The young nameless narrator speaks of his friend, a man who has had his third stroke. The young narrator passes by his friend's window every day, waiting for the day when he will see two candles in the dark: the sign that his friend has passed away, for two candles are put at the head of a corpse. For some time, the narrator's friend has been paralyzed. The word has a strange sound to the narrator.
One night, the narrator, who lives with his aunt and uncle, comes down for supper. A family friend called old Cotter has stopped by for a visit; the narrator finds old Cotter tiresome, and hates his dull stories. Old Cotter is talking about a theory he has, about some event being "one of those . . . peculiar cases" (2). We learn soon what old Cotter is referring to: Father Flynn, the narrator's friend, is dead. The narrator's uncle mentions that Father Flynn was a great friend of the narrator; he'd taken the boy under his wing, and may have had some idea that the boy would become a priest one day. Old Cotter and the uncle discuss this friendship. Old Cotter seems to disapprove, as he thinks adults should "let a young lad run about and play with young lads of his own age" (2). The narrator is silent, but furious that old Cotter is referring to him as a child.
That night, the narrator does not fall asleep until late. He's angry about Cotter calling him a child, but he also wonders about all of old Cotter's unfinished sentences. He was saying something about the priest. The narrator keeps seeing the old priest's paralyzed face. As he wanders between waking and sleep, the face follows him, lips moving as if he is confessing something.
The next day, the boy goes to the building where the old priest spent his last days. He reads the card on the door announcing Father Flynn's death. He thinks of how he used to visit the priest, going to his small dark room, where the old man would sit by the fire. Often, the boy would bring him High Toast, a kind of snuff, as a present. The priest used to teach him about history and Catholic doctrine. The narrator finds he lacks the courage to knock on the door and go in to look at the body. The boy tries to mourn, but feels he can't. School is out, and the boy cannot help but feel a sense of freedom, even in the priest's death. He's annoyed at himself for this feeling: the priest taught him many things, about history and Latin and the ceremonies and vestments of the priesthood.
That evening, he goes with his aunt to see the body. They are ushered in by Nannie, one of Father Flynn's two sisters, who took care of Father Flynn during his last days. The body is very solemn looking, dressed in vestments and holding a chalice. Eliza, the other sister, is seated in Father Flynn's armchair. Nannie serves the boy and his aunt refreshments. After some silence, they talk about the death. He went peacefully. The narrator's aunt asks if Father Flynn received his Extreme Unction, and Eliza says yes. Eliza speaks of caring for him in the last days: both she and Fanny worked very hard, and wouldn't have been able to manage without the help from Father O'Rourke. The care was difficult; they're poor, poor folk. Still, she'll miss him.
Yet he'd begun to behave strangely. Often, she'd come in and find him lying back in his chair, with his prayer book fallen to the floor and his mouth open. She mentions that he'd had a difficult life, and that his career was not what he'd hoped. After a silence, she says that his strange behavior began when he broke the chalice used in the Sacrament of the Mass. It affected his mind. One night, when he was needed to go on a call, he couldn't be found. They found him in a confessional booth, laughing to himself. That's when they thought something might be wrong with him.
"The Sisters," the first of the stories in Dubliners, is also one of the more accomplished tales. Subtle, haunting, and beautifully controlled, "The Sisters" is also elusive, withholding from us the extent of the understanding possessed by the nameless boy narrator.
Many read Dubliners as being chronologically arranged according to the ages of a life. We start with the impressionable young narrator of "The Sisters." The boy, who remains unnamed, is intelligent and emotionally honest. But he may not see, as the reader does, many of the implications of the story he tells. Perhaps innocently, he reports the clues and puzzles that surround Father Flynn's death. Part of the difficulty of Dubliners is the amount of information Joyce withholds. Although the story is narrated in the first person, we cannot be sure what the child protagonist makes of the story he tells us. The boy tends to narrate in a straightforward manner, honestly sharing with us his distaste for old Cotter (whom he calls a "tiresome old red-nosed imbecile"); this particular passage seems to indicate that the narrator is still a child, as opposed to a wiser adult looking back with the added perspective of many years' experience. The boy seems to volunteer his emotions to the reader willingly enough, as when he shares his intimate memories of his time with Father Flynn. But towards the end of the story, he stops interpreting the information he receives. He listens to the conversation between his mother and the two sisters, but he does not draw any conclusions from it. In a sense, he withdraws from the story. More on that later.
