A Painful Case by James Joyce: Summary and Review

the text "a painful case written by james joyce" written next to the portrait of james joyce

Friendship between man and woman is impossible because there must be sexual intercourse.

If you thought this was straight from the Meg Ryan-movie When Harry met Sally, you are as wrong as I was. This is a quote from a short story A Painful Case by famed Irish author James Joyce. 

This was featured in his short story collection called Dubliners, first published in 1914.

A Painful Case: Summary and Plot Analysis

The story revolves around a middle-aged man, Mr.Duffy, who lives a basic but organized life in Chapelizod. He is a man who worships routine – goes to the same restaurants, does the same daily commute, and occasional visits to opera or concerts.

He doesn’t have friends and only visits relatives occasionally, mainly at Christmas or funerals.

On one of his visits to the opera, he strikes up a conversation with a Mrs. Sinico, another audience member, whom her daughter accompanied.

After several such engagements, Mr. Duffy sets a time and place to meet Mrs. Sinico.

It turns out Mrs. Sinico’s husband is a Merchant navy captain and is away from home for long periods. Her being married makes Mr. Duffy uncomfortable carrying on their engagements, but he does so regardless, at her home.

Mr. Sinico assumes his visits to be merely an attempt to court their daughter and doesn’t have the slightest clue that it’s his wife who is of interest to Mr.Duffy.

Mr Duffy and Mrs Sinico continue to meet until one day, when Mrs. Sinico betrays her emotions by holding his hand to her cheek. Mr Duffy,not used to display of affection such as this, retracts, feeling that Mrs. SInico misinterpreted their companionship. He cuts off the relationship, by stopping his visits, and meeting Mrs. Sinico one final time – in a neutral territory, a cake shop. He breaks it off and Mrs Sinico’s emotional response to such a news makes him uncomfortable and he leaves quickly.

Mr. Duffy and Mrs. Sinico continue to meet until one day when Mrs. Sinico betrays her emotions by holding his hand to her cheek. 

Mr. Duffy, not used to the display of affection such as this, retracts, feeling that Mrs. Sinico misinterpreted their companionship. 

He cuts off the relationship by stopping his visits and meeting Mrs. Sinico one final time – in neutral territory, a cake shop. He breaks it off, and Mrs. Sinico’s emotional response to such news makes him uncomfortable. He leaves quickly.

He goes back to living his organized, monotonous life. 

Four years later, one evening, while having dinner, he reads a newspaper article. Surprised, he stops eating and hurries home. 

The article mentions a painful case. The case of a woman, a Mrs. Sinico, who was hit by a train at a Dublin railway station. 

The coroner’s investigation and witness accounts corroborate that her death would have been more because of mental pains than physical. 

Over the last two years, she had grown increasingly distant from her husband and turned to alcohol. 

Noone was deemed responsible for her death.

A Painful Case: Review, Quotes and My Thoughts

My knee-jerk reaction to reading this was to brand Mr. Duffy – a lunatic, if not an as**ole.

Why would you let go of something so special to you? 

Why would you deny yourself shade in the desert? 

And why would you shy away from the company that makes you feel alive and engaged?

At first glance, he did seem like someone with a severe commitment phobia. But not surprisingly, the guy has a layered personality. How could he be cozy with someone else if he looks at himself from a distance?

He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts, with doubtful side glances.

He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time, a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense.

The more I re-read, the more I felt sorry for him.

He had neither companions nor friends, church nor creed. He lived his spiritual life without communion with others, visiting his relatives at Christmas and escorting them to the cemetery when they died.

Now, I tried to seek solace in that he liked to do that; he liked to be alone. Human company to him was like the plague. He would rather be by himself and live an adventureless, strictly by the book life. 

But there are clues throughout the story that it wasn’t the case.

While they talked, he tried to fix her permanently into his memory.

Little by little he entangled his thoughts with hers. He lent her books, provided her with ideas, and shared his intellectual life with her.

Would you do or think all that if you were trying to avoid someone? 

He seemed shaken reading about her death in the papers. A painful case, they call it.

Mrs. Sinico’s pain ended at the train station. 

As for Mr. Duffy, I would never know.


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