James Joyce

The Open-Source Critical Edition

Dialog attribution
Text genre (poem, song, prayer)
Line numbers

01000 The Sisters

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 01005
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 a corpse. He had often said to me: I am not long for
this world
, and I had thought his words idle. Now I knew they
were true. Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly 01010
to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely
in my ears like the word gnomon 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 01015

Old Cotter was sitting at the fire, smoking, when I came
downstairs to supper. While my aunt was ladling out my
stirabout he said as if returning to some former remark of his:
Old Cotter―No, I wouldn't say he was exactly ...... but there was some= 01020
thing queer ..... there was something uncanny about him. I'll
tell you my opinion. ...

He began to puff at his pipe, no doubt arranging his opinion
in his mind. Tiresome old fool! When we knew him first he
used to be rather interesting, talking of faints and worms; but I 01025
soon grew tired of him and his endless stories about the
Old Cotter―I have my own theory about it, he said. I think it was one of
those ... peculiar cases. ... But it's hard to say. ...

He began to puff again at his pipe without giving us his 01030
theory. My uncle saw me staring and said to me:
narrator's uncle―Well, so your old friend is gone, you'll be sorry to hear.
narrator―Who? said I.
narrator's uncle―Father Flynn.
narrartor―Is he dead? 01035
narrator's uncle―Mr Cotter here has just told us. He was passing by the

I knew that I was under observation so I continued eating as
if the news had not interested me. My uncle explained to old
Cotter: 01040
narrator's uncle―The youngster and he were great friends. The old chap
taught him a great deal, mind you; and they say he had a great
wish for him.

narrator's aunt―God have mercy on his soul, said my aunt piously.

Old Cotter looked at me for a while. I felt that his little 01045
beady black eyes were examining me but I would not satisfy
him by looking up from my plate. He returned to his pipe and
finally spat rudely into the grate.
Old Cotter―I wouldn't like children of mine, he said, Old Cotterto have too much
to say to a man like that.
narrator's aunt―How do you mean, Mr Cotter? asked my aunt.
Old Cotter―What I mean is, said old Cotter, Old Cotterit's bad for children. My
idea is: let a young lad run about and play with young lads of
his own age and not be. ... Am I right, Jack?

narrator's uncle―That's my principle too, said my uncle. narrator's uncleLet him learn to box 01055
his corner. That's what I'm always saying to that rosicrucian
there: take exercise. Why, when I was a nipper every morning
of my life I had a cold bath, winter and summer. And that's
what stands to me now. Education is all very fine and large. ....
Mr Cotter might take a pick of that leg of mutton,
he added to 01060
my aunt.
Old Cotter―No, no, not for me, said old Cotter.

My aunt brought the dish from the safe and laid it on the
narrator's aunt―But why do you think it's not good for children, Mr Cotter? 01065
she asked.
Old Cotter―It's bad for children, said old Cotter, Old Cotterbecause their minds are
so impressionable. When children see things like that, you
know, it has an effect. .....

I crammed my mouth with stirabout for fear I might give 01070
utterance to my anger. Tiresome old rednosed imbecile!

It was late when I fell asleep. Though I was angry with old
Cotter for alluding to me as a child I puzzled my head to
extract meaning from his unfinished sentences. In the dark of
my room I imagined that I saw again the heavy grey face of the 01075
paralytic. I drew the blankets over my head and tried to think
of Christmas. But the grey face still followed me. It murmured
and I understood that it desired to confess something. I felt my
soul receding into some pleasant and vicious region and there
again I found it waiting for me. It began to confess to me in a 01080
murmuring voice and I wondered why it smiled continually and
why the lips were so moist with spittle. But then 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.

The next morning after breakfast I went down to look at the 01085
little house in Great Britain Street. It was an unassuming shop,
registered under the vague name of Drapery. The drapery
consisted mainly of children's bootees and umbrellas and on
ordinary days a notice used to hang in the window, saying
Umbrellas Recovered. No notice was visible now for the 01090
shutters were up. A crape bouquet was tied to the doorknocker
with ribbon. Two poor women and a telegram boy were
reading the card pinned on the crape. I also approached and

July 1st 1895 01095 The Rev. James Flynn (formerly of S. Catherine's Church, Meath Street) aged sixty-five years. R.I.P.

The reading of the card persuaded me that he was dead and
I was disturbed to find myself at check. Had he not been dead I 01100
would have gone into the little dark room behind the shop to
find him sitting in his armchair by the fire, nearly smothered in
his greatcoat. Perhaps my aunt would have given me a packet
of high toast for him and this present would have roused him
from his stupefied doze. It was always I who emptied the 01105
packet into his black snuffbox for his hands trembled too much
to allow him to do this without spilling half the snuff about the
floor. Even as he raised his large trembling hand to his nose
little clouds of smoke dribbled through his fingers over the
front of his coat. It may have been these constant showers of 01110
snuff which gave his ancient priestly garments their green faded
look for the red handkerchief, blackened as it always was with
the snuffstains of a week, with which he tried to brush away
the fallen grains was quite inefficacious.

