A young boy reflects on the impending death of his friend Father Flynn. Knowing that after three strokes the paralyzed priest has little time left, the boy makes a habit of walking past Father Flynn’s house, looking for the light of the traditional two candles placed on a coffin that would indicate his death. Each time, the boy thinks of the word paralysis. One night at his aunt and uncle’s house, the boy arrives at supper to find his uncle and Old Cotter, a family friend, sitting before the fire. Old Cotter has come to the house to share the news that Father Flynn is dead. Knowing that everyone waits for his reaction, the boy remains quiet.
While the aunt shuffles food to and from the table, a conversation ensues between the uncle and Old Cotter, and the uncle notes the high hopes Father Flynn had for the boy. He hints that Father Flynn planned to prepare the boy for the priesthood and remarks on the friendship between them. Old Cotter, however, thinks of Father Flynn as a “peculiar case” and insists that young boys should play with people their own age. While the uncle agrees with Old Cotter, the aunt is disturbed that anyone could think critically of Father Flynn. She asks Old Cotter to clarify his point, but Old Cotter trails off and the conversation ends. That night, Old Cotter’s comments keep the boy awake, and he dreams of Father Flynn smiling and confessing something to him.
The next morning the boy visits Father Flynn’s house, where a bouquet of flowers and a card hang from the door handle. Instead of knocking, he walks away and reminisces about the time he spent there. He used to bring Father Flynn snuffing tobacco from his aunt, and Father Flynn would teach him things, such as Latin pronunciation and the parts of the Mass. Remembering Old Cotter’s cryptic comments, the boy then tries to recall more of his dream from the night before, but he can remember only a Persian setting—he cannot remember the end. That evening the boy visits the house with his aunt, and they kneel at Father Flynn’s open coffin with one of Father Flynn’s sisters, Nannie, to pray. Afterward, the three retire to another room to join Eliza, Father Flynn’s other sister. Over sherry and crackers they discuss Father Flynn’s death, his taxing career as a priest, and the helpful services of Father O’Rourke, another priest who anointed Father Flynn and completed all of the necessary paperwork and death notices. All the while the boy remains quiet. The story ends with Eliza’s recollection of Father Flynn’s increasingly odd behavior, which started with dropping a chalice during Mass. When one night Father O’Rourke and another priest found Father Flynn shut in a confessional box, laughing to himself, they finally realized he was sick.
In “The Sisters,” and in the rest of the stories in Dubliners, strange and puzzling events occur that remain unexplained. Father Flynn suffers from paralyzing strokes and eventually dies, but his deterioration, epitomized by his laughing frenzy in a confessional box, also hints that he was mentally unstable. The reader never learns exactly what was wrong with him. Similarly, Father Flynn and the young narrator had a relationship that Old Cotter thinks was unhealthy, but that the narrator paints as spiritual when he recounts the discussions he and Father Flynn had about Church rituals. However, the narrator also has strange dreams about Father Flynn and admits to feeling uncomfortable around him. Joyce presents just enough information so that the reader suspects Father Flynn is a malevolent figure, but never enough so that the reader knows the full story. Such a technique is hinted at in the first paragraph of the story. The narrator thinks of the word paralysis when looking at Father Flynn’s window and says the word sounds strange, like the word gnomon, a term that generally refers to instruments, like the hand on a sundial, that indicate something. Joyce does exactly that: He points to details and suggestions, but never completes the puzzle.
The physical presence of Father Flynn lingers throughout the story, coloring the narrator’s experience of dealing with death in life and showing how a death interrupts normal human activities. Father Flynn plays a fleshly role in the story. His approaching death makes the narrator think of the corpse, which he eventually sees. When Father Flynn dies, the narrator continues to think of his physical presence, particularly the lurid way in which his tongue rested on his lip, and dreams of his face. Such bizarre physical images evoke the awkward nature of death. Like the episodes of Father Flynn’s odd behavior that the sisters recount, the narrator’s memories give Father Flynn a haunting presence that is fearful and mysterious, not beautiful and neat. In the final scene with the sisters, eating, drinking, and talking become difficult since death frames those activities. After viewing the corpse, the narrator declines the crackers offered because he fears that eating them would make too much noise, as if he might disturb Father Flynn in his coffin. Similarly, the narrator’s aunt is unable to broach the subject of death. She asks questions about how Father Flynn died, but her thoughts trail off. Father Flynn may be dead, but in many ways he is still very present among the living.
The inability of the narrator and his aunt to eat and speak during their visit to the sisters recalls the sense of paralysis that the narrator connects to the dying Father Flynn in the story’s opening paragraph. This link between paralysis or inaction to both death and religion underpins all the stories in Dubliners. Characters face events that paralyze them from taking action or fulfilling their desires, as though they experience a kind of death in life. In “The Sisters,” such paralysis is connected to religion through Father Flynn. Father Flynn’s dropping of the chalice and his inability to grasp the same object in his coffin suggest that the rituals of religion lead to paralysis. His sisters also attribute his demise to the strains of clerical life. The crippling quality of religion resurfaces in other stories like “Grace,” in which Joyce more directly questions the role of the Church in the lives of Dubliners.