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.
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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 – represented by the symbolic chalice that ‘contained nothing’ (p9) and the ‘idle chalice’ (p10) he ‘loosely retained’ (p6) in death.
The story’s namesakes, the Flynn sisters, were perhaps the most restricted by their Dublin lives. Flynn’s economically and socially impoverished siblings lived with him in the ‘unassuming shop, registered under the vague name of Drapery’ (p3) have been forced to receive the debilitating legacy of a ‘truculent’ (p6) defector whose fortunes once took him to college in Rome. Their lack of education becomes apparent through Eliza’s malapropisms ‘freeman’s General’(p8) and ‘rheumatic wheels’ (p9) and the fact they remain unmarried is made clear through the address of ‘Miss Flynn’ (p8).
The sacrifices the sisters made for their brother’s career within the Irish church, is clearly represented by the symbolic communion of sherry and cream crackers when they receive the boy and his Aunt into the death-room, all highlight the sacrifices they have made. Joyce does not veil his opinion that the Catholic Church is responsible for a large portion of Dubliner’s paralysis of will and also hints at another malefactor: England. The death notice on the door of the shop on ‘Great Britain Street’ (p3) states that the priest died on 1st July 1895.
This date coincides with the Battle of the Boyne (1690) in which Catholic supporters of James II were defeated by William III in a defeat that ‘brought death to the Irish hopes for national and religious freedom. ’(Walzl, 1965, p45) . The date is also that of the Feast of the Most Precious Blood which is symbolic of Father Flynn, his strokes, the broken chalice and the communion served in the death-room. This analysis has demonstrated a number of themes in The Sisters that restrict (paralyse) the possibility of its characters growth, and fewer that display the offering.
The paralysis of its character’s resolution for change, caused by the restrictions of the city, is a theme that is also echoed throughout the rest of Dubliners. Joyce presents the city as an ever present “channel of poverty and inaction” (p. 35) which often leads to a life of “commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness” (p. 33). Trapped by poverty and political and religious repression, Joyce’s citizens cannot summon the hope or energy that Gallaher from ‘A Little Cloud’ did, to “revolt against the dull inelegance” of the city (p. 68). However, Joyce’s portrait of Dublin is not entirely bleak.
Joyce could simply have condemned Dublin, as Gallaher does, or followed the example of Duffy, who, in A Painful Case, seeks refuge in brittle, lonely seclusion. But Joyce chose the more challenging course of confronting and accepting the loss of the ‘dear’ in ‘dear, dirty Dublin. ’ (p70) The city’s ability to supress its citizens hope of, or will to change, is something that it is clear, the paralysed characters of The Sisters had experienced, and it is this theme that this essay will now explore further, in an attempt to draw conclusions as to the validity of Lehan’s statement.
The chosen Langston Hughes’ poems I, too, Harlem and New Yorkers display continuity of the theme of ‘paralysis’ through the restriction of a city on its citizens although in differing ways and to differing extents. Langston Hughes’ poem, I, too, is a poem whose main character is in complete contrast to the those of Joyce. Hughes positions the readers to feel the emotions of guilt and sympathy by applying his personal narration and allows the readers to recognise the inequality of the ‘darker brother’ who is sent ‘to eat in the kitchen /when company comes’ (lines 3-4).
The isolation of the ‘darker brother’, his presence an embarrassment to the people around him, serves to anger and motivate his determination for change that is so differing to that of Joyce’s Dublin characters. When he ironically states, ‘But I laugh,/And eat well,/ And grow strong’ (5-7) the speaker is making clear his determination to utilise even the worst situation as an opportunity for growth. Hughes’ use of humour and irony demonstrates this positivity and certainty of change for the future which is in complete contrast to that of Joyce’s characters.
The physical symmetry of the anthem-like poem centres around the line ‘tomorrow’ (8) and seems to gain momentum and passion, as he defiantly promises white America that he will not be spoken for ‘Tomorrow, /I’ll be at the table/ when company comes. / nobody’ll dare say to me,/ eat in the kitchen […] they’ll see how beautiful I am’ (8-16). Hughes positions the reader to feel both sympathy and admiration in the statement, ‘and be ashamed’ (17).
The word ‘beautiful’ seemingly symbolises both the speaker’s skin colour and his cultural heritage, his pride demonstrating that he does not want to change himself so the city will accept him, but for the ‘white’ city to awake from its own paralysis and to actively accept change by valuing their separate and distinctive black culture, establishing that he, acting as a representative for the rest of his culture, is as part of the city as “I [he] too am [is] America” (18).
The theme of ‘paralysis’ is also present in Hughes’ poem Harlem albeit in different way to that of I, too. The speaker’s tone of disdain towards the city is instantly clear through the powerful imagery of it being situated on ‘the edge of hell’ (line 1). This is then compounded by the frequent punctuation and repetition of ‘old’ (3-5), successfully portraying the tedium and hopelessness that it is clear the speaker feels about the situation.
The narrative uses the term ‘we’ suggesting that, like I, too, that the speaker is not just speaking as himself but acting as a ‘voice’ for a wider, black culture. When he speaks of the price increase of sugar, bread and the ‘new tax on cigarettes’ (11) he suggests political repression, when he speaks of the job they ‘never could get/and can’t have now/Because we’re coloured’ (13-15) he displays his embitterment towards the city and its reluctance to change. The feeling of hopelessness is carried through to the end of the poem, ‘We remember. a sombre statement echoing the ‘remembering of old lies’ (5) from the beginning and accurately portraying the sense of time passed over which they have been ‘patient’ (5) despite what ‘they told us before’ (5). The sense of hopelessness present within the speaker, and by association the African-American culture, is one that Hughes is suggesting has been gradually attained through their sacrifices for, and repression by, the city in which they live, much like that of Joyce’s Dublin upon his characters.
The third poem which this essay will use to explore the validity of Lehan’s statement is that of New Yorkers. The first stanza opens introducing the male character as that of a native New Yorker ‘I was born here’ (line 1), the internal rhyme of ‘that’s no lie, he said/right here beneath God’s sky’ (2-3) draws attention to the apparent need to reassure the female character that he was telling the truth, the implication being that they had been subject to previous dishonesty.
If, like in Hughes’ other two poems we assume that each ‘voice’ represents the voice of their particular cultures we can infer a deeper meaning to the previous statement: that the female voice who ‘wasn’t born here’ (4) represents the new immigrants, the statement therefore seemingly echoing the ‘old lies’ seen in Hughes’ Harlem that promised of better possibilities. ‘where I come from/folks work hard/all their lives/ until they die/ and never own no parts/of earth nor sky’(6-11) Hughes draws attention to her belief of the better possibilities that the city would offer and the fact that they were misguided, by his use f her believing she could own a piece of ‘sky’ (11). The repetition of the word also serves to demonstrate the similarities between the ‘sky’ of the place from which the immigrant originates and that of the city’s despite her initial beliefs that the city would offer more ‘Now what’ve I got? ’ (13). The following declaration of love ‘You! ’ (14) acts to convey that an unexpected possibility for emotional growth has been offered. However the hint of irony in the final line ‘The same old spark! perhaps implies that she has closed her mind to her original dreams of expanding possibilities, for what might be a temporary ‘flame’. In conclusion, Hughes’ poems, like The Sisters, all indicate the offering of, and restrictions on, the possibilities within a city and therefore confirm Lehan’s statement. Both authors, upon first glance, seemingly highlight more restrictions than opportunities. It is important to remember however, that as each city changes, so do the opportunities and restrictions offered, and at the time of writing, both cities were in a period of dramatic change, to which there is always resistance.
At the conclusion of The Sisters we are left wondering how much of a character’s plight is due to the city’s restrictions Joyce so specifically illuminates, and how much is due to human qualities that transcend environment. Perhaps the lesson in both Joyce’s and Hughes’ work, is that a city is made up of individual characters, and as long as its individuals remain backward-facing, without hope and closed to change, they will be paralysed from seeing the possibilities that the city has to offer them.
Word Count 2186 Bibliography • A230 Assignment Guide,( 2010) TMA 04, Open University press • Bremen, B (1984) “He Was Too Scrupulous Always”: A Re-Examination of Joyce’s “The Sisters” James Joyce Quarterly , Vol. 22, No. 1 pp. 55-66 • Haslam, S & Asbee, S (2012) The Twentieth Century, Twentieth-Century Cities, Open University Press • Haslam, S & Asbee, S (2012) The Twentieth Century, ‘Readings for part 1’, Open University Press James Joyce (2000 ) Dubliners (with an introduction and notes by Terence Brown), Penguin Modern Classics, London, Penguin. • Walzl, F (1965) The life chronology of the Dubliners , James Joyce Quarterley Websites: • A230-11J, Study Guide: Week 26: Extra Resources, Milton Keynes, The Open University, http://learn. open. ac. uk/file. php/7066/ebook_a230_book3_pt1_chpt4_langston-hughes-poetry_l3. pdf (accessed 21st March 2012) • http://us. penguingroup. com/static/rguides/us/dubliners. html
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