I wished to go in and look at him but I had not the courage 01115
to knock. I walked away slowly along the sunny side of the
street, reading all the theatrical advertisements in the shopwin=
dows 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 01120
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. He had studied in the Irish college in Rome and he had
taught me to pronounce Latin properly. He had told me stories
about the catacombs and about Napoleon Bonaparte and he 01125
had explained to me the meaning of the different ceremonies of
the mass and of the different vestments worn by the priest.
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 01130
imperfections. His questions showed me how complex and
mysterious were certain institutions of the church which I had
always regarded as the simplest acts. The duties of the priest
towards the eucharist and towards the secrecy of the con=
fessional seemed so grave to me that I wondered how anybody 01135
had ever found in himself the courage to undertake them: and I
was not surprised when he told me that the fathers of the
church had written books as thick as the post office directory
and as closely printed as the law notices in the newspaper
elucidating all these intricate questions. Often when I thought 01140
of this I could make no answer or only a very foolish and
halting one upon which he used to smile and nod his head
twice or thrice. Sometimes he used to put me through the re=
sponses of the mass which he had made me learn by heart: and
as I pattered he used to smile pensively and nod his head, now 01145
and then pushing huge pinches of snuff up each nostril alter=
nately. When he smiled he used to uncover his big discoloured
teeth and let his tongue lie upon his lower lip - a habit which
had made me feel uneasy in the beginning of our acquaintance
before I knew him well.


As I walked along in the sun I remembered old Cotter's
words and tried to remember what had happened afterwards in
the dream. I remembered 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 01155
Persia, I thought. ...... But I could not remember the end of the

In the evening my aunt took me with her to visit the house of
mourning. It was after sunset but the window panes of the
houses that looked to the west reflected the tawny gold of a 01160
great bank of clouds. Nannie received us in the hall and, as it
would have been unseemly to have shouted at her, my aunt
shook hands with her for all. The old woman pointed upwards
interrogatively and, on my aunt's nodding, proceeded to toil up
the narrow staircase before us, her bowed head being scarcely 01165
above the level of the banister rail. At the first landing she
stopped and beckoned us forward encouragingly towards the
open door of the deadroom. My aunt went in and the old
woman, seeing that I hesitated to enter, began to beckon to me
again repeatedly with her hand.


I went in on tiptoe. The room through the lace end of the
blind was suffused with dusky golden light amid which the
candles looked like pale thin flames. He had been coffined.
Nannie gave the lead and we three knelt down at the foot of
the bed. I pretended to pray but I could not gather my thoughts 01175
because the old woman's mutterings distracted me. I noticed
how clumsily her skirt was hooked at the back and how the
heels of her cloth boots were trodden down all to one side. The
fancy came to me that the old priest was smiling as he lay there
in his coffin.


But no. When we rose and went up to the head of the bed I
saw that he was not smiling. There he lay, solemn and copious,
vested as for the altar, his large hands loosely retaining a
chalice. His face was very truculent, grey and massive, with
black cavernous nostrils and circled by a scanty white fur. 01185
There was a heavy odour in the room, the flowers.

We blessed ourselves and came away. In the little room
downstairs we found Eliza seated in his armchair in state. I
groped my way towards my usual chair in the corner while
Nannie went to the sideboard and brought out a decanter of 01190
sherry and some wineglasses. She set these on the table and
invited us to take a little glass of wine. Then, at her sister's
bidding, she poured out the sherry into the glasses and passed
them to us. She pressed me to take some cream crackers also
but I declined because I thought I would make too much noise 01195
eating them. She seemed to be somewhat disappointed at my
refusal and went over quietly to the sofa where she sat down
behind her sister. No-one spoke: we all gazed at the empty

My aunt waited until Eliza sighed and then said: 01200
narrator's aunt―Ah, well, he's gone to a better world.

Eliza sighed again and bowed her head in assent. My aunt
fingered the stem of her wineglass before sipping a little.
narrator's aunt―Did he ..... peacefully? she asked.
Eliza―O, quite peacefully, ma'am, said Eliza. ElizaYou couldn't tell 01205
when the breath went out of him. He had a beautiful death,
God be praised.

narrator's aunt―And everything .... ?
Eliza―Father O'Rourke was in with him a-Tuesday and anointed
him and prepared him and all.
narrator's aunt―He knew then?
Eliza―He was quite resigned.
narrator's aunt―He looks quite resigned, said my aunt.
Eliza―That's what the woman we had in to wash him said. She
said he just looked as if he was asleep, he looked that peaceful 01215
and resigned. No-one would think he'd make such a beautiful

narrator's aunt―Yes, indeed, said my aunt.

