restricted access The Free Man's Journal: The Making of His[$]tory in Joyce's "The Sisters"
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The Free Man's Journal:
The Making of His[$]tory in Joyce's "The Sisters"

I. Lying Still?: Reliability and the Narrator

Over the last thirty years "The Sisters" has been persistently analyzed, both as a self-contained story and as an "early example" of Joyce's complex preoccupations in Portrait, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake. The need to explicate the story has never had to be defended; after all, it is the first published piece of fiction by one of the most important prose writers of our century.1 By using some of the insights of Lacanian theory, I hope [End Page 455] to show that the boy is thrilled with the Symbolic Order which allows him to relate who he is. He is frightened, however, that in gaining the use of the word he may have lost touch with the world. His defense, therefore, against the possibility that his reality might be fiction is to eschew all speculative narration in favor of literal description. He must be careful because, as he parenthetically and inexplicably informs us, "(it was vacation time)"—a time when outward demands on his time are suddenly lifted, leaving him to face, perhaps for the first time, the very idea of "his time" (D 9). This in turn generates, also perhaps for the first time, the need for him to tell his story in opposition to the role he is assigned to play in other people's stories. A good deal of the boy's time, therefore, is spent during his vacation time exercising private rituals that are fascinating to him merely because he knows that the adults know nothing about them. If he is to discover who he is apart from them, he must have activities about which they know nothing. Because he is suddenly aware of himself as his own historian, the only one who could really "know" who he is, the boy is wary about making a "mistake" in his use of langauge that might cause him to misrepresent "the facts" that he assumes must underlie all the appearances that the adults around him seem to hold so dear.

The narrator prizes accuracy above all else, and his strategy for concerning himself strictly with "reality" is deliberately to interrupt his own flights of fancy as well as his recollections of a dream from the night before, by forcing himself dispassionately to describe some item taken from his immediate environment: the card announcing Flynn's death in one instance, the flowers at the wake in another, Nannie's boot heels, Father Flynn's nostrils, and so on. The curious tension of the narrative results from the undertow of "fancy" that keeps eroding the outlines of "reality." Put another way, the concrete details the boy strings together are not strictly arbitrary; he is drawn to things whose presence is undercut by an absence (the geometric figure of the gnomon is the primary example). He is increasingly aware of some lack at the center of his own being that he would like to fill in with the "truth" about himself. In the case of the flowers, what strikes him is their scent. He is alarmed that something is signified by a scent he cannot immediately name: "There was a heavy odour in the room—the flowers" (D 14). The sentence begins ominously and ends with a luxuriously reassuring bump; the signifier has a signified. The narrator's implicit question for objects he sees is "where has it come from?" and his reaction to objects he remembers seeing is "where has it gone?" One reason he is fascinated by the card announcing Father Flynn's death is that this sign has replaced a sign that is ordinarily visible which reads Umbrellas Re-covered. In this case, the presence of one sign does not cause another sign to disappear; rather, a residue is left in the [End Page 456] narrator's mind that he cannot dislodge. A similar dynamic motivates his reluctant fascination with Nannie's boot heel. He is drawn to describing it because something is missing from it which is announced by what remains. What wore down her boot heel? Something so...