(D) about “The Sisters” July 1, The Feast of Christ’s Holy Blood

Florence Welzel diagnosed Father Flynn’s symptoms as Parkinson’s disease and not the result of stroke (J&McG 4). Years later, she returned with medical reinforcement in the person of Dr. Weisbren to claim the priest was suffering from syphilis, but something was still missing from the analysis. A gnomon left the explanation incomplete. Restoring the gnomon can complete the explanation, a gnomon linking the paralysis in Grey to the Euclid and perhaps even to the Catechism.

Critics Torchiana and Carrington agreed with Weisbren and Welzel that paresis, or General Paralysis of the Insane resulting from a European epidemic of syphilis, was a likely cause of the priest’s collapse, but, elsewhere, support for the theory was lukewarm. Jackson and McGinley called the claim “unprovably suggested.” Weisbren reported that Walzl had difficulty attracting support from “literary colleagues.” Some like J.B. Lyons even expressed disbelief that a priest could have syphilis. However, more than three decades after Walzl’s first speculation, another physician brought a new dimension to the debate. Michael Timins of the Medical College of Wisconsin solidified the argument for General Paralysis of the Insane by proposing the case for Tertiary (or inherited) Syphilis and supporting the discussion with medical evidence related to the priest and the story’s titular sisters (442).

Other proposals for the story’s symbolism and conflict persist. Some claim that the essence of the plot is homosexuality or sexual predation. For Dubliners of that vintage, “sisters” was a derogatory term for homosexuals (Jackson and McGinley 11). Marvin Magalaner explores the role of  Flynn as God the Father, Church, or pope (Torchiana 18-19 and Carrington 19). Others fix on paralysis as the gnomon that shapes the plot of the story and the theme of the collection.

If these propositions are accepted, the gnomon shrinks, but the corner has not been “boxed.” Secrets remain, guarded behind “beady black eyes” most conspicuously those of Old Cotter, wise in the ways of “faints (or feints) and worms.” Cotter balked at plain speaking and hinted at the priest’s complicity in undisclosed sins against the Holy Ghost. Cotter’s familiar, Uncle Jack, introduced the Rosicrucian heresy. Tindall tells us the boy and the sisters withheld some secrets and made half-disclosures about others (16). The sisters concealed the priest’s strangeness behind his scrupulosity. The boy was vague in confessing how he comforted his “soul receding into some pleasant and vicious region.” Similarly, Father Flynn hid the telltale-black stains of his snuff in the passion-red of his handkerchief (Jackson and McGinley 3-4).

Not the least of the secrets was a priest’s syphilis. After Timins’ analysis, we can accept that the Flynns all suffered an inherited and, in the days before penicillin, an incurable infection. This might deflect the objections of modern critics, even those like Lyons who would not accept a priest with a sexual disease. It would not dismiss the accusations of Flynn’s lay contemporaries or clerical superiors. With modern scientific understanding, the illness becomes a manifestation of original sin. It expands the understanding of the story’s title, the sisters’ significance and allows the reader to appreciate the symptomatic evidence. Nannie suffered spinal compression (tabes dorsalis), Tullio’s “phenomenon barotrauma” (a splaying of the heels through asymmetric osseous) causing a wearing down of heels from the outside-in. While Nannie’s deafness was nearly total, originating in the vestibular-cochlear nerve, Eliza is hypersensitive to sound, requiring a coach with “rheumatic wheels.” The elder sister also suffers from habitual exhaustion. Their brother exhibits tremors, halting speech, and progressive dementia. This catalog of symptoms can all be attributed to Tertiary Syphilis.

Selected for education among the elite of the Irish priesthood, James Flynn had a great career promised him. Among the seminarians schooled at the Pontifical Irish College was saint and martyr Oliver Plunkett. One of the college’s rectors, Paul Cullen, was to become Ireland’s first Cardinal (https://www.irishcollege.org/college/history/). Dozens of archbishops, bishops and monsignors paraded through the gates of the Irish College, but James Flynn was not among them. He never fulfilled his great promise. He may have disqualified himself through some misdeed, or he may have lost esteem through the discovery of his genetic flaw. Years after, Father Flynn spoke fondly to his boy protege about the virtues of Napolean. There is no evidence that Flynn held any fondness for the Irish Seminary in Rome. Since Napolean seized the seminary’s property and shut down the school in 1798, one might deduce that the priest’s admiration for Napolean was boosted by ill feelings harbored against the college.

Burgess wrote that in the story, “There were no great sins, nor any performance of great good” (38). Torchiana focused on “inconclusive dialogue and (the) seemingly inconclusive anticlimactic ending” (18). Burgess and Torchiana agreed in the belief that the truth is hidden. Even the vague naming of the sisters’ shop was concealment. The Drapery sells not drapes but bootees and umbrellas. There is the secret of hereditary syphilis.

copyright (c) don ward 2021

Another secret rationalized a disappointed vocation behind excuses of excessive scrupulosity. Finally, there is the secret Burgess called “an idle chalice,” an empty chalice, broken before it ever fell.

Circumspect Uncle John introduces the Rosicrucians to the speculation. Founded by Christian Rosenkreuz, the sect is a mystical pseudo-oriental order with secret passageways for shared membership with the Freemasons (Torchiana 25). Followers refer to Rosencranz as Magus (like the Magi) and Father. There is something sinister behind these titles. When the boy tries to displace the image of the dead priest’s “heavy grey face” with happy Christmas memories, he cannot summon happier, holier thoughts. Torchiana also observes that the name Fynn comes from the Irish root meaning red or ruddy and continues saying, “the priest’s very name may point to a Father Rosycross.” In his dream, the protege finds an oriental setting with “long velvet curtains (Drapery) and a swinging lamp.” He associates the setting with Persia, home to the original simoniac, Simon Magnus (Jackson and McGinley 5).

Linking Father Flynn’s ministry with Simon Magnus, Freemasons, and Rosicrucians marks a path from transubstantiation to alchemy. Alchemy changes base metals to gold; transubstantiation changes bread and wine into Christ’s flesh and blood. Flynn’s rejection by the Pontifical College may have transformed his gold to lead and led the priest away from his vocation and toward mysticism. He goes to his mad end with his tongue extended as if to receive an imaginary consecrated host, with his Holy Office fallen at his feet, laughing insanely and hidden again, this time in the confessional.

Kevin Sullivan believed that Joyce gave serious consideration to joining the Jesuits (Carrington 21). It is impossible to know if Joyce’s attraction to the order was based in Faith or if he was attracted to the symbols, the trappings, and the educational eliteness of the order. Joyce also had a weakness for the allure of mysticism. Torchiana called this “the turn to mysticism, (and) retention of ritual without Faith.” For Joyce, mysticism appears again in Ulysses in the discussion of Madam Blavatsky, Molly’s turning of the Tarot, and the Metempsychic coupling of Bloom and Dedalus into a single soul. 

The boy is menaced by the dream enacting the priest’s confession to his protege. In metempsychosis, this role would be shared, not reversed. Furthermore, the juvenile relief on the priest’s death might be the same relief Stephen felt when he finally refused the rector’s offer to share his mission, another artistic metempsychosis.


Works Cited

Burgess, Anthony. ReJoyce. Second ed., W.W.    Norton & Company, New York. 1965, pp. 38–39. 

Carrington, John William. “James Joyce’s Dubliners: Critical Essays.” James Joyce’s Dubliners: Critical Essays, edited by Clive Hart, Viking Press, 1969, pp. 13–25. 

Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce, Oxford University Press, New York. 1983.

” Pontificio Collegio Irlandese, History.” Pontificio Collegio Irlandese History Comments, 12 June 2021, http://www.irishcollege.org/college/history. 

Joyce, James. Dubliners. Enhanced Media, 2016, Retrieved April 28- June 1. 2021.

Joyce, James. James Joyce’s Dubliners: An Illustrated Edition with      Annotations, edited by John Wyse Jackson and Bernard McGinley, St. Martin’s Press, 1993, pp. 21-27.

Joyce, Stanislaus. My Brother’s Keeper: James Joyce’s Early Years, edited by Richard Ellmann, Da Capo Press, 1958, pp. 60-61. 

Timins, Michael. “The Sisters: Their Disease,'” James Joyce Quarterly Vol. 49, No. 3/4, Spring-Summer 2012, pp. 441-454.

Tindall, William York. “Dubliners.” A Reader’s Guide to James Joyce, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1959, pp. 13-17. 

Torchiana, Donald T.” ‘The Sisters’: The Three Fates and the Opening of  Dubliners,” Backgrounds for Joyce’s Dubliners, Allen & Unwin, 1986, pp. 18-35.


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