She sipped a little more from her glass and said:
narrator's aunt―Well, Miss Flynn, at any rate it must be a great comfort for 01220
you to know that you did all you could for him. You were both
very kind to him, I must say.

Eliza smoothed her dress over her knees.
Eliza―Ah, poor James! she said. God knows we done all we could
as poor as we are. We wouldn't see him want anything while he 01225
was in it.

Nannie had leaned her head against the sofa pillow and
seemed about to fall asleep.
Eliza―There's poor Nannie, said Eliza looking at her, she's wore
out. All the work we had, she and me, getting in the woman to 01230
wash him and then laying him out and then the coffin and then
arranging about the mass in the chapel! Only for Father
O'Rourke I don't know what we'd have done at all. It was him
brought us all them flowers and them two candlesticks out of
the chapel and wrote out the notice for the Freeman's General 01235
and took charge of all the papers for the cemetery and poor
James's insurance.

narrartor's aunt―Wasn't that good of him? said my aunt.

Eliza closed her eyes and shook her head slowly.
Eliza―Ah, there's no friends like the old friends, she said, when all 01240
is said and done, no friends that a body can trust.

narrator's aunt―Indeed, that's true, said my aunt. And I'm sure now that he's
gone to his eternal reward he won't forget you and all your
kindness to him.

Eliza―Ah, poor James! said Eliza. ElizaHe was no great trouble to us. 01245
You wouldn't hear him in the house any more than now. Still, I
know he's gone and all that ....

narrator's aunt―It's when it's all over that you'll miss him, said my aunt.
Eliza―I know that, said Eliza. ElizaI won't be bringing him in his cup of
beeftea any more nor you, ma'am, sending him his snuff. Ah, 01250
poor James!

She stopped, as if she were communing with the past, and
then said shrewdly:
Eliza―Mind you, I noticed there was something queer coming over
him latterly. Whenever I'd bring in his soup to him there I'd 01255
find him with his breviary fallen on the floor, lying back in the
chair and his mouth open.

She laid a finger against her nose and frowned: then she
Eliza―But still and all he kept on saying that before the summer 01260
was over he'd go out for a drive one fine day just to see the old
house again where we were all born down in Irishtown and
take me and Nannie with him. If we could only get one of them
newfangled carriages that makes no noise that Father
O'Rourke told him about - them with the rheumatic wheels - 01265
for the day cheap, he said, at Johnny Rush's over the way there
and drive out the three of us together of a Sunday evening. He
had his mind set on that. ... Poor James!

narrator's aunt―The Lord have mercy on his soul! said my aunt.

Eliza took out her handkerchief and wiped her eyes with it. 01270
Then she put it back again in her pocket and gazed into the
empty grate for some time without speaking.
Eliza―He was too scrupulous always, she said. ElizaThe duties of the
priesthood was too much for him. And then his life was, you
might say, crossed.
narrator's aunt―Yes, said my aunt, narrator's aunthe was a disappointed man. You could
see that.

A silence took possession of the little room and under cover
of it I approached the table and tasted my sherry and then
returned quietly to my chair in the corner. Eliza seemed to have 01280
fallen into a deep revery. We waited respectfully for her to
break the silence: and after a long pause she said slowly:
Eliza―It was that chalice he broke. ... That was what 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 01285
boy's fault. But poor James was so nervous, God be merciful to

narrator's aunt―And was that it? said my aunt. I heard something. .......

Eliza nodded.
narrator's aunt―That affected his mind, she said. narrator's auntAfter that he began to 01290
mope by himself, talking to no-one and wandering about by
himself. So one night he was wanted for to go on a call and
they couldn't find him anywhere. They looked high up and low
down and still they couldn't see a sight of him anywhere. So
then the clerk suggested to try the chapel. So then they got the 01295
keys and opened the chapel and the clerk and Father O'Rourke
and another priest that was there brought in a light for to look
for him. .... And what do you think but there he was, sitting up
by himself in the dark in his confession box, wideawake and
laughing-like softly to himself?


She stopped suddenly as if to listen. I too listened but there
was no sound in the house and I knew that the old priest was
lying still in his coffin as we had seen him, solemn and
truculent in death, an idle chalice on his breast.

Eliza resumed: 01305
Eliza―Wideawake and laughing-like to himself. ... So then of
course when they saw that that made them think that there was
something gone wrong with him. ....