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James Joyce

Dubliners is a collection of fifteen short stories by James Joyce, first published in 1914. The stories depict a naturalistic Irish middle class life in and around Dublin in the early years of the 20th century. 

  • James Duffy
  • Mrs Emily Sinico
  • Captain Sinico (Ship Captain)
  • Mary

In A Painful Case by James Joycewe have the theme of loneliness, isolation, guilt, order and paralysis. Taken from his Dubliners collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and very early on in the story the reader realises that Joyce, through the use of colour, is highlighting to the reader how lonely the main character, James Duffy’s life is a middle-aged bachelor without family or friends, is a cashier in a private bank and lives a Spartan (simple) existence in a Dublin suburb. He dislikes physical and mental disorder, ignores beggars’ pleas for alms (charities), and does not attend church. His only luxuries are playing Mozart’s music on his landlady’s piano and attending an opera or concert. In his description of Duffy’s room: there are books ordered on the shelves according to bulk, simple and completely functional pieces of furniture, and a well-ordered desk. Joyce focuses on two main colours of his home that is small and orderly: black and white. This is significant as it symbolically suggests to the reader the lack of colour that exists in Duffy’s life. The reader is also made aware of the repetition that exists for Duffy. His days are run by a schedule, and the schedule is always the same. He has a well-paying job at a bank. He comes in the morning by tram; eats lunch at Dan Burke's; leaves work at four; takes dinner at an eating-house on George's street, where fashionable young people will not bother him; and spends his evenings either in front of his landlady's piano or out to enjoy a Mozart opera or concert. He is not a churchgoer, and he has no friends. He sees his family only at Christmas and funerals. This cyclical pattern or continued repetition suggests a paralysis for Duffy.

It is also noticeable that the trigger for the possibility of change in Duffy’s life comes through his meeting of Mrs Emily Sinico, the wife of a ship captain.  Mr Duffy shares his ideas with her, and she opens up to him. He loans her books and music. They become very close. He tells her of his former experiences with the Irish Socialist party. She asks Mr Duffy why he doesn't write out his thoughts, and he scorns the idea; recognition from the un-laborious and conventional-minded masses means nothing to him. They spend more and more time alone together, including evenings at her college. They speak of personal matters. Mr Duffy, who doesn't like any secrecy, insists on seeing her at her own home. Captain Sinico is always traveling on business, but he encourages the visits because he thinks Mr Duffy is interested in his daughter. The idea of his wife being attractive or desirable never occurs to him. 

However any chance he has off changing are spoilt by his inability to accept Mrs Sinico’s affection towards him. One night, when speaking of the individual's insoluble loneliness, she takes his hand passionately and presses it to her cheek. Mr Duffy is surprised; she has misunderstood. He does not see her for a week, and then sends word asking to meet her. They meet in a cake shop near the Park gate, and then walk in Phoenix Park for three hours. They agree that they cannot meet again. Duffy cannot overcome the fact that she is a married woman. 

His life continues in its orderly fashion. He avoids concerts and rather spends time reading, for fear of seeing her. Life goes on. Finally, one night when he is out dining, he is reading the paper when he sees something that stops him. He reads the same piece again and again, unable to eat; he tries to finish his meal, but must stop after a few mouthfuls. When he goes home that night, he reads the paper again. It is an article about the death of Mrs Sinico. A train struck her accidentally; evidence suggests that she was drunk. Her daughter Mary reveals that lately Mrs Sinico often drank at night. Than only Duffy begins to realise, not only how lonely she was but how lonely his life is too. Once her presence leaves him, he realizes that he is alone, that he has been alone all along, and that he will always be alone.

It is also significant that despite Duffy being aware of how unhappy he was in his life (prior to meeting Mrs Sinico), when he does have the opportunity of happiness, he steps away from it. Both Duffy and Mrs Sinico shared a similar unhappiness or loneliness and how unhappy Mrs Sinico really was is noticeable by the fact that after Duffy criticised her, she took to alcohol to comfort herself. There is also a noticeable lack of empathy within Duffy for other people. First he cannot empathize (understand) with the workers from the Irish Socialist Party and their concerns about their wages. Also it is significant that when Duffy first reads of Mrs Sinico’s death, he feels not for her but for himself, considering himself to have been foolish in the first place to have shared his thoughts with her.

However Duffy’s lack of understanding of Mrs Sinico’s position shifts while he is walking in the Phoenix Park. He not only feels guilty about how he treated Mrs Sinico but he begins to understand how difficult her life must have been. It is while he is in the park that Duffy realises that Mrs Sinico’s life must have become unbearable for her after he stopped meeting her. This awareness from Duffy however is short lived. Rather than it being the impetus (motivation) to bring change to his life by the end of the story the reader realises that there will be no change for Duffy. He is to remain as paralysed or as lonely as he was at the beginning of the story. This lack of movement or advancement by Duffy is significant as it is the second time in the story that he misses an opportunity to change his life. The first opportunity arose when Mrs Sinico held his hand to her cheek. There was a possibility then for Duffy to change his life, to defeat his loneliness and find some type of happiness in the company of another person, however he did not take advantage of this opportunity.

To have conducted an affair with Mrs Sinico would have been against how Duffy views life. Everything needs to be in place, to be ordered, or structured correctly for Duffy. Joyce uses symbolism in the story to highlight to the reader how important order is to Duffy. The books in the bookcase in his room are placed in an order. Also the reader learns that Duffy, ‘loathed anything which promised physical or mental disorder.’ Duffy’s belief in order is significant as it further suggests to the reader the idea of a routine, of things being done a particular way or having their place. Duffy’s inability to deviate from this order would suggest a continued paralysis.

The most striking thing about the story is that despite being aware of how lonely he actually is, Duffy by the end of the story does not change. Rather he begins the story in the same position he started it, alone and lonely. And as previously mentioned, Duffy’s continued inaction and inability to change would suggest not only is Duffy to remain lonely but he is to remain isolated.


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