On one of Joyce’s most curious stories from Dubliners
Analysing James Joyce is rarely easy. The Irish modernist writer loved ambiguity, the essential mystery and unknowability of everyday life, and the slipperiness of language, and his novels Ulysses and Finnegans Wake certainly attest to the last of these. But before these novels, Joyce wrote a collection of fifteen short stories about life in Ireland’s capital city in the early twentieth century. Dubliners (1914) was Joyce’s first masterpiece, and ‘A Painful Case’ is a miniature masterpiece. You can read ‘A Painful Case’ here.
‘A Painful Case’ appears around two-thirds of the way into the Dubliners collection: it is the eleventh of the fifteen stories. Since Joyce roughly ordered the stories from ‘youth’ to ‘old age’, ‘A Painful Case’ is a story about the onset of late middle age, a time when people have perhaps left it too late to seek love and marriage – or, if they have these things, they will come to realise that they fail to live up to youthful expectation. In summary, ‘A Painful Case’ introduces us to James Duffy, a man who lives on the outskirts of Dublin, in the village of Chapelizod. He is a bachelor, his life somewhat clinical and sterile. He is, in a word ‘saturnine’: gloomy, sluggish, lacking dynamism. But then one day Duffy meets a married woman, Emily Sinico, with whom he strikes up a friendship. They bond over their shared love of classical music and going to concerts, until one day Mrs Sinico appears to make a romantic overture towards Duffy, scaring him off. He breaks off all contact with her, and two years later he reads in the newspaper that she has been killed by a train, having become depressed and taken to drinking. ‘A Painful Case’ ends with Mr Duffy wandering around the city, reflecting miserably on how he is once again alone and has apparently passed up the one chance he had of knowing true love and happiness with someone.
That’s a fairly accurate summary of ‘A Painful Case’, at least from one perspective. But Joyce’s story is clever. Using the narrative technique of free indirect style – whereby the third-person narrator begins to merge with the inner ‘voice’ of the character, Duffy – Joyce subtly calls into question just how tragic the ending to the story really is. Is Duffy truly heartbroken and racked with remorse?
He turned back the way he had come, the rhythm of the engine pounding in his ears. He began to doubt the reality of what memory told him. He halted under a tree and allowed the rhythm to die away. He could not feel her near him in the darkness nor her voice touch his ear. He waited for some minutes listening. He could hear nothing: the night was perfectly silent. He listened again: perfectly silent. He felt that he was alone.
‘He felt that he was alone’ is not the same, after all, as ‘He felt lonely’. One can feel alone and yet actually rather enjoy it, and there are subtle indications elsewhere in the story that Duffy actually likes his solitary existence. He may be too set in his ways, too stubborn and too insulated from the outside world, to risk falling in love.
One of the trademark features of Joyce’s style was the epiphany: a revelation or realisation that a character has, often towards the end of a story. In some ways, the epiphany serves the same purpose as the plot twist or denouement, only the emphasis is on character rather than plot. The epiphany often appears dramatic and of great importance – life-changing, even. But is that always the case? James Joyce layers his epiphanies with such ambiguity and uncertainty that we are invited to doubt just how dramatic and important they are. Instead, when a character undergoes an epiphany in Dubliners, the epiphany may ring hollow: a case of a character self-dramatising rather than undergoing a dramatic ‘road to Damascus’ experience.
So it is with ‘A Painful Case’ – or, at least, might be. We cannot offer a reductive analysis of the role and nature of the epiphany here, since it is poised between tragic drama and solipsistic self-pity, the latter masking Duffy’s secret happiness at things having returned to normal. Note how the night was ‘perfectly silent’ in the closing words quoted above: not just silent, but perfectly so, just the way Duffy likes it.
Compounding this non-dramatic outcome of ‘A Painful Case’ we have the half-summoned hints of the adultery that never happened between Mr Duffy and Mrs Sinico: the nature of her death recalls Anna Karenina’s dramatic end under the wheels of the train in Tolstoy’s novel, her life having been destroyed by her passionate affair with Count Vronsky, but this ‘painful case’ is reported matter-of-factly in the newspapers rather than occurring in the story itself. Even the suburb of Dublin where James Duffy lives, Chapelizod, summons another great passionate fling from the world of Irish myth: the origin of the place name is ‘Chapel d’Iseult’, after Iseult, the lover of Tristan in the Arthurian tale. Iseult was promised to King Mark of Cornwall, but the Irish princess Iseult fell in love with Tristan. But here, there will be no grand amour: Duffy is too straitlaced, too repressed, too scared even, to commit adultery with Mrs Sinico. Something other than a sense of moral rectitude lurks behind his refusal to ‘consummate’ their relationship.
‘A Painful Case’ is a case that is hard to analyse. It contains a trademark Joycean epiphany, but how significant this epiphany is remains doubtful; it is a story about the power of companionship, but stops short of being a great love story; in the end it is, perhaps, more about the triumph of solitude over human relationships, although this is itself a tragedy. One of Joyce’s aims in writing Dubliners was to highlight the ‘paralysis’ of Ireland. Duffy, his name etymologically related to the city of which he is barely a citizen, living on the outskirts though hardly on the edge, is one such paralysed Dubliner.