‘A Painful Case’ by James Joyce

I first read Dubliners in school, so I must have been about 14 or 15; it was a cheap paperback with some chintzy illustrations in it, and every week we went through the stories in great detail. On reflection, this was one of my first proper experiences of close reading, and as the weeks went by, I got more and more absorbed in the lives of these characters. I latched on to that volta of disappointment that Joyce detonates in each story, often a depiction of the rising and falling of an evening which begins in hope and ends in the revelation of an unflinching reflection of oneself. I could have picked any of these stories, but I chose ‘A Painful Case’, a story of a man who lives at something of a distance from himself, because of its clarity and its ruthless pity. The opening sketch, which describes Mr Duffy’s “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”, is as perfect a distillation of character as I’ve read. But the real dynamite in this story is the closing sequence, in which Duffy stands purgatorial in the evening above Dublin, his lover abandoned and dead by his own neglect, the copulating couples below him wishing him gone, and the wormlike train winding its way out of his sight. Even then, in the nearest moment that he comes to realisation, he stands at a protective distance from himself; his thoughts remain behind the barrier of “he felt”; his epiphany is complete but abstract, on the other side of the glass. The final sentence – “He felt that he was alone” – is devastating.

First published in Dubliners, Grant Richards, 1914, now widely republished, including in Penguin Classics. Available to read online here

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