Epiphanies False and True in James Joyce’s “A Painful Case”
James Joyce peoples the universe of Dubliners with tattered lives, rendering the moment when the characters realize they are irreparably broken. These moments are epiphanic, but the epiphany, rather than showing the characters their potential, shows them their limitations, and the delusions under which they are doomed to live. Epiphany does not free these characters from the bleak paralysis in their souls. The stories in this slim book move from childhood through the sexual initiations of adolescence to meditations on aging and dying, but each concerns a character confronting himself and finding himself and his belief system lacking, even injurious. A strong exemplar of this pattern is “A Painful Case,” a story about a middle-aged bank clerk, Mr. Duffy, whose staid, “adventureless” life, in his own estimation, suits him (Joyce 71), until the possibility of love comes his way. When he repulses it, the ensuing tragedy sets him face to face with his botched life. The tragedy of his epiphany is threefold: first, the realization comes at the cost of his love interest’s life, and his only opportunity for potential escape; second, Mr. Duffy’s dawning awareness of his faults makes him also aware of his culpability; and finally, his epiphany stops short of where traditional literary epiphanies lead us—for Mr. Duffy, there will be no redemption. His paralysis allows access to knowledge and voice, but not to change.
Most of Joyce’s stories give us some dramatic irony, and this one is no exception. Mr. Duffy has so little self-awareness, that we must understand him through his environment. Unlike Mr. Duffy himself, we see the paucity of his life as exemplified by where he lives: he occupies “an old somber house and from his windows he could look into [a] disused distillery” (Joyce 70). In Dubliners, the buildings are often more eloquent about the souls of their occupants and neighbors than the people are, who, until their grim moment of realization, are as blind and mute as the empty building’s windows. Mr. Duffy’s soul is like that unused distillery, full of the intellectual potential for generation and fruitful production, but shut down for reasons of self-protection, a victim of Dublin’s “paralysis.” As Michael West and William Hendricks note in “The Genesis and Significance of Joyce’s Irony in ‘A Painful Case,’” “The austerity of [Mr. Duffy’s] room is not merely economical but satisfies his aesthetic soul” (707), and, further, the arrangement of his books, which are “arranged from below upwards according to bulk” (Joyce 70) suggests an intellectual poser rather than a true intellectual, proposing that “Duffy is more interested in [the books'] appearance than their contents” (West and Hendricks 707). Moreover, Joyce says of his anti-hero, Mr. Duffy “had neither companions nor friends, church nor creed” (70-71). Mr. Duffy’s “saturnine” exterior does all the talking for him, and though he fancies himself a writer and intellectual, the rotten apples on his desk tell us that he rarely sits at it (Joyce 70).
Mr. Duffy finds a voice eventually. When he meets Mrs. Emily Sinico at the opera, a woman whose husband “had dismissed [her] so sincerely from the gallery of his pleasures that he did not suspect anyone else would take an interest in her” (Joyce 72), he begins to emerge from layers of insulating armor. The two talk, and “He lent her books, provided her with ideas, shared his intellectual life with her. She listened to all” (Joyce 72). In a Romantic tale, this—or perhaps a relationship less narcissistic and one-sided than this—would be the recipe for love. But this is a starkly Modernist tale, and the love must contend with Mr. Duffy’s repression, moral rectitude, and obsession with appearances, defense mechanisms he comes to loathe by the end of the story, after it is all too late. Such defense mechanisms, he comes to see, are results of cowardice, not goodness. In “Isolation as Motif in ‘A Painful Case,’” J. Mitchell Morse remarks that Mr. Duffy “dooms himself to sterility and a woman to death through presumption and pusillanimity” (186), and this fight between sterility—which surrounds Mr. Duffy’s life and neighborhood like a miasma—and fertility, as exemplified by plant imagery once he meets Mrs. Sinico, becomes a fight to the death. Death, of course, wins, for both characters, and this—the fact that both have suffered as a result of this cowardice—is the story’s true “painful case.”
