Two Versions of ‘The Sisters’


My last post was about Joyce’s difficulties getting Dubliners published at all, but today I’m going to briefly look at the first publication of one of the stories, ‘The Sisters’, in the newspaper The Irish Homestead from August 1904. The stories ‘Eveline’ and ‘After the Race’ were also published in the Homestead. Joyce’s revision of this first version of ‘The Sisters’, when he made it an introduction to the concerns of the whole volume of stories, has been widely discussed by Joyce critics, so I’m only going to sketch out a few ideas here in an introductory way.

Apart from anything else, it’s interesting to see the story in a wildly different context to Joyce’s later little magazine publications – The Irish Homestead was a nationalist agricultural paper so on the same page as the story we see an advert for dairy machinery.

The Homestead version begins:


Three nights in succession I had found myself in Great Britain-street at that hour, as if by Providence. Three nights also I had raised my eyes to that lighted square of window and speculated. I seemed to understand that it would occur at night. But in spite of the Providence that had led my feet, and in spite of the reverent curiosity of my eyes, I had discovered nothing. Each night the square was lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly. It was not the light of candles, so far as I could see. Therefore, it had not yet occurred.

On the fourth night at that hour I was in another part of the city. It may have been the same Providence that led me there—a whimsical kind of Providence to take me at a disadvantage. As I went home I wondered was that square of window lighted as before, or did it reveal the ceremonious candles in whose light the Christian must take his last sleep. I was not surprised, then, when at supper I found myself a prophet. Old Cotter and my uncle were talking at the fire, smoking. Old Cotter is the old distiller who owns the batch of prize setters. He used to be very interesting when I knew him first, talking about “faints” and “worms.” Now I find him tedious.

While I was eating my stirabout I heard him saying to my uncle:

“Without a doubt. Upper storey—(he tapped an unnecessary hand at his forehead)—gone.”

“So they said. I never could see much of it. I thought he was sane enough.”

“So he was, at times,” said old Cotter.

I sniffed the “was” apprehensively, and gulped down some stirabout.

“Is he better, Uncle John?”

“He’s Dead.”

“O … he’s dead?”

“Died a few hours ago.”

“Who told you?”

“Mr. Cotter here brought us the news. He was passing there.”

“Yes, I just happened to be passing, and I noticed the window … you know.”

“Do you think they will bring him to the chapel?” asked my aunt.

“Oh, no, ma’am. I wouldn’t say so.”

“Very unlikely,” my uncle agreed.

So old Cotter had got the better of me for all my vigilance of three nights. It is often annoying the way people will blunder on what you have elaborately planned for. I was sure he would die at night.


This is not the story as we know it, though all the facts are the same. This is a far more realist opening, with fewer of the complexities of narration that we find in the story as we know it. We get all the information that we need about time and place, while many critics have noticed the insistence of the repetitions in the opening couple of paragraphs, in particular of ‘Providence’. In keeping with this realism, there is a lack of symbolism: the words paralysis, gnomon, simony – which are the central mystery of the story, and for some critics, of the whole collection – are missing. In the final version of the story these key words are added, as are the boy’s dreams about the priest; in this first version it seems clearer that the boy’s fascination is with death, while in Joyce’s revision the fascination is with the priest himself. There’s also less mystery in the first version of the story because the adults are far more direct. For example, Old Cotter moves from stating the priest’s madness directly

“Without a doubt. Upper storey—(he tapped an unnecessary hand at his forehead)—gone.”

to oblique utterances that seem to point as much to unspecified sin, as to madness

“No, I wouldn’t say he was exactly… but there was something queer… there was something uncanny about him. I’ll tell you my opinion….”.

But the narration is what really marks Joyce’s transition from realism to modernism: in this first version of the story, the boy’s first person narration incorporates the same level of narrative intrusion throughout. For example, in this passage he tells us his feelings about Cotter (‘Now I find him tedious’), just as in the boy’s description of the conversation between his aunt and the sisters he tells us that ‘she is a bit of a gossip—harmless’. In contrast, in the final version of the story, Joyce, as Morrissey (1986) argues, ‘begin[s] by helping the reader on with heavy narrative judgement, as in readerly texts, and end by withdrawing this narrative help’. We grow used to the narrator’s intrusions of his opinions, but they are eventually withdrawn, leaving us somewhat adrift – the final judgement that the narrator makes in the revised story is that the priest ‘was not smiling’, but he never comments on the revelation of the priest’s madness which, in the first version, the narrator received without interest at the opening of the story. As a result, we are in a far less comfortable relationship to the story in the final version, but that makes it all the more exciting.

You can read the 1904 version of the story in most editions of Dubliners, but it’s also available here,_1904). I’d love to hear more about how you think the two versions relate to each other, but I’ll try to write more about this at a later date…


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