Middle of Nowhere Productions

Middle of Nowhere Productions

Joyce. Dubliners. A painful case

A painful case. p.103.




Two characters in the story, that could be read wrongly as a love story : Mr Duffy and Mrs Sinico. With some sense of humour, Captain Sinico and the forgotten apple could be considered as a set of secondary characters. The title of the story is not really the title of the story, but the subtitle of the news item reporting the tragic death of Mrs Sinico. The story may seem to describe a failed love story, with a sad epilogue, but in fact, what it describes is the absence of interface between the two characters.

The settings have some importance, since they add to the characterisation: the reason why Mr Duffy lives in Chapelizod is explicited by Joyce (his will to be remote from everything) and the place where Mrs Sinico lives and dies is coherent with her middle-class status.


The story falls into six parts: the first part, pp.103 to 105, is the description of Mr Duffy and of his universe. The second part, pp.105-108, deals with the “love story.” The third part, pp.108-10, after a four-year lapse, is about Mr Duffy’s discovery of Mrs Sinico’s tragic fate. The fourth part, pp.111-112, describes Mr Duffy’s first reaction to Mrs Sinico’s death, and the fifth, pp.112-113, his second reaction. The epilogue, bottom of page 113 to the end, could be entitled Return to normalcy.


A painful case is founded on the opposition between the two characters; one is a man, and the other a woman, one is obsessed by order and elevation, the other doomed to fall, one is appallingly narcissistic, the other full of maternal solicitude. On the other hand, both –let us not forget  what is at stake in Dubliners- are the victims of the paralysis that Joyce saw in the Irish society. Yet, since the narrative is focussed on Mr Duffy, it is he who yields the most important bulk of information and is at the core of the plot.

Mr Duffy, whose very patronymic name is already a genetic programme since it connotes darkness, is thoroughly described in the first part of the story, along with his little universe. In the middle of the description, Joyce inserted a sentence that sums up the character: Mr Duffy abhorred anything which betokened physical or mental disorder (104.) Hence, everything in him or about him is described as spic and span, from his physical appearance to the organisation of his lodgings and everyday life. Contrary to all the characters of the previous stories, there is but little irishness in him, and he displays all the military bearing of a retired British officer, from the tawny moustache to the way he walked firmly, carrying a stout hazel (104.) More, he is described as living a little distance from his body. Only two details, which show that Joyce was never thoroughly cruel with his characters, bring some humanity to the character: his eyes, in which there was no harshness (104,) and his liking for Mozart’s music (104,) nevertheless ironically presented as a dissipation of his life. The way his books are organised on the shelves are an illustration of his yearning for elevation: the books (…) were arranged from below upwards according to bulk (103,) and so is the organisation of his life, rigorously regular in its minutest details (104.)

The most striking feature of his character, among all those almost caricatural elements, is his propensity to compose in his mind (…) a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense (104.) This reveals a major psychological disease, to be generally diagnosed among African dictators and one French actor: acute narcissism, and in Mr Duffy’s case, it is linked with a serious attachment to death, as though he considered himself as literally past. That interest for death is symbolically indicated by the presence of the over-ripe apple; rotten fruits generally stink, but not apples, which die, as one may say, in the odour of sanctity.

Last but not least, Mr Duffy is presented as a hard-core misanthrope: He had neither companions nor friends, church nor creed (105.)


Mrs Sinico’s appearance is from the very beginning marked with doom: whereas Me Duffy’s life and personality are all but angles, they meet at the Rotunda, a place that gives on that evening a distressing prophecy of failure (105.) Everything is hereby prophesied: Her name is also meaningful, opposed to any odour of sanctity, since it obviously contains the word sin, and her motivations clearly stated: her husband had dismissed her so sincerely from his gallery of pleasures that he did not suspect that anyone else would take an interest in her (106.) She is wanting to be loved.

What is interesting in the second part, where the affair is described, is the importance taken by Mr Duffy’s narcissism in the process. Joyce, very cunningly, mentions that in return from his theories she gave out some facts of her own life (106,) taking great care not to unveil either. On the contrary, what is described here is a one-way relationship, Mrs Sinico acting solely as a receiver for Mr Duffy: thoughts, books, ideas, intellectual life, political experiences and beliefs. Her only action is to encourage him in his self-interest: She asked him why did he not write his own thoughts (107.)

The culmination of narcissism of course corresponds to the clash: at the very moment when, wrapped up in his narcissism, he actually mingles with Mrs Sinico, but not through love, she breaks the spell by revealing her own motivations. On page 107, the description of what could be a very passionate prelude to lovemaking turns into a demonstration of narcissism: he caught himself listening to the sound of his own voice. He thought that in her eyes he would ascend to an angelical stature. Once more, his desire to elevate himself is manifested, but here, it is not through ascetics, but through the negation of sex and the transformation of the woman into a mirror.

Of course, at that moment, when Mrs Sinico waxes physical and actually touches him, he feels violated.


The Freudian interpretation of Mr Duffy’s pathology is unveiled in the third part, and in a very clear-cut phrase: Love between man and man is impossible because there must not be sexual intercourse and friendship between man and woman is impossible because there must be sexual intercourse (108.) Forbidding himself at the same time homosexuality and heterosexuality, the only resource for Mr Duffy is narcissism. The Painful case described in the newspaper will then only be an occasion for him to make things clear after a little bout of brainstorming. Thesis: Woman is bad: she degraded herself; she had degraded him … the squalid tract of her life, miserable and malodorous… it revolted him to think that he had ever spoken to her of what he held sacred (111.) Antithesis: And yet… Why had he withheld life from her? Why had he sentenced her to death? (113)

The noise of a train, redolent of what caused Mrs Sinico’s death, marks the end of Mr Duffy’s fight with his conscience. The very image of the train, a phallic fiery-headed worm winding through the darkness… obstinately and laboriously (113) and passing slowly out of sight, seems to metaphorise the disappearance of an unwanted desire. Turning back the way he had come, Mr Duffy halts and allows the pounding rhythm (another metaphor of lovemaking) die away (114.)

Everything is perfect now, perfectly silent, perfectly silent. The painful case is forgotten, he doesn’t seem to feel her voice touch his ear, her hand touch his (113,) he felt that he was alone.





Another double case of paralysis, leading to an almost double death, one, Mrs Sinico’s, an actual death, the other, Mr Duffy’s, a symbolic social and human death, slow and comfortably sweet-smelling, like a rotting apple. There is once again a very tender cruelty in the way Joyce depicts the misery of his characters, here emphasised by their radical opposition. The originality of the story also lies in the almost total absence of the religious and in the original target of alcoholism: here, it is the woman who drinks. But she is not really Irish…




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