The relationship between Mr. Duffy and Mrs. Sinico begins auspiciously enough. They take walks, meet frequently in her parlor with the permission of her absent husband, and the language Joyce employs undergoes incremental changes. “Little by little” says Joyce, Duffy “entangled his thoughts with hers” (72). The images of empty, angular, man-made sterility as exemplified by the disused distillery give way to images of natural growth, “entanglement,” eventually even lushness. Mr. Duffy comes to regard his friendship with Mrs. Sinico as “like a warm soil about an exotic,” and it “emotionalized his mental life” (Joyce 73). As their talks move from the intellectual to the personal, following a familiar trajectory of a burgeoning, scholarly, middle-aged love, we feel hope for the healthy growth of this “exotic,” narcissistic as he might be, for even Mr. Duffy is a preferable companion for Mrs. Sinico than a husband who has no interest in her. But when Mrs. Sinico violates the terms of the friendship by making it physical, pressing Mr. Duffy’s hand against her cheek (a gesture that merely borders on sexual passion), his reaction is cold—and terrified. He spurns her, and Joyce’s language once again takes a turn, this time with religious overtones: he calls their union a “ruined confessional” (73). Mr. Duffy cuts off all contact with her. It takes four years—and Emily Sinico’s death—for him to realize his mistake. She is hit by a streetcar as she crosses the street, drunk, for after their break-up she developed a habit. In keeping with the religious overtones, Mr. Duffy is primed to receive his epiphany.
For the first time, he begins to question his beliefs and behavior. This is new to a man such as Mr. Duffy, who lives, out of fear, a life free of self-examination. Sitting in the bar, Mr. Duffy’s thoughts undergo an almost religious transformation from judgement to empathy. The reader cannot help but note their significance. For one, these are his thoughts. He doesn’t need buildings and rooms to speak for him any longer. He first thinks of Mrs. Sinico as “unfit to live… one of the wrecks upon which civilization is reared” (Joyce 76). He is embarrassed of her and ashamed of himself for spending any time with her. But after a few drinks in a bar he experiences an increasing disquiet with his own fictions, and begins to feel “ill at ease.” Finally, he thinks, “Now that she was gone, he understood how lonely her life must have been” (Joyce 76). The apotheosis of his epiphany occurs as Mr. Duffy is walking home through the park:
He looked down the slope and, at the base, in the shadow of the wall of the Park, he saw some human figures lying. Those venal and furtive loves filled him with despair. He gnawed the rectitude of his life; he felt that he had been outcast from life’s feast (Joyce 77).
Life’s feast: his lost opportunity with Mrs. Sinico. This is an epiphany about his human weaknesses—about how the strengths he had always been proud of (though never out loud) were actually based on timidity and failure—not strengths at all. In a final bout of dramatic irony, we come to see that even Mr. Duffy’s epiphany is tainted, as it does not include a path to self-recovery. As West and Hendricks contend:
Enmeshed in a web of authorial irony, the automaton Duffy scarcely becomes human, even in his final anguish and remorse. For these feelings Joyce resolutely limits our sympathy by making them deluded, exaggerated, and temporary. The ending thus completes a pattern of ironic disjunctures with which Joyce bedevils this unfortunate character from the beginning of the story (706).
Mr. Duffy takes full responsibility for Mrs. Sinico’s alcoholism and death, but even this concession rings false and narcissistic. Mrs. Sinico developed her habit two years after their break-up, and Mr. Duffy forgets that she has been living with a husband who ignores her. His epiphany is useless because it is only a part of the picture: it, too, lies.
The true irony in Joyce’s epiphanies is this: they are true—but only to a point. They are not—the reader wants to shout at the characters—deterministic, and they could be leveraged as a point of access to grace. But the characters do not read them that way, and herein lies the true tragedy of paralysis—knowledge about ourselves does not make us better or happier. It offers no relief, because it offers no future. As Seamus Perry notes in “City, Paralysis, Epiphany: An Introduction to Dubliners,” “The stories are studies in incapacity and self-replicating unhappiness.” In this, the author says more about the effects of the city in which these hapless occupants live and less about the occupants themselves. Perry goes on to note that Joyce “liked to present himself heroically as a kind of stiff cathartic medicine, purging the Irish imagination of its toxins, surrounded by lesser talents peddling an obsolete kind of romanticism.” Romantic tale of religious conversion this story is not. Indeed, none of the stories in Dubliners are. The false epiphanies that plague the characters in its pages are not true epiphanies.
The epiphanies in Dubliners belong not to the lost eccentrics populating the book, but to the reader, who might yet find grace—with a little purging of the toxins of modernity.
Hendricks, William. “The Genesis and Significance of Joyce’s Irony in ‘A Painful Case.’” ELH, Vol. 44, No. 4, Winter 1977. 701-727.
Joyce, James. Dubliners. Dover Thrift Editions, 1991. 70-77.
Morse, J. Mitchell. “Isolation as Motif in ‘A Painful Case.’” James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 3, 1966. 186.
Perry, Seamus. “City, Paralysis, Epiphany: An Introduction to Dubliners.” Discovering Literature: 20th Century. British Library Publications Online, 25 May 2016.