A Painful Case by James Joyce: Dubliners, Nietzsche, Loneliness

Last week, with my home bookshelves to hand alongside a lack of work, I spent some time revisiting James Joyce’s Dubliners. I posted not long ago about the collection – particularly “The Dead” – but I recently found another story that resonated with me and kept coming to mind. I had read it before, but as many of you will agree, often a re-read is required in order to fully appreciate a text. The story is called “A Painful Case”, and it is approximately thirteen pages long. If you are interested in reading the text, it is available here online.

A manuscript of “A Painful Case”. Image from  modernism.research.yale.edu

Mr. Duffy is an unadventurous bank cashier who lives an organised, uneventful life. His house is tidy, he eats at the same restaurants, and his commute never changes. His life is probably best described as boring, until he converses with another audience member at the opera, Mrs. Sinico, who is sitting with her daughter. They encounter each other again at concerts, and eventually Duffy arranges a proper meeting with her, even though she is married. Despite the protagonist’s previously predictable routine, his life becomes increasingly fuelled with culture and intellectual activity following his meetings with Mrs. Sinico. They discuss similar interests, including books, political theories, and music, and gradually they become closer. However, intimacy results in discomfort, and the friendship is irrevocably changed. Years pass, and we learn of the characters’ tragic misfortunes, regrets and loss.

For Duffy, love and affection means the total destruction of routine and order: he “abhorr[s] anything which betokened physical or mental disorder”. Scorning his fellow men, Duffy prefers to live away from the city of Dublin. By Joyce situating the character in the village of Chapelizod (the name derived from “Chapel d’Iseult”, he associates Duffy with Tristan and Iseult, whose passionate and adulterous love affair has been celebrated by medieval poets such as Malory and Bedier, and more recently by Wagner, Arnold and Binyon. Through evoking this legend Joyce sets Duffy’s sterile restraint in ironic contrast to one of the most compelling love stories in literature, and so underscores the poverty of his modern hero’s emotional life.

Having turned down love as a way to emotionalise his mental life, Duffy begins to read Friedrich Nietzsche, a philosopher with an even greater scorn of the herd than himself. However, the newspaper article at the centre of the story holds the most powerful, interpretative language. I do not wish to reveal the whole plot in this post but, beneath the article’s supposedly bland language, a reader can interpret blame and questionable causation of events. 
Like other characters in Dubliners who experience epiphanies, Mr. Duffy is not inspired to begin a new phase in his life, but instead he bitterly accepts his loneliness. In a cyclical turn back to the start of the novel, Duffy will continue to be the solitary intellectual mirrored in the Wordsworth edition that dominates his bookshelf.

I’m sure that I’ll return to this short story: it’s so beautifully written and thought-provoking. Joyce forces you to consider loneliness, and to question whether you push people away who could, and often do, help you. I know for a fact that I have been guilty of this in the past, but I’ve come to realise the importance of knocking down the figurative twenty-foot wall around me. After all, no one truly wants to end up like Mr. Duffy.

Here’s an extract from the story:

When he gained the crest of the Magazine Hill he halted and looked along the river towards Dublin, the lights of which burned redly and hospitably in the cold night. He looked down the slope and, at the base, in the shadow of the wall of the Park, he saw some human figures lying. Those venal and furtive loves filled him with despair. He gnawed the rectitude of his life; he felt that he had been outcast from life’s feast.


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It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at livewildly.co.

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