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Dubliners | Study Guide

James Joyce

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A Painful Case

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of "A Painful Case" from James Joyce's short story collection Dubliners.

Dubliners | A Painful Case | Summary



Mr. Duffy lives alone in a simple room in a village just outside Dublin. His furnishings are modest but functional, and his reading material is substantive. The space is orderly and clean, as is his nature. While his appearance is described as harsh, his eyes give "the impression of a man ever alert to greet a redeeming instinct in others but often disappointed." He sometimes narrates his life inside his own head, using third-person and past tense. He does not give money to beggars, and carries a hazel walking stick. He works at a bank in Dublin, and his days follow a routine. He eats the same lunch in the same café every day, and he takes his evening meals at the same restaurant in George's Street every night. He enjoys music, though, and often attends operas or concerts if Mozart is on the bill.

He meets Mrs. Sinico at one of these concerts, which she is attending with her daughter. She strikes up a conversation about the low attendance, while Mr. Duffy studies her face, trying to "fix her permanently in his memory." Mr. Duffy and Mrs. Sinico meet by chance at two more concerts before they make plans to meet for a walk. After a few more meetings, Mr. Duffy does not want to feel secretive about their acquaintance, so Mrs. Sinico invites him to her home. Mrs. Sinico's husband is captain of a boat that transports goods between Ireland and Holland, so he is away most of the time. Her daughter, likewise, has school and other activities outside the home, so Mr. Duffy and Mrs. Sinico are often left alone. Captain Sinico does not mind. He thinks Mr. Duffy might want to marry his daughter; his attraction to his wife is so diminished he does not think anyone else might want her, either.

The friendship between Mr. Duffy and Mrs. Sinico grows, with shared conversations, books, music, ideas. They pass many hours together at her house. The companionship is emotionally intimate, but when Mrs. Sinico takes Mrs. Duffy's hand and presses it to her cheek, he is shocked. He avoids her for a week, then asks her to meet him. They walk and talk for several hours and agree to end their relationship. She returns his books and music by post, and he resumes his solitary life, reading books by the philosopher Nietzsche.

Four years later, as he is reading the newspaper over dinner, Mr. Duffy reads a startling item about Mrs. Sinico being hit by a train at Sydney Parade Station while attempting to cross the tracks. The story describes her injuries and quotes her husband and daughter commenting about erratic behavior and heavy drinking in the past two years. Mr. Duffy is at first "revolted" by the news and feels degraded by his acquaintance with a woman who would engage in such vice. Still reeling, he goes into a pub and orders a hot punch, then a second one. He feels "ill at ease" about Mrs. Sinico's death and second guesses his prior decision to end their relationship. He wonders how lonely she must have been and feels guilt for taking away her chance at happiness. As he walks home and sees couples together in the park, he becomes more aware of his own loneliness and solitude.


Like so many other characters in Dubliners, Mr. Duffy suffers from loneliness stemming from an inability or unwillingness to form connections with other people. Perhaps this pattern of missing connection stems from the anonymity of the urban environment. Perhaps it stems from the unique situation of the Irish. Perhaps it is a global condition afflicting everyone in the modern era. Also, like many of the other characters who remain disconnected from other people, Mr. Duffy does not know he is suffering from his isolation until he learns the one person he truly connected with is dead, and her loneliness killed her. Before he meets Mrs. Sinico, Mr. Duffy goes through his daily routine, eating in the same restaurants, spending his evenings reading or enjoying classical music. After he parts ways with Mrs. Sinico, he resumes his routine as if nothing happened, and four years pass before he is forced to confront the fact that he has lost something important when he loses her.

While Mr. Duffy appears to be content with his isolated life on the surface, small hints appear that indicate he may crave a connection. When he first meets Mrs. Sinico, he studies her face in an attempt to commit it to memory. He is clearly interested in her, perhaps even attracted to her, from their first meeting. After they meet a few more times, he could easily content himself with the knowledge that she is someone he will see when he attends musical performances and leave it at that, but he initiates the meetings outside the concert scene. After he and Mrs. Sinico stop seeing one another, Mr. Duffy reads books by Nietzsche, whose nihilist philosophy advocates a focus on the self and total self-reliance, because dependence on other people creates weakness and keeps a person from reaching their full potential. It is as if Mr. Duffy is trying to reassure himself he has made the right choices.

Mrs. Sinico, by contrast, has no such illusions about her own loneliness and wishes to escape from it however she can. She initiates the conversation with Mr. Duffy that sparks their friendship, and happily invites him to her home. Her daughter is of the age when she has her own commitments and is not at home very often. Captain Sinico is frequently absent and has long since forgotten to look at his wife as a companion or as a source of desire. The abandonment from her family sends Mrs. Sinico seeking connection elsewhere, and her starvation for affection in particular drives her to make a pass at Mr. Duffy. Her decline after she and Mr. Duffy part ways shows she is even less able to cope with isolation after her relationship ends and she continues to seek an escape. This time, her escape is more typical. Her daughter tells the newspaper that her mother has been drinking heavily in recent months, and Captain Sinico describes his wife's behavior as "intemperate" in the last two years. The mystery of whether Mrs. Sinico ended up in front of the train through a conscious choice or through a drunken mistake is rendered immaterial; the loneliness caused both.

When Mr. Duffy rejects Mrs. Sinico's advance, it provides another indicator that he is less independent than he thinks he is. Mr. Duffy adheres to a strict moral code he believes is his own—he attends no church and tends to his spiritual life at home—but this morality falls under clear influences from church doctrine and societal expectations. He refuses to commit adultery and make physical and official the emotional affair he has been having for months, which seems hypocritical despite his efforts to keep the relationship out of the shadows. His visits to Mrs. Sinico are well known, and in a strict sense their intellectual intimacy is already a betrayal of her marriage. Yet Mr. Duffy's concern with appearances and with traditional morals prevents both of them from finding happiness.

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