‘A Sick Call’ by Morley Callaghan: Short Story Analysis
‘A Sick Call’ is the story of Father Macdowell, a Roman Catholic priest, who probably hears the last confession of a young woman who was dying from pneumonia. Her name was Elsa Williams, and she was married to John Williams, a devoted husband but very antireligious. Morley Callaghan, a Canadian novelist and short-story writer of high repute, has penned this short story, the central theme being the last confession of a sick person. Be careful to note that Father Macdowell was only hearing the final confession of the young woman Elsa; he was not ministering the last sacrament of extreme unction which are last rites ministered to a dying soul. Father Macdowell was certain that Elsa would not die and had hope of her recovery. Therefore, when summoned for a sick call by Elsa’s sister Jane, he declares to Jane that he would only hear her sister’s confession. The short story has the central theme centered around the Roman Catholic faith, which defines most of the writings of author Morley Callaghan. Also, this short story titled ‘A Sick Call’ portrays through the characters of Elsa and John Williams the weakened individual sense of self in the face of the rigid finality of a religion that seldom bends its head to the dictates of the fainthearted.
Father Macdowell was an elderly priest and was hard of hearing. It is probably because of this that so many people came to him to make their confession. Father Macdowell spent a lot of time in the confessional, more than any other priest in the Cathedral, where he ministered the sacraments. He was a person who:
- Did not get shocked very easily.
- Was very patient where confessions are concerned.
- Was always in good spirits and an optimist even in the face of all odds.
- Was patient and tolerant even in the presence of a violent or volatile person.
- For the sake of the administration of the sacraments and to save the soul of a penitent human being, he was ready to use old guile and a bit of cunning intelligence to help such a soul out.
We see in the story that Elsa Williams calls for Father Macdowell specifically because she wants him to hear her confession. The text claims that the dying woman was very sick and was very afraid. She had turned her back on the church and had lived a happy life apart from her family with a non-Catholic, John Williams. They lived happily together, but they were ostracized by Elsa’s family as well as the Roman Catholic community of their Canadian locality. They were content in each other’s company and lacked nothing, especially not a Roman Catholic God. Their marriage was not solemnized in the church. However, they still lived happily together. Father Macdowell called their union a pagan beauty that was not sanctified and ratified by a Catholic priest in the presence of the Lord. They were happy but in a worldly way. But now death had come knocking upon the door. The couple thought that they would never need the Catholic religion for the rest of their lives. Just as they were ‘thrown out’ by the Roman Catholic community, they too wanted to ‘throw out’ anyone who came between them and their happiness.
But now Elsa seems to be afraid of the afterlife. Her uncertain situation makes her weak in her resolve to stand by her ever faithful and devoted husband even in these the last hours of her life. She is afraid of death like most people are. She feels she can only be comforted by a minister from her church and tells her sister to call Father Macdowell. Therefore, Elsa Williams has broken the pact she had had with her husband regarding their conviction that they would never turn back to the people who had ostracized them. It was as if Father Macdowell had come into the Williams’ home to separate a devoted couple who by his very presence declared that theirs was a ‘pagan love’ and there was no firm foundation to this union of two souls. By calling the priest, Elsa had betrayed John’s love for her. Father Macdowell did not unite, but he came to divide a loving couple in their weak moment.
Elsa calls on a Catholic priest because she is afraid of the afterlife. Jane is the messenger who brings Father Macdowell to their home. Jane is the only relative of the dying Elsa, who had not broken her ties with the couple. Jane calls for Father Macdowell because she thinks her sister needs the sacrament of extreme unction. It is indicative that both sisters had lost all hope. They were sure that Elsa would not win this battle with pneumonia. Her husband, John Williams, is more concerned with the doctor’s arrival than any Catholic Priest. He is unaware that his wife had called for a Catholic priest. When he sees Father Macdowell at his doorstep, he defiantly tries to drive the cursed Roman Catholic priest from his door, and thereby the faith that he had always hated and kept away.
Slowly and with guile, the smart and alert Father Macdowell manages to hear the last confession of the dying Elsa. He feels he must listen to Elsa’s last confession and bring her into the sheepfold of the Lord once again. Think about the part of the ‘pagan beauty’, which Father Macdowell uses as a phrase to describe the devotion John Williams had towards Elsa. The priest appreciates it but felt that it was incomplete without the validation of the church. If it were strong enough, then Elsa, in her last moments, would not have called for Father Macdowell. This made Father Macdowell very sad in the last part of the story. He is contented that he heard her confession, but unsure of the future if there would be a future for John and Elsa Williams.
This story has various points of view. If you look at it from a Roman Catholic point of view, the action of Father Macdowell will bear good fruit. Such a person would regard the love between two people, without the sacrament of matrimony, as a grievous sin and would be glad that Elsa was given some assistance that no doctor nor any husband could provide to a weakened soul. If you look at the story from a distant observer, you see the fragility and frailness of human nature in Elsa, who at death’s door was afraid of her ‘sins’ in the present life. We all will feel this way when we die, if we are conscious of it, as she was aware. We have empathy for her and wish that John Williams could see that weakness not as a sign of defeat in their union but as a sign of what it is – human weakness at the point of death.
John Williams finds it unfair that Father Macdowell tricked him by asking for a glass of water. John was following the rules of the game, the game of who would win: The Church or John’s devotion to his wife. He was ‘deaf’ to the pleadings and current feelings of his wife. He was more afraid of losing her to the church than to death. But John Williams, despite his displeasure and actions, was progressively forced to allow Father Macdowell to hear his wife’s confession:
- He did not want the priest to enter.
- He did not want the priest to speak to his wife.
- He did not want the priest to hear her confession.
- He did not want the priest to pray by her bedside.
- He did not want the priest to continue conversing with his wife.
- John did not want the priest to separate his wife from him.
- He did not want the priest to prove that the Catholic religion had, at last, come between his wife and him.
- He did not want the priest to make him leave the room.
We see above a quick but sorrowful progression from door to the room to sickbed and then into the mind of a person who is sure she is about to die. Jane is a mere spectator, afraid that the whole procedure was making it unpleasant for Father Macdowell. Notice that not only was John Williams ‘deaf’ to his wife’s true feelings, but the priest who had come to hear her confession was technically a bit ‘deaf’ like religion is towards the actual feelings of a dying person.
To read Morley Callaghan’s short stories is to understand the many layers and ways we perceive Roman Catholicism and how it has shaped the world for so many years through the people who practice it and do not practice it. It is smartly left to conjecture and the reader’s imagination whether the marriage would work out after this confession in the form of ‘a sick call’ or not, whether it mortally damaged a couple or did not.
I love many Canadian writers, and now Morley Callaghan has been added to my favorite Canadian writer list. I had a lot of fun analyzing this short story with its many layers. He is indeed a fascinating writer of crisp but delicately refined prose.
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