A Painful Case: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 966

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James Duffy: middle-aged ascetic and scholar

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Emily Sinico: middle-aged married woman who becomes attached to Duffy intellectually and personally

James Duffy is a middle-aged ascetic who lives an isolated and intellectual life. He writes and reads philosophy, attends concerts, but lives far removed from human companionship.

At a concert, he meets Mrs. Emily Sinico, who attends the concert with her daughter. After she makes a comment, Duffy speaks to her. At their next chance meeting at another concert, he speaks more personally, finding out that her husband, a sea captain, often travels for long periods.

After their third accidental meeting, Duffy makes an appointment to see Mrs. Sinico, which then becomes routine. Fearing that he’ll appear under-handed, he asks to be invited to Mrs. Sinico’s home. Her husband encourages Duffy’s visits for he thinks Duffy intends to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage.

In Emily, Duffy finds an intellectual companion with whom he can share books, discuss music and politics. Over time, the pair become more intimate until one evening, when Emily becomes so caught up in his conversation that she seizes Duffy’s hand and presses it to her cheek. Duffy is repelled by her response and almost immediately breaks off his friendship with her.

Four years later, Duffy notices a news item in the paper stating that Mrs. Sinico was killed along a rail track in Dublin. Further in the article, Duffy notes comments from Emily’s family that she had been acting strangely in recent years and also had begun drinking. Duffy is horrified that he had ever spoken to a person of Emily’s temperament about his most intimate thoughts. Later, wandering around Dublin and considering her case, Duffy begins to second-guess himself about having broken off their relationship. Finally, he realizes that his withholding of a human connection with Emily had deprived him of companionship as well.

In his memoir about his brother, Stanislaus Joyce states that this story was inspired by his own relationship with an older woman whom he met at a concert (159-160). The relationship ended without the bombast in this story, but James Duffy does share aspects of Stanislaus’ character (the collecting of little quotations) as well of those of the author (the penchant for Nietzsche and the distrust of middle-class intellectuals).

Like Maria in “Clay,” Duffy is a celibate leading an ascetic’s life, and living “at a little distance from his body.” Unlike her, Duffy enjoys no human intercourse. In fact, he avoids it; “visiting his relatives at Christmas and escorting them to the cemetery when they died” are his only obligations to others. Joyce is sarcastic in his description of Duffy’s “spiritual” life, which has “neither companions nor friends, church nor creed,” and no human communion whatsoever. One might well ask on what Duffy bases such “spirituality,” but his own pompousness and condescension toward everyone else indicate that he worships only his own thoughts. That he composes short sentences about himself in the third person (i.e., “he”) and in the past tense shows us even more strongly his alienation from his physical self.

Into his hermit’s life wanders Emily Sinico, a lively, thoughtful woman whose husband “had dismissed his wife so sincerely from his gallery of pleasures that he did not suspect that anyone else would take an interest in her.” Emily willingly, hungrily, shares Duffy’s books, ideas, and intellectual life. Joyce tells us: “She listened to all.” She becomes his spiritual sounding board, his “confessor,” and Duffy revels in the audience she provides.

In Emily, Duffy senses someone who can reflect back to him his own glory. “He thought,” Joyce tells us, “that in her eyes he would ascend to an angelical stature.” Emily admires Duffy and attempts, futilely, to being him out of himself, to encourage him to enter the world. When she suggests that he publish his thoughts, he responds, “For what[?]” since he has no notion of what one gains from interaction with others. Nevertheless, their union wears away his resistance to another person, and he does begin to open emotionally to the woman. However, when Emily reaches out to him physically, Duffy is repulsed by the (presumed) intensity of her gesture and afraid of the burden of her emotional needs. Almost immediately, he breaks off their friendship and returns to his former habits.

One evening, years later, he reads in shock that Mrs. Sinico has thrown herself before a moving train. His shock, however, isn’t sadness but revulsion that he allowed himself to share his “sacred” thoughts with a woman he believes so obviously unbalanced. Duffy is so self-involved that he fails to grasp the woman’s sense of loss and sadness, feeling instead that she had “deceived” him from seeing her true nature. Initially, he unquestioningly agrees with the paper’s statement that attached “no blame” to anyone for the incident.

Wandering through the city streets and, ironically, ordering a “hot punch,” Duffy begins to feel both his loss and his culpability. Emily was his confessor; he now has none. Moreover, he never sought out her feelings, never troubled himself to understand her obviously intense needs. Only her suicide awakens him to her life and its loneliness, but—he recognizes—this realization comes too late.

Similar to Henry James’ John Marcher in “The Beast in the Jungle,” Duffy recognizes he “withheld life” from the person most receptive to him and that he was now “an outcast from life’s feast.” At the story’s end, he thinks he hears the sound of her name in the droning train engine, signifying his hope for some still-remote connection to her. However, this sound is illusory and, Joyce writes with finality, Duffy “felt that he was alone.”

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