It would be difficult to overstate the incredible influence of the Catholic Church over the life of the average Irishman in this time period. The Church looms over many of the stories in Dubliners, and over all of Joyce's work. He was deeply anti-Catholic, and at times his critiques of Catholicism are almost sneering in tone. "The Sisters" is one of his more controlled tales. The reader leaves the tale troubled. Father Flynn is at base a sympathetic character; at the same time, piety becomes problematic and the spiritually reassuring aspects of faith are undermined. Even the touching friendship between boy and priest is called into question. Old Cotter feels that no child should be spending so much time with a priest; such a friendship might unduly influence an impressionable youth, when he should be playing with boys his own age. The narrator disagrees, but then again, any dissent on his part would only be used by old Cotter to buttress his own argument.
Joyce was clearly fascinated by the awesome spiritual power invested by the Catholic Church in its priests. Priests are the bearers of incredible spiritual responsibility. The Church holds that through the priest as an intermediary, sin itself is atoned for. They are caretakers of men's souls, and masters of the many obscure and esoteric details of Catholic theology. But the mental decline of this priest has made him appear completely human and vulnerable. His mind, once the repository of knowledge about countless points of doctrine and ritual, has fallen into ruins.
Some scholars have identified the priest's mental illness as the final stages of syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease. If so, the sins of the priest's past would also seem to strip him of any special or holy status. Remember that the mad priest is found in the confessional, where Catholics go to confess their sins; the location suggests that the mental illness could indeed be the final product of a past sexual transgression. The narrator's mother asks if he received Extreme Unction, a final sacrament. For her to even ask the question suggests some kind of wrongdoing on Father Flynn's part; under only the most extreme of circumstances would the Church deny the sacrament to a priest.
Both the priest's madness and his hinted-at past sin reveal a world apart from his life as the official of his Church. His official functions as caretaker of the Church, and his unofficial function as the narrator's avuncular spiritual guide, were once the only sides of Father Flynn that the narrator saw. But his madness and possible dark past are now revealed to the narrator, all while the narrator is having what is presumably his first intimate experience with death.
The mad priest also has clear symbolic resonance, suggesting that the Church itself has become a senile and raving institution, with a dark past that has yet to be answered for. The degeneration of the priest's mind seems a metaphor for the deterioration of Catholic theology and doctrine. What once seemed a rational and coherent system has turned into gibberish in the priest's mind; metaphorically, Catholic philosophy has changed from a respectable approach to the pursuit of knowledge into an irrelevant and esoteric system of thought referring only to itself. The degeneration is seen in other aspects of Catholic life: Catholics of this period were perceived as being ridiculously superstitious, and in this story all the supposedly rational doctrines of the Church are thrust aside by Father Flynn's sister in favor of good-old fashioned fearful superstition. Rather than seek a rational explanation for her brother's madness, she resorts to superstition: his madness began, she claims, when he accidentally broke a holy chalice used during Mass. The sisters are simple, good, poor, and humble, but their explanation for their brother's illness is self-deluding and irrational. In them and the impressionable young narrator, Joyce depicts an Ireland in the yoke of a tyranny that is mental rather than political. Paralysis is a recurring theme in the stories. The priest spends his last days paralyzed, and this sickness can be read a metaphor for the backwardness and reactionary politics of the Catholic Church.
The narrator is oblique and difficult, beginning the story with a degree of openness but withdrawing gradually from the story. We are permitted to see something of his growth: for example, he fails to grieve deeply for his friend, and he is sensitive enough to know that he should. He is annoyed by this shortcoming, and in this annoyance we see a boy measuring himself against what he knows is expected of him in this new experience. His dreams also show how the experience has shaken him: he sees his priest friend moving his lips, as if to confess something. This strange dream suggests that at least some part of the boy suspects his friend's past.
But towards the end of the story, we see less of the character's interpretive thoughts about his situation. It is as if the boy cannot quite put his finger on what has happened, in part because he's too busy trying to relate the bare facts. By the story's end, the narrative has the detachment of a story written in third-person. This removal of subjective opinions and feelings has the effect of pushing the priest and his story front-and-center in the reader's attention. The increasing detachment also suggests a boy still trying to make sense of what he has seen; the reader is invited to make sense of things, as the boy does, alone. The final frightening images of the mad priest are given directly from his sister's mouth, with no intrusive narrator to filter these events.