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“Sounding strangely in my ears”: Foregrounded Words and Joyce’s Revision of “The Sisters”

From: Joyce Studies Annual
Volume 2008
pp. 243-248

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In noting that Joyce revised “The Sisters” to form an introduction to Dubliners, critics often point to the opening paragraph with its three emphasized words, paralysis, gnomon and simony, viewing them as indicators of themes Joyce would later use throughout his work. Beyond these three words, however, Joyce introduced other self-conscious but unitalicized words to intensify the psychological and spiritual dimensions of the story. When the boy thinks of the word “paralysis,” he feels that “it sounded strangely in my ears like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism . . . It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work” (D 9). Even the word “strangely” seems to call attention to itself. The words the boy thinks of are not only strange in themselves, but they affect him in strange and fearful ways. Throughout the revised text, words that seem strange or incongruous with a young boy’s experience and vocabulary appear occasionally and seem to call attention to themselves. This essay examines a few of these new words and seeks reasons for their insertion into the text.

Critics have noted this disparity between levels of vocabulary (childish and adult) in the retrospective narrative and have cited various examples. John Paul Riquelme focuses on the language used to describe the unsuccessful attempts of Father Flynn to cleanse the fallen grains of snuff from his “ancient priestly garments” (12). The word the boy-narrator uses is “inefficacious”—precise, but hardly a word one would find in a boy’s vocabulary. Riquelme suggests that “frequently, we can identify the two voices through contrasts of diction, as in the case of the word ‘inefficacious.’ The word, which Joyce added during revision of the story, has a definite impact, particularly because the narrator is sparing in his use of a sophisticated adult vocabulary.”1 Fritz Senn and J. Mitchell Morse have suggested an alternate reading of this unusual word, which links it more closely to the relationship between Father Flynn and the boy: “The word may be one that the boy learned from the priest in relation to the efficacy of grace in removing the stains of human sin” (cited in Riquelme, 254 n.8). This reading is inviting because the boy, like a sponge, picks up words, ideas and feelings from this priest as his substitute father. Moreover, the word resonates with powerful theological meaning that might be significant in the story.2 This level of linguistic implication, seemingly out of place in a boy’s vocabulary, may be explicable as a hint at the central problem with Father Flynn in his last days—the question of his eternal salvation. The priest fails to cleanse his coat from the “constant showers of snuff . . . for the red handkerchief, blackened as it always was with the snuff-stains of a week, with which he tried to brush away the fallen grains, was quite inefficacious” (12). According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, “Sufficient but Inefficacious Grace” is a grace given by God to humans who, in turn, reject its efficacy for reasons of their own. This explanation allows for the dual existence of Divine Foreknowledge in God and Free Will in humanity. But just how free is the will of Father Flynn? Unfortunately, his soiled coat and blackened handkerchief inescapably remind him of the snuff-stains of his spiritual life—stains that now he is unable to address. If “efficacious” and “inefficacious” resonate with the world of theology, this scene might well work also as a symbol of the priest’s ultimate dilemma. Moving toward death, Father Flynn feels he is unable to help himself in any way: He can save neither his great coat nor his immortal soul. “Merely Sufficient Grace” (“gratia mere sufficiens”) is inefficacious (“gratia inefficax”) in purging sin from the soul when it isn’t accompanied by free will, or when the individual feels unable to exercise free will.3

Why then would Father Flynn feel incapable of accepting the saving grace that is clearly available to him? Perhaps the answer lies in another oddly placed word in the story. Eliza says, “He was too...

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