‘The Silent Sisters’ by Israel Zangwill: Short Story Analysis
‘The Silent Sisters’ is a very touching story about how two Jewish women living in a lower-middle-class environment in London remain ‘silent’ until the end. Yet, in their silence was a testament to faithfulness to old oaths, distances between people in the family which cannot be breached by time, or circumstances and love which lies hidden behind pride. The story is about Honor and Mercy, two blood sisters, who never spoke to each other because of a disagreement in girlhood. They carried the ‘silence’ into adulthood after both managed to stay in London a stone throw distance from each other. Israel Zangwill as a writer has always shown to his readers the reality behind the Russian-Jews living in Whitechapel, London and he does so here in ‘The Silent Sisters’ as well, which is about how the elder sister Honor and her younger sister Mercy, held back their intimacy toward each other because of old girlhood sibling rivalries which were a farce because it is quite evident from many instances in the story that they were devoted to each other and each other’s families.
Notice the name of each sister. The eldest who tends to the death bed of her younger sister is Honor and the younger ailing sister is Mercy. This story indeed is the story of an honorable nature and yet full of mercy. The silent sisters need mercy, but ‘mercy’ literally and metaphorically was dying because of harsh circumstances not only in their personal lives but also where London was concerned and the world situation then. They had to keep up their individual ‘honor’ because of old sibling resentment. So, Honor and Mercy are silent for several years. Their family members are not perturbed by this, the Jewish lower middleclass life in London was difficult with so many family members staying under one roof; there was always the recurring incidents of infant deaths, cholera breakouts, deadly illnesses, poverty, etc. So, Honor and Mercy never speak to each other, even though Mercy is married to a workman who works under Honor’s husband at his workshop. It is probably obvious that this came about because although the sisters never spoke to each other, they couldn’t do without each other. Zangwill describes the family and area situation with the local accent in his usual sentimental style that he is known for. His sentences are full of tenderness and a hungry yearning, especially at those beautiful points when the ‘silent sisters’ seem to actually to ‘talk’ to each other by pretending they were addressing another person in the room. They never want to and never exactly do speak to each other directly. This is what in my locality in Bandra where I am known as the reclusive writer and reader is called the ‘to Jesus through Mary’ syndrome – to get your prayer to the Lord Jesus by venerating Mother Mary and begging her to intercede on our behalf to her son. Honor and Mercy do not want to break their silence, and yet they do because Mercy is dying. Mercy has an internal illness long neglected. This is symbolic of the silent sisters’ long-neglected relationship which they had not come to terms with. As they speak indirectly to each other, at one time Mercy calls out to her husband, and Honor silences her directly by mistake. It’s a simple reflex action but Honor adjusts herself just in time. Then comes the final goodbye which is tearful, delicate, and full of compassion. All hidden feelings overwhelm past silences and old prejudices are put aside at long last. The sisters at the end of the story, still pretend to be talking indirectly to each other but there is no one in the room. The scapegoat Bobby, the youngest grandchild, has gone downstairs. They are alone and they know they are alone. Yet, Mercy pretends to be in a feverish state as she passes from this life to the next and speaks as if Bobby was still in the room. Honor reciprocates and they kiss each other after which Mercy dies a happy death, the silence between her sister and her is still kept and yet, broken but not without an overriding sense of loyalty to old vows. This was indeed a very touching story of two silent sisters. They are not estranged; they are there for each other but they are silent. There is an incident in the story where Mercy in her deranged mind begs not to be left alone with no one to talk to. It is wincingly worthy as Honor was there in the room. This was Mercy’s cry to:
- Not break her childhood promise so that a member of the house should come up to be the intermediary between Honor and herself.
- She is afraid that the silence between them will never be resolved and she will spend eternity in silence.
- To chide Honor for all the years, half a century, when they have been silent to each other.
As Mercy dies, the sisters remember their youth when they still spoke to each other, and instances of their old comradery are very reflective and contains in themselves some of the most memorable dialogues in the short story. The description of Mercy looking like an infant herself in the story is an allusion to their returning to their past during Mercy’s dying moments. Old flames are remembered as well as a life spent in the country in their paternal house. Honor and Mercy are a very enchanting pair of sisters, and this makes us sentimental in certain instances when their ‘silence’ seems heavier in the sick room than the weight of the dying Mercy. Also, to return to their names, both women are deformed and very shrunken images of themselves, but ‘honor’ is better off than ‘mercy’ because pride most of the time triumphs over compassion, empathy, and mercy, especially when we most need it. The word ‘impotent’ is repeated twice in the story, indicative of the inadequacy of the family members to elicit speech of any kind between Honor and Mercy.
I like to read Israel Zangwill’s works and wish I could read them more often. He is another of my old favorites whom I feel is underrated in today’s world of literature in the western world as well as in the Indian sub-continent. I have never seen a Zangwill short story in any school or college literature textbook in India and that really bothers me a bit when I know, besides all else, that he is an especially talented and accomplished writer. If you are interested in more book reviews, short story analysis, and author interviews, you can visit my blog insaneowl.com. If you would like to buy my books then you can visit my website fizapathanpublishing.us or fizapathan.com. Happy reading to you always!
Copyright ©2020 Fiza Pathan