Of Gaps and Holes and Silence: Some Remarks on Elliptic Speech and Pseudo-Orality in James Joyce’s Short Story “The Sisters”

  • Dirk Vanderbeke
  • Volker Gast
  • Christian Wehmeier

Abstract

This paper discusses aspects of direct speech in James Joyce’s story “The Sisters”. The story is often analyzed with special attention to the gaps and ellipses in the utterances, which are usually read as omissions, evasions, or uncomfortable silences, and thus as indicative of some transgressive behaviour of the dead priest who is at the centre of the dialogues. In this article we explore the hypothesis that the utterances in question show features that are quite common in natural spoken language and thus may also be read as literary techniques to create authentic oral discourse. This hypothesis is not intended to invalidate previous interpretations, but to introduce an additional aspect of interpretation that has been neglected so far. In the context of a literary work, features of natural spoken language acquire new meaning, and the very attempt to narrow the gap between literary and natural spoken language appears as inauthentic, ominous and as an artistic strategy to express the unspeakable. The story thus evokes suspicion and a feeling of eeriness while also offering narrative and linguistic information that allows for a more empathic assessment of the characters. We use quantitative methods of analysis and linguistic data from corpora of (authentic) spoken language to substantiate our hypothesis. As “The Sisters” is a rather short story and the present study is, in several respects, exploratory, our claims and hypotheses need to be confirmed and validated by more exhaustive research into Joyce’s major works.
Published
2017-06-30