Irish People and Father Flynn

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In order to answer the broad question, the term ‘possibility’ will be analysed in the context of the characters of the texts and in the ‘possibility’ for their personal growth and opportunity for change, be it spiritual, physical or emotional. The essay will focus thematically on four chosen texts: James Joyce’s The Sisters and Langston Hughes’ poems I, too, New Yorkers and Harlem. Firstly this essay will analyse how the city of Dublin represented in The Sisters is shown, through Joyce’s literary devices, to both offer and restrict possibility for each of its central characters. Key themes identified will then be used as a basis for further analysis of how these themes are more widely represented within the selected New York poems to either confirm or refute Lehan’s statement that ‘The city both offers and restricts possibility’.

Textual analysis of The Sisters reveals numerous literary devices that explicate the theme of the repression of possibility by the city of its people. Throughout, Joyce uses symbolism, metaphors, and ellipsis to emphasise his themes whilst allowing the reader to infer its meanings without the need to describe them explicitly. The italicised words ’paralysis’, ‘gnomon’ and ‘simony’ (page 1) is one such technique and immediately underscores the physical, spiritual and religious restrictions found within the story that Dubliners symbolises as a ‘paralysis’ (p1) of the city and its people.

The story’s young, intelligent, and sensitive (unnamed) protagonist comes to experience first-hand the reality of paralysis and death: he achieves his desire to ‘look upon’ (p1) both the physical paralysis and death of Father Flynn, with whom he was ‘great friends’ (p2) and the more subtle psychological ‘paralysis’ of those around him – his Aunt, Uncle Jack, Eliza and Nanny Flynn and Mr Cotter. The story shows that the Dublin adults are mentally immobilised – metaphorically paralysed, by their conformity to the conventions of their city lives, for them, the beliefs of the Irish church is a given. Eliza, Cotter and the church men consider Flynn and not the church to be the cause of his predicament ‘the duties of the priesthood was too much for him’ (p9). They appear unable to acknowledge the truth of a priest ‘nearly smothered’ (p4) by his understanding of the demands of his – and their- church. The perceptive boy, finds the adults surrounding him ‘tiresome’ (p1) and notices how Nannie Flynn’s skirt was hooked ‘clumsily’ (p6). His judgemental and sometimes precocious style seems at times somewhat harsh ‘the old woman’s mutterings distracted me’ (p6) and his character seemingly reflects the ‘scrupulous’ nature of Father Flynn. The friendship between this fatherless boy and the priest also offered important possibilities for growth to our protagonist, he was taught ‘a great deal’ (p2) such as ‘how to pronounce Latin properly’, told stories ‘about Napoleon Bonaparte’ and was questioned until he ‘could make no answer’ (p6). This education, when contrasted to the ‘principle’ of education described by his Uncle as a ‘cold bath’ (p2), is something that, without Father Flynn, the boy might not have had access to. The question of whether, in the ‘sensation of freedom’ from (p4)Flynn’s death, the boy takes up this possibility for change or succumbs to the paralysis caused by the restrictions of the city is one which Joyce leaves unanswered.

In the case of Father Flynn the city of Dublin both offered and restricted possibility. From a lower class upbringing in ‘Irishtown’ (p9) Flynn was able to travel to, and be educated in, ‘the Irish college in Rome’ (p5). Yet once he returned to the city and took up his post, he became the ‘disappointed’ (p9), Father Flynn who was paralysed by his ‘too scrupulous’ (p9) nature. Perhaps this is a reference to the potentially paralysing psychological disorder ‘scrupulosity’ which would explain his ‘nervous’ (p10) disposition and his failed attempts to perform his office -...
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