Duffy: The Real ‘Painful Case’ Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 7 July 2017

Duffy: The Real ‘Painful Case’

In “A Painful Case,” by James Joyce, the central character is cold, intellectual, and emotionless. The narrator of this story adopts a pessimistic and scathingly negative view of the central character, Mr. Duffy.

Duffy is, figuratively speaking, dead. He is dead to the world of passionate emotions that make others ‘alive,’ and he shuns most contact with other humans, especially emotional and intimate contact. He argues that ‘every bond is a bond of sorrow,’ and uses this as justification for not engaging in any relationships of an intimate nature. He has ‘neither companions nor friends, church nor creed.’ Duffy’s room is very telling of his personality as well. “The lofty walls of his uncarpeted room were free from pictures” (Joyce, 118). It is customary to put up pictures in one’s home of one’s family or friends, but Duffy does not associate with either. He has no joyous memories to immortalize in film and frame on his bedroom wall. His room mirrors the state of his mind: orderly and austere, uncluttered by anything resembling passion. In many respects Duffy is dead.

The only intimacy Duffy may have ever felt in his life was with Mrs. Sinico, but even when she dies he initially feels nothing but disgust that he had shared intimate parts of himself with someone who degraded herself with an alcoholic suicide.

“The whole narrative of her death revolted him and it revolted him to think that he had ever spoken to her of what he held sacred. [She had] a commonplace vulgar death. Not only had she degraded herself; she had degraded him. He saw the squalid tract of her voice, miserable and malodorous. His soul’s companion!” (Joyce, 126-127)

The extent of Duffy’s aloof fear of intimacy is such that even when Mrs. Sinico dies the only thing he can think about is how her death cheapened him.

Eventually, Duffy realizes that ‘he had withheld life from her,’ and ‘he had sentenced her to death.’ He realizes that he, at least in large part, had been responsible for her descent, alcoholism, and eventual suicide. He left her to loneliness when he stopped seeing her, and that loneliness was what prompted her death. “Now that she was gone he realized how lonely her life must have been, sitting night after night alone in that room” (Joyce, 128).

With the realization that he was responsible for Sinico’s death, Duffy realizes that he too will die someday, and, like Mrs. Sinico, become nothing more than a memory. The reason why Mrs. Sinico left memories with Duffy is because she reached out and attempted to become emotionally intimate with him. Unlike Sinico, Duffy never made any such attempts, and recoiled when he realized that their relationship was becoming too close. Because of his lack of warmth and passion, when Duffy dies it is likely that no one will even remember him, and he realizes this.

“His life would be lonely too until he, too, died, ceased to exist, became a memory- if anyone remembered him… He gnawed the rectitude of his life; he felt that he had been outcast from life’s feast… no one wanted him” (Joyce, 128-127)

However, even after Duffy comes to this painful realization he still has little hope of altering his lifestyle to be more passionate and ‘alive.’ This is shown by Duffy’s thoughts of Sinico near the end of the story. Initially, he can feel her presence. “She seemed to be near him in the darkness. At moments he seemed to feel her voice touch his ear, her hand touch his” (Joyce, 128). Later, he sees a goods train emerging from the Knightsbridge station, and imagines the ‘laborious drone of the engine reiterating the syllables of her name.’ In this manner he personifies her spirit with the train. After the train leaves, so does his feeling that she is still there next to him; after the train leaves he feels utterly alone again. “He listened again: perfectly silent. He felt that he was alone.” Duffy dismisses Sinico’s spirit, and by dismissing her, he also dismisses any hope he had of learning to live.

In this manner the narrator provides a pessimistic view of Duffy, while showing the reader how Duffy has little hope of learning to feel passion even after Sinico’s death. The newspaper refers to Mrs. Sinico’s death as ‘a most painful case.’ However, the title of the story really refers to Mr. Duffy. He is, in fact, the real painful case.

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