James Joyce once compared his method of writing with the religious ceremony of the Eucharist:
'Don't you think there is a certain resemblance between the mystery of the Mass and what I am trying to do? I mean that I am trying ... to give people some kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own...for their mental, moral, and spiritual uplift.' (1)
In fact, Joyce's efforts to illuminate some of the inscrutable mysteries of life by isolating apparently commonplace incidents or objects and investing them with transcendent importance characterize all of the stories in Dubliners.
In `The Sisters', as well as in `The Dead', the principal subject is death, a matter of concern to the young and the old. Death both frightens and fascinates us because of the mystery which surrounds it. In the first story, however, the death of Father Flynn appears more mysterious because of the religious ritual which accompanies it than because of anything intrinsic to death itself. Only the young boy intuits a deeper, symbolic meaning in the event. Yet the reader's attention is focused chiefly on the protocol of the mourning: two candles at the head of the corpse; the chalice `loosely retained' (a telling phrase?) in the dead man's hands; the strong scent of flowers - perhaps to conceal the odour of death; and the slightly comical portrait of the mourners kneeling by the coffin.
Notice how Joyce gently pricks the solemnity of the occasion with his mischievous humour, quietly undermining the foundations of religious orthodoxy. The young boy, who was once instructed by Father Flynn in the various forms and rituals of the church, is jokingly referred to by his uncle as a `Rosicrucian', someone who claims to have knowledge of certain esoteric principles in religion. Also, Joyce cannot resist a jibe at the superstition surrounding the celebration of the Mass. The broken chalice, we are told, `contained nothing'; a hint, perhaps, that the mystery in which the Sacrament is steeped is hollow, too.
Nevertheless, the story has a serious side. Fascinated by the strange-sounding word `paralysis' which for the narrator evokes `the name of some maleficent and sinful being', the boy is attracted to the mystery surrounding Father Flynn and the breaking of the chalice which seems to precipitate his end. With the death of the priest, the boy is strangely ambivalent (`neither I nor the day seemed in a mourning mood'), and he feels `a sensation of freedom as if I had been freed from something by his death.' It is hard not to imagine that this `something' is the spiritual paralysis which threatens to stifle a young, quietly rebellious spirit (the boy accepts the wine but not the biscuit).
The moral theme in `The Sisters' is significant, both in relation to the other stories in the book, and so far as Joyce's stated aim of producing `a moral history of Ireland' is...