written.”
        Sounds like I’d better re-read it and come up with a review.


        • Yes please!
          And I’d better get a copy too…


  2. This is a brilliant post. I have not read Joyce and have not been drawn to him but I enjoyed your conversation about this especially the quote from the Sisters. I did click on the twolinked words to see what they meant. Laughed at your night time routine with the eye creme. People say reading gets one ready for sleep but many times I end up following a tangent, and find I am awake several hours later ready to write a thesis. Made me laugh.


    • Well, you are right, while reading usually does lull me to sleep, it only works if I choose the book carefully. Nothing really complex, nothing too exciting. But I do have to do it, I lie awake all night if I don’t. Yes, #NoExaggeration, literally.
      Once when I was unexpectedly not allowed to go home after day surgery on my pesky ankle, The Spouse (who’d come to collect me) went back home and then returned with my current bedside book. (This was #TrueLove because it involved an hour’s drive in the peak hour).
      But the nurses demanded that I turn the light out because I’d been put in a shared room. And even though the old lady in the next bed was snoring fit to keep the entire hospital awake, they ignored my pleas to let me read. So once they’d taken themselves somewhere else, – despite a leg that was still anaesthetised from hip to toe so I could not feel a thing – I managed to turn myself around so that I was upside down in the bed, and #Triumph! read myself to sleep by the light seeping through from the nurses’ station!


  3. You are a tenacious woman Lisa.


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  10. Wonderful review, Lisa! I loved ‘An Encounter’ too. Forgot to write about it in my review. It made me think of the film adaptation of Stephen King’s ‘Stand By Me’, which is one of the great coming-of-age stories. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


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