The two stories I have chosen to review today are the first stories of James Joyce’s collection, Dubliners: “The Sisters” and “An Encounter”.  For those of you familiar with this collection, you will know that the collection is a short story cycle and has a clear structure.  The first three stories revolve around childhood, the next four are concerned with adolescence and young adulthood, the next four are stories of maturity, the next three are focused on public life and finally there is one more story, breaking the symmetry, The Dead, famous for its moment of epiphany.

“The Sisters” and “An Encounter” are stories of childhood, each narrated in the first person by a boy, whose perspective on the world (a world in which he does not grasp and understand everything) and those around him is thus conveyed.  As the title of the collection reveals, the stories are about Dubliners, and indeed each story is clearly located in the Irish capital, giving details of street names and such.  They both reflect Irish society at the beginning of the twentieth century, making comments on religion and education for instance.  However, they are also stories about people and each story is focused, through the boy’s eyes, on a particular, or shall I say peculiar, character: a priest in the former and a pervert in the latter.

In “The Sisters”, the narrator tells us about the death of his friend, Father Flynn.  However, there is an atmosphere of mystery around this character.  Nothing is clearly stated and the story works through suggestion, leaving the reader free to imagine.  For instance, old Cotter suggests that the priest might be a bad influence on children, yet never really says why.  During the wake, the priest’s two sisters also reveal that since Father Flynn had broken a chalice (although an altar boy is blamed for that) he had never been the same and they seem to imply that he had lost his mind.  However, nothing is at any point clearly explained. 

The narrator of “An Encounter” relates that day he and his friend skipped school to go playing the “Wild West”.  We thus follow their adventures on that day.  The central event of the day is their encounter with a peculiar character, with a “strangely liberal” attitude, who sits with them and discusses school, books and sweethearts.  At one stage, the man absents himself and moves further in the field.  When one of the boy looks at him, he exclaims “Look what he’s doing! . . . He’s a queer old josser!”.  However, we are never told what they actually saw the man doing, but when he comes back the conversation turns to whipping.  Disturbing, no?

These stories are well-written, but some references or idioms can be a bit difficult and necessitate to consult the notes (provided by my edition).  It is the second time I am reading this collection and I think I am able to appreciate the stories better now.  Although the first time was about eight years ago, the stories had left a strong impression on me, particularly “An Encounter”.

Short Story Monday is hosted by John at The Book Mine Set.

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