James Joyce’s “Dubliners”: Contrast in “The Sisters”

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ChatGPT Prompt: In 250 words, how does James Joyce employ contrast in his story “The Sisters” from “Dubliners”?

In “The Sisters” from James Joyce’s “Dubliners,” contrast serves as a central narrative device, enriching the story’s themes and character dynamics. Joyce masterfully employs various forms of contrast to illuminate the complexities of the human condition and the underlying paralysis in Dublin society.

One prominent contrast is the juxtaposition of youth and old age. The story’s young narrator, an innocent boy, interacts with the elderly and ailing Father Flynn. This generational gap highlights the passage of time and the inevitability of aging and decay, symbolizing the broader theme of stagnation and paralysis in Dublin. The young narrator’s curiosity contrasts sharply with Father Flynn’s deteriorating condition, emphasizing the divide between youth’s vitality and the elder’s decline.

Another contrast lies in the physical and psychological aspects of paralysis. Father Flynn’s physical paralysis, a literal infirmity, is contrasted with the narrator’s psychological paralysis. The young boy is mentally trapped by his inability to comprehend the significance of the priest’s death. This duality underscores the pervasive theme of paralysis in its various forms.

The story also plays with the contrast between the mundane and the mysterious. The boy’s mundane surroundings, like the desk and books, stand in stark contrast to the enigmatic circumstances surrounding Father Flynn’s death. The priest’s unusual behavior before passing and the cryptic message he leaves behind introduce an element of mystery, adding depth and intrigue to the otherwise ordinary setting.

Lastly, “The Sisters” explores the contrast between religion and doubt. Father Flynn, a figure of religious authority, is portrayed in a questionable light due to his actions before death. This contrast highlights the tension between conventional religious beliefs and the doubts that permeate the narrative, raising questions about the authenticity of religious institutions. In “The Sisters,” James Joyce expertly employs contrast to delve into the multifaceted nature of human experience, illustrating the tensions between opposing elements and the intricate layers of Dublin’s society. These contrasts contribute to the story’s richness and underscore its central themes of paralysis and decay.

My Response

Most of us, when contemplating themes of death, will conjure dark and ominous depictions. We might imagine a gray and overcast cemetery, or a black and somber funeral. In his story, “The Sisters”, James Joyce tells a tale which centers around the death of a man, and in doing so, he uses much of the darker imagery we would expect of such a theme.

“His face was very truculent, grey and massive, with black cavernous nostrils and circled by a scanty white fur.”


Imagery such as this is to be expected when writing about death. What is more unexpected, however, is the way Joyce juxtaposes the dark imagery with the opposite. For instance, throughout the novel Joyce uses a lot of darker words when speaking of James Flynn, the deceased in this story, but then these darker descriptions will be contrasted with another oft-spoken feature of the character—his smile or laugh. I typically associate a smile or laugh with happy occasions, as most do, but in the context of this story where the character is smiling or laughing in his struggles before his death, rather than lightening the tone, these actions seems to make it more ominous.

Other examples of contrast I found include Joyce’s depiction of the sunny weather. The nice weather is a striking contrast to the somber occasion of visiting the house of a deceased. Then later, when describing how the man died, the characters use the words “beautiful death” and “beautiful corpse” to describe the passing. Beauty is not typically associated with death and corpses, which makes its use in these phrases all the more impactful. Particularly since most other descriptions of James Flynn aren’t too flattering.

As these contrasts in imagery and language were something that stood out strongly to me, I was interested to see if the LLM would find these same contrasts, or perhaps different ones. The LLM didn’t find the same contrasts in imagery that I did, but some of what it said touched on things I found interesting.

While some of the LLM’s contrasts were either less important to the broader themes of the story, or weren’t quite accurate, I was interested by its point on physical versus psychological paralysis. As mentioned early on in the story, James Flynn suffered from physical paralysis. The boy in this story, on the other hand, seems to experience a sort of psychological paralysis. This can be gathered from the boy’s dreams in which he travels far away from where he lives, as if trying to escape. The boy might feel trapped, either in his hometown, or perhaps trapped on the path of joining the priesthood, which is suggested in footnote seven.

I think contrasts in a novel are interesting, as they can often highlight certain qualities of characters, or draw our attention to certain themes. Much like how our eye is more likely to be drawn to a black word printed on white paper, than a black word on gray paper, so too is our mind likely to notice a sun shining over a funeral, or a “beautiful death.” We might wonder how the bright sunny day could represent the inner feelings of a character, or how this term “beautiful death” might represent a conflict between a character’s outer appearance, or position, and his inner turmoil.

4 Comments on “James Joyce’s “Dubliners”: Contrast in “The Sisters”

  1. I noticed that ChatGPT focused more on a basic sparknotes analysis on the different noticeable topics of contrast that you prompt it to write on, while you talked mostly about contrast in color, imagery, and in language. I really enjoyed this different perspective of contrast that you explored, and honestly was very refreshing to see a different approach, and I found myself agreeing with much of what you were saying.

  2. It is interesting to see what contrasts from “The Sisters” you and the LLM pulled out. As you mentioned in your response to the LLM post it appears that you picked out more of the significant contrasts than it did. For example, the change in the description of James Flynn from what he was like while he lived and then what his death and corpse were like to those at the house. I wonder where this LLM got it’s information from about this story, that might give us a clue as to why it picked out the contrasts it did.

  3. The LLM seemed to have an easier time summarizing a lot of the stories from James Joyce and analyzing them as compared to the short story by Jhumpa Lahiri. This could be because it has been fed several analyses of James Joyces’ works since it was published in 1914, so more people might have written about it as compared to the short story by Lahiri that was published in 1999. I think that this just shows that you are able to come up with original ideas, while the LLM cannot because it is only predicting the next probable word based on what it has been given to read.

  4. While some of ChatGPT’s analysis is somewhat dull, I think the contrast of physical paralysis and psychological paralysis is actually quite insightful, especially when considering the broader cultural background of Ireland at the time. Of course, this insight probably isn’t original; someone somewhere on the internet noticed this pattern before ChatGPT did. So perhaps LLMs can be useful in bringing some buried analyses back to the surface.

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