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“A Painful Case” and the Role of Selfishness

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    “A Painful Case” and the Role of Selfishness: Why Duffy Shall Always Be Miserable

    This paper shall explore the short story, “A Painful Case” by the author James Joyce. This paper shall address how Mr James Duffy as an individual who condemned himself to a life of misery due to his selfish qualities. In “A Painful Case”, Duffy is cast as an individual who is absurdly taken with his own thoughts and his own solitude, and this perspective does not waver through the course of the short story despite the questioning that Duffy takes on his personal nature towards the conclusion of the tale.

    In “A Painful Case”, the character of Duffy is cast as an individual who is extremely set in his ways. In addition to this, Duffy is not a “favorable” individual, and does not relate well to others. Joyce writes of Duffy:

    “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.”

    Duffy is at times fully aware of this detestable state of his being, and attempts to alter it through changing his attitudes and behaviors. However, no matter what Duffy attempts, his innermost nature reasserts itself and he inevitably alters his personality to its original self- centered state. This occurs twice, where first he throws off Mrs. Sinico for four years and it does not alter him at all, and next when he considers Mrs. Sinico’s death in relation to his perceptions and eventually returns to his self- centered foundation.

    Duffy is obviously not well- liked as a character: It is difficult for the average reader to see any redeeming qualities within Duffy’s perceptions or within his behavior. This is due mainly to the fact that the traits that appeal to readers are those that are sympathetic – those qualities that transfer positive results between characters – and Duffy is without such traits. Indeed, the character of Duffy has no altruistic traits whatsoever, nor does he feel that he needs them.

    However, Duffy is subconsciously aware that he requires some measure of sympathetic quality in order to relate to his fellow human beings. This is why he seeks out a small measure of humanity within music. Indeed, it can be argued that the music that drives Duffy is the only source of contact that Duffy maintains with his fellow human beings. The quest for Mozart performances, as well as his playing the piano at his landlady’s are the only times in which Duffy can be seen to resemble a normal, socially- attuned human being.

    The meeting with Mrs. Sinico is the exception to Duffy’s personal state, and is the only element within the story that allows Duffy to divert himself from his usual course. Yet despite the fact that Mrs. Sinico offers Duffy a measure of diversion, the reader has no doubt that Duffy will eventually return to his selfish ways. This is made perfectly clear through Joyce’s treatment of Mrs. Sinico. This character is not defined in her own merit through her presence in the story, but is instead dictated through the actions of those around her. This means that Mrs. Sinico truly has no worth save for that placed upon her by others. This particular quality makes her impossibly irresistible to Duffy, since here is contact with another human being that does not interfere in his own world. For all practical purposes, Mrs. Sinico is only a manifestation of himself, and this allows him to cast her in a way that enables him to relate to her. The reader sees this in respect to Duffy’s desire to only see Mrs. Sinico on his own terms, as well as the fact that Mrs. Sinico listened to everything that Duffy said without ever interjecting her own opinion.

    “Mr. Duffy has difficulty in approaching the non-visual world because he has trained himself only to see. His relationship with Mrs. Sinico… in fact is precarious and fragile because they belong to two different hemispheres… There is no real exchange between the two. While she is ready to listen, he is able to listen only to himself in a narcissistic way.” (Valente: 1997)

    Yet despite the fact that Joyce notes that “[Mrs. Sinico’s] face, which must have been handsome, had remained intelligent”, the character of Mrs. Sinico does not propose any statements of her own for the major length of Duffy’s relationship with her. Indeed, as the relationship becomes more and more involved, Duffy sees himself as being refined through their interactions:

    “This union exalted him, wore away the rough edges of his character, emotionalized his mental life. Sometimes he caught himself listening to the sound of his own voice. He thought that in her eyes he would ascend to an angelical stature; and, as he attached the fervent nature of his companion more and more closely to him, he heard the strange impersonal voice which he recognized as his own, insisting on the soul's incurable loneliness. We cannot give ourselves, it said: we are our own.”

    Yet the instant that Mrs. Sinico responds to these thoughts, Duffy decides to pull away from her and return to his quiet and selfish life. Mrs. Sinico has committed an unpardonable offense: Mrs. Sinico has had the audacity to actually respond to something that he said! This was an unforgivable sin within their relationship, where not only did Mrs. Sinico respond, but she demonstrated a response that was not something that Duffy wished to hear, nor something that helped aid his own state of consciousness. The affair was immediately over, and Mrs. Sinico was cast aside. She had no more worth or usefulness to Duffy the instant that she reacted to him, demonstrating that she was not merely a reflection of his own concepts but was rather a person in her own right. When Mrs. Sinico was killed, Duffy’s selfishness is once more completely imposed over this concept of Mrs. Sinico as a person. Duffy’s first response to the matter is:

    “What an end! The whole narrative of her death revolted him and it revolted him to think that he had ever spoken to her of what he held sacred. The threadbare phrases, the inane expressions of sympathy, the cautious words of a reporter won over to conceal the details of a commonplace vulgar death attacked his stomach. Not merely had she degraded herself; she had degraded him. He saw the squalid tract of her vice, miserable and malodorous. His soul's companion!”

    This is a telling statement, where Duffy believes that Mrs. Sinico debased him through her death! The fact that Duffy can’t believe that she died is not an outpouring of grief, but rather a manifestation of his selfish examination of her existence. Yet even more demonstrative of Duffy’s selfishness is found within his later belief that only he is capable of keeping her memory alive. Joyce writes: “One human being had seemed to love him and he had denied her life and happiness: he had sentenced her to ignominy, a death of shame.” And later, “No one wanted him; he was outcast from life's feast.” This serves to prove that Duffy have never once considered Mrs. Sinico as a fellow human being, but merely to provide a different perspective on his own life.

    The qualities of Mr. James Duffy in “A Painful Case” can therefore be seen as entirely internalized. The “painful case” in this sense describes Duffy himself: Joyce uses Duffy to emphasize that he has absolutely no worth in terms of relating to other human beings. As one source notes: “It is a squalid epiphany, so that "a painful case" might refer to Duffy himself rather than Mrs. Sinico's death.” (Valente: 1997) It could also be argued that Duffy has absolutely no worth in general, for although he fancies himself a philosopher he deprives everyone save himself of his thoughts. Within the confines of this story, it is evident that there are few other beings more selfish that Duffy, and that if Duffy should die he might not even merit the newspaper article given to Mrs. Sinico. Yet despite Duffy’s limited realization that he is completely miserable, this misery is brought on himself and he promotes it as being part of his personality. Because of this, it is apparent to the reader that while Duffy is within a life of absolute misery, he has condemned himself to this state and will thus never be able to break away.

    It is, however, unknown whether Duffy is emotionally pleased with this state of affairs. Duffy certainly goes to great lengths to attempt to avoid all true contact with other human beings, yet it is not known whether this occurs due to the fact that he wishes to alter his personality or whether he only believes that he should alter his personality. Regardless, Duffy nevertheless works to keep himself within this state of enforced misery. Duffy goes out of his way to never alter his life, nor incorporate anything into it that would result in a threat to its integrity. As a result, the reader can safely assume that there will never pose a greater challenge to Duffy than the death of the single individual who was allowed to get past his outer defenses: The fact that Mrs. Sinico was never allowed to see the “true” heart of James Duffy is perhaps best attributed to the fact that there might not have been a “true” Duffy to be seen. Duffy will never again need to confront his own selfishness to any great extent, as he will no doubt never take another lover, will never transpose his personal thoughts onto paper, and will never alter his daily routine. Here, Duffy’s selfishness is preserved for all time. All types of writing tasks you can order at


    • Joyce, J. (1975) Dubliners. New York: Viking.
    • Valente, F. (1997) “Joyce’s Dubliners as Epiphanies”. Available online at

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