A solitary, effete bank cashier named James Duffy becomes acquainted with a woman named Mrs. Sinico at a Dublin concert. They meet regularly to discuss art and ideas, first at her house (with the full knowledge of her husband, Captain Sinico), and then at her cottage outside the city, where they grow close both intellectually and emotionally. When Mrs. Sinico reaches for Duffy's hand, however, he insists that they stop seeing one another. Four years later, Duffy reads in the newspaper about Mrs. Sinico's death, apparently by suicide. At first he feels revolted, ashamed that he ever considered her a peer. Then Duffy begins to feel guilty: Did his rejection of her result in Mrs. Sinico's suicide? Finally he identifies and empathizes with Mrs. Sinico, realizing that her aloneness mirrored his own — and that he is now more alone than ever.
Like "Eveline," this is a story of missed opportunity, and true to its title, "A Painful Case" is perhaps even more agonizing to read than that earlier selection. Just as Eveline's fiancé presents her the chance to escape Ireland, Duffy is allowed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect with a kindred soul, Mrs. Sinico. Tragically (and typically), both are paralyzed: Eveline by guilt and fear, and Duffy by fear as well — fear that his fanatically orderly world will be thrown into disarray by shared passion. As in the earlier story, Joyce seemingly intends the reader to believe that such an opportunity will never come again.
In some ways, "A Painful Case" is the most sophisticated and complex Dubliners story yet, as it achieves its powerful effect through a deft combination of storytelling techniques and symbolism. As in "A Little Cloud," "Counterparts," and "Clay," Joyce employs the limited third-person point-of-view, allowing access to his protagonist's thoughts and feelings while keeping the reader distant enough from the main character to realize the errors of the protagonist's ways before the protagonist does. (The reader knows, for example, that it is a terrible mistake for Duffy to terminate his relationship with Mrs. Sinico.)
Unlike the stories "A Little Cloud," "Counterparts," and "Clay," however, "A Painful Case" includes information that was initially beyond the perspective of its protagonist. Because he does not speak with Mrs. Sinico for the four years immediately prior to her suicide, Duffy has no way of following what goes on in her life during that time, nor does the reader. Joyce includes the newspaper article documenting her death and the inquest that follows it, and the article retroactively shares Mrs. Sinico's life since of the past four years with Duffy and the reader. The author's use of this document to tell his story is an inventive way of surmounting his limited point-of-view strategy without violating its restrictive rules.
Joyce characterizes Duffy by means of his possessions: the picture-free walls of his uncarpeted room, and the fastidious, eminently practical manner in which he has arranged his books (by weight!). Though Joyce reveals that Duffy "abhorred anything which betokened physical or mental disorder," he doesn't really have to because he has taken care to dramatize Duffy's character. The reader can generalize about the man Duffy is based on the evidence presented.
The colors yellow and brown (which Joyce uses to indicate paralysis and decay) are everywhere in "A Painful Case" — in Duffy's uncarpeted floor, his hazel walking stick, and the beer and biscuits he eats for lunch. Even Duffy's face is brown: "the brown tint of the Dublin streets." An apple rots in his desk (that is, turns yellow and then brown), a symbol of Duffy's own decaying possibilities. The newspaper that announces Mrs. Sinico's suicide is buff in color, yellowish brown. The use of these colors by Joyce to symbolize decay and paralysis is consistent both within individual stories and across the collection as a whole. It thereby links the stories of Dubliners together, reiterating the common lot of the book's many disparate characters.
Bile Beans a popular patent medicine in Ireland during Joyce's day.
the Rotunda a group of buildings on Rutland Square, one of which is a concert hall.
astrakhan a wool fabric with a pile cut and curled to look like a loosely curled fur made from the pelt of very young lambs originally bred near Astrakhan, a city and port in southwest Russia.
Earlsfort Terrace the location of the Dublin International Exhibition Building, a concert venue at the time this story takes place.
Leghorn a seaport in Tuscany, western Italy, on the Ligurian Sea (The Italian name is Livorno.)
Parkgate the main entrance to Phoenix Park, the large public park in northwest Dublin.
the buff Mail the Dublin Evening Mail, which was printed on buff (brownish-yellow) paper.
reefer an overcoat; a short, thick, double-breasted coat in the style of a seaman's jacket.
the prayers Secret prayers in the Roman Catholic mass between the Offertory and the Preface, read silently or quietly by the priest.
Sidney Parade a train station on Sidney Parade Avenue, in the village of Merion, southeast of Dublin.
Leoville apparently the name of the house in which the Sinicos lived.
a league a temperance association; its members would have pledged to avoid alcohol.
the Herald the Dublin Evening Herald.