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This opening story of the collection is at one level, an account of the changing perceptions of a growing boy on the death of someone he cares for. When his account of the event begins, he is full of fear and unwilling to accept that the priest will actually die. Once he hears that the death has occurred he is upset and tries to hide the fact. He remembers the priest and his kindness. His scrupulous teaching in spite of his worsening illness; his enjoyments of the small pleasures-like taking snuff, come back to him.
Gradually, curiosity about death and a sense of revulsion against it become his strongest feelings. His last sight of the ‘truculent’ expression with ‘black, cavernous nostrils’ begins to wipe out his earlier fonder memories of the old man. The impression is reinforced by the sisters’ accounts. They talk of ‘poor James’ only as an invalid who was ‘no trouble’ to them. That he initiated the boy into the awe-inspiring rituals is forgotten. In fact, he cannot even remember the prayers taught to him so thoroughly, as he finds the old woman’s ‘muttering’ a distraction.
A characteristic experience of childhood-that of not understanding the conversations of adults-is also recreated vividly. At first with Cotter and later with the sisters he is bewildered by their ‘unfinished sentences.’ This further stimulates his curiosity and creates a cloudy sense of mystery around the old man’s death.
At another level, the story relates to Joyce’s intention ‘to betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis that many consider a city.’
He comes across as a sharply observant, sensitive, lonely youngster. He doesn’t like being called a ‘child’, and he cannot bear to expose his feelings before adults. But his fascination with death is so strong that he does not try to disguise it.
He builds up a vivid picture of the old priest-‘he used to smile pensively and nod his head now and then pushing huge pinches of snuff up each nostril alternately. When he smiled, he used to uncover his big discolored teeth and let his tongue lie upon his lower lip.’
The boy is loyal to the priest who has been kind to him. His loyalty resents the callous comments made by an outsider like Cotter. Yet his growing adult skepticism rejects the rituals and tradition he finds suffocating.
Joyce portrays an image of the priest as reflected in the boy’s eyes. He is clearly a loveable man, as the boy has a strong attachment to him, though he is repelled by his physical features. Though the sister’s comments suggest that Father Flynn was a troubled man, he strives to teach the boy sincerely, even in his fatal illness. Yet, the final impression of Father Flynn is that of the symbol of paralysis and death. The talk of his sisters is reinforced by the sight of his dead face, which should have been ‘smiling’ but is instead ‘truculent.’
PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS
The story opens with our introduction to the young boy, his absorption in the feared death of the priest and his anger at the casual way the grown-ups are talking about it. The climax is his visit to the dead man’s house and his sight of the body. In conclusion he has a sense of release from the influence of the church on him exerted through the priest.
THEMES - THEME ANALYSIS
In this and the next two stories, the theme is the expanding consciousness of a young boy gradually becoming aware of a larger world and getting an insight into the minds of adults he had previously taken for granted.
SYMBOLISM / IMAGERY / MOTIFS / SYMBOLS
The paralysis of the priest is used by Joyce as an obvious parallel to the ‘moral paralysis’ he sees all over Dublin. Joyce considered the Catholic Church, a strongly negative influence on the Irish people and this image underlines that. A minor image is that of the ‘empty chalice’ lying on the dead priest’s chest and the reference to an earlier breaking of a chalice which had upset him. This is a symbol of hollowness, of sterility in the mechanical rituals of religious observance.