"A Painful Case" by James Joyce is a short story about Mr. Duffy, a middle-aged, antisocial bachelor who becomes friends with a married woman. Abhorrent of any mental weakness, Duffy refuses to acknowledge his loneliness until he discovers that his friend died. The story is one of fifteen short stories in the book Dubliners
James Duffy has chosen to live in a suburb called Chapelizod to isolate himself from the city and the other "mean, modern, and pretentious" suburbs. He has a simple, unadorned room with no pictures and little furniture, and his books are all arranged by size.
He is an unhappy looking man with a brown face, black hair, and a mustache. He sometimes mentally composes a sentence about himself in the third-person, and he never gives money to beggars.
Every morning, Duffy takes the Chapelizod tram to his bank on Baggot Street. He takes lunch at the same time and place every day. He then goes to an eating house for dinner after work. He avoids young people at all costs, but will occasionally go to an opera or a concert to listen to Mozart. Duffy has no friends and belongs to no church. He only visits relatives at Christmas and their funerals.
At the Rotunda one evening, a woman sits next to him, commenting that she is disappointed in the turnout and that it is hard for people to sing to empty benches. He begins speaking with her and notices the woman next to her, who must be about his age. She is the woman's daughter. He studies the daughter and finds her attractive, intelligent, and defiant-looking.
A few weeks later, he sees them again at a concert in Earlsfort Terrace. This time, he speaks to the daughter, Mrs. Sinico, who tells him about her husband, Captain Sinico, the captain of a mercantile boat, who seems to be away often. They have a grown daughter.
The third time Duffy meets Mrs. Sinico, he makes an appointment with her. They begin walking together in the evening, and eventually, he starts visiting her home. There, Captain Sinico suspects that Duffy is interested in his daughter, never considering that he might be interested his wife. Thus, Duffy and Mrs. Sinico spend a lot of their time alone at her house.
Mrs. Sinico and Duffy talk about books, sharing their intellectual lives. Duffy confesses that he once belonged to a socialist group but believes Dublin won't be ready for a social revolution for several centuries. She recommