Short StoriesThe Sisters

James Joyce’s Use of Ellipsis in “The Sisters”

8 Mins read

The word ellipsis comes from Greek “elleipsis” and means “a falling short, defect.” From a linguistic standpoint, the phenomenon of ellipsis involves a complex interaction on the syntactic, linguistic, and pragmatic levels. The default interpretation of ellipsis often corresponds to what linguists properly call “syntactic ellipsis,” i.e., the “nonexpression of a word or phrase that is nevertheless expected to occupy a place in the syntactic structure of a sentence.”

The use of ellipsis may be thought-about a kind of aposiopesis: the author’s silence expresses an unwillingness to continue, inform or write any additional. Such a reluctance implies a vital reassessment of the connection between the author and the reader. Thus, the reader is invited to take part within the creative process to fill the gap left by the author.

The pause that punctuation signals characterize the moment during which the author involves the reader within the creative process so that the activity of the reader’s thoughts “starts anew.”

The unsaid, as the unnameable, refers to one thing that can’t be revealed. On the other, it expresses the urge to reveal that secret by using different means than language.

Joyce’s use of ellipses is pervasive in Dubliners. The short stories within the collection are marked by each the characters’ reluctance to express their ideas or feelings and the interpreter’s difficulty filling in these informational gaps.

In Dubliners, “The Sisters” is the story that finest embodies the elliptic main interplay, the one between omission and inclusion, which encapsulates all of the others.

“The Sisters” is a story that ends with ellipsis dots and a full stop; that’s to say, with four dots in a row. This is because a story should finish in some way, and ellipsis means that the ending must be found in a space that (elliptically) exceeds the now of writing so that meaning, in its perennial deferral, doesn’t come back to itself.

In “The Sisters,” Joyce produces writing that doesn’t stay equivalent to itself because it elliptically retains on diverting from its focus, demanding a continuous negotiation of meaning for itself. Not only does the pervasive use of ellipsis strongly contribute to the tone of the story, nevertheless it additionally influences its structure, whereby the things unsaid outnumber those stated. It is as if the reader were studying two completely different stories simultaneously: one overtly written and the other to be inferred, one visible and the other virtual.

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“The Sisters” is built exactly on this impossibility of fully recounting experience through writing or, to quote Toni Morrison, on the question of dealing with the “unspeakable things unspoken.” Father Flynn’s death, the explanations for his death, the ritual preparation of his body for the funeral, in addition to the description of the characters’ feelings have already occurred, however not within the story we’re studying.

It is the young boy’s task to recompose the text, to try to recount that uncountable experience, which stays beyond ellipsis, suspended within the space of difference. At his uncle and aunt’s house, he listens to the adults’ conversation about Father Flynn. Theirs is a dialogue filled with omissions and unsaid words, maybe out of a way of protectiveness in the direction of the young boy, or because the priest’s story is certainly one that can’t be told:

“Old Cotter was sitting at the fire, smoking when I came downstairs to supper. Then, while my aunt was ladling out my stirabout, he said, as if returning to some former remark of his:

—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…

He began to puff at his pipe, no doubt arranging his opinion in his mind. Tiresome old fool! When we knew him first, he used to be rather interesting, talking of faints and worms; but I soon grew tired of him and his endless stories about the distillery.

—I have my own theory about it, he said. I think it was one of those … peculiar cases … But it’s hard to say…. “

Old Cotter acknowledges a difficulty in defining the contours of Father Flynn’s story and his relation to the young boy, “But it’s hard to say….” he admits on the end of his dialogical intervention.

If it’s hard for Old Cotter to complete his speech, it’s even tougher for the boy, who doesn’t have the suitable interpretive tools: “I puzzled my head to extract meaning from his unfinished sentences.” The boy mistakenly thinks that he can “extract” or draw out meaning from Old Cotter’s suspended sentences, that in each what is said and what’s not may be discovered, all he wants to know the conversation.

However, the young boy has wholly misunderstood the function of ellipsis, which instead calls for a big creative activity on the interlocutor’s part. By contrast, to make Old Cotter’s speech meaningful, he doesn’t have to extract meaning from the gaps, as if they have been hiding a secret reality; instead, he has to insert meaning by filling these gaps.

Yet, the boy can’t complete the adults’ speech creatively; he can solely set up a rapport of proximity between his ideas and the adults’ conversations. For instance, between Old Cotter’s line “I’ll tell you my opinion…” and the moment during which he tries to elucidate his opinion about Father Flynn, the boy/narrator inserts his comments on Old Cotter: “Tiresome old fool!

The boy doesn’t even listen to his words, whereas Old Cotter is giving his abridged version of Father Flynn’s story, the boy is recounting his story parallel to his. The suspension dots within the line “I’ll tell you my opinion…” are not a part of Old Cotter’s speech. Instead, they serve to convey a form of simultaneity, which is typical of Joyce’s writing.

Ellipsis doesn’t fit the boy’s mind-set. He must know and perceive; he wants the certainty conveyed by the full stop. This is why he’s unable to signify and decode the adults’ suspended conversations. We only know that he disagrees with Old Cotter’s conjectures about Father Flynn. But, then again, he’s sincerely keen on the priest, though he feels “a sensation of freedom” on the news of his death.

Ellipsis emphasizes the boy’s emotional suspension and his effort to recollect and make the dream intelligible: “…But I could not remember the end of the dream.” The grammatical period marks the end of the sentence and the end of the reminiscence of the dream, however not the end of the dream itself, which paradoxically remains suspended. Notably, that is the one passage of the story in which ellipsis is positioned at the start of the sentence. In this case, ellipsis marks the space of difference between what Freud referred to as the “dream content” and the “dream thought.”

For Freud, dream thought is a mode of expression that’s not readily intelligible – “we can only penetrate by effort and with guidance, although this […] mode must be […] reckoned as an effort of our psychical activity”. Because the end of the dream will be the key to interpreting the entire dream, not remembering it proves that the boy can’t decipher even his innermost ideas and desires. Ellipsis signifies the interval between the moment during which he makes some effort to recollect and that in which he provides up, leaving the dream suspended.

“The Sisters” appears to be affected by general aphasia and possibly by a refusal to give words to at least one’s ideas. After the usual civilities, a silence falls over the room:

“—It was that chalice he broke….That was the beginning of it. Then, of course, they say that it was all right, that it contained nothing. I mean. But still….They say it was the boy’s fault. But poor James was so nervous, God is merciful to him!”

Remarkably Eliza breaks the silence to remember the episode of the broken chalice, from which everything began. But, sadly, she can only describe the details, as she can’t give a reasonable clarification for her brother’s behavior. The ellipsis emphasizes her difficulty in decoding what occurred.

We are informed that the chalice is empty. Like the space signaled by ellipsis, the chalice has to grow to be semantically significant, and it must be metaphorically “filled.” However, such an operation doesn’t concern Eliza or Nanny: they continue to be linked to the facts, to the trivial rituals of everyday life; it concerns the boy and the reader. The empty chalice is the symbol of a semantic void, of a word that is still unsaid, of a language that is still unstated. It will not be by chance, then, if after the incident Father Flynn loses his ability to talk, his rhetorical abilities replaced by a confused murmur.

The story ends with four dots: three ellipsis dots and a full stop: the infinite encapsulated within the finite type of a closed sentence. As Derrida has noticed, such a double movement designates “on the one hand the closure of the book, and on the other the opening of the text.”

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