Short story: “A Painful Case”

by look i have opinions

“A Painful Case,” by James Joyce

Original manuscript dated August 15th, 1905; collected in Dubliners in 1914 (on Gutenberg.org); also found online here; an excellent reading here on Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcast

3,641 words

This piece contains some of my favorite character descriptions:

“His cheekbones also gave his face a harsh character; but there was no harshness in the eyes which, looking at the world from under their tawny eyebrows, gave the impression of a man ever alert to greet a redeeming instinct in others but often disappointed. 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.”

And:

“He had neither companions nor friends, church nor creed. He lived his spiritual life without any communion with others, visiting his relatives at Christmas and escorting them to the cemetery when they died. He performed these two social duties for old dignity’s sake but conceded nothing further to the conventions which regulate the civic life. He allowed himself to think that in certain circumstances he would rob his bank but, as these circumstances never arose, his life rolled out evenly—an adventureless tale.”

The name “Duffy” is a little too obvious for someone who’s such an emotional duffer. Though I’m afraid what really bothers me is that it reminds me of an adorable toy dog.

Why the lengthy article inserted in the middle of the story? To make us feel the pain of the case sooner and more acutely than Mr. Duffy allows himself to feel it. The article hurts because it is so clumsy and inadequate and unwittingly cruel (the line about the “failure of the heart’s action” in particular—but also, more generally, the dryness of the legal and clinical proceedings), and in that way it resembles Mr. Duffy himself. To me, though, the technique of including the entire news item seems dated. I feel sure that today, a writer of Joyce’s abilities would cut it much shorter. I’m not sure if that’s because today’s readers are more familiar with the emotional tone being struck here or because we simply have less patience.

For all Mr. Duffy’s Jamesianness, his ending reminds me more than anything of “The State of Grace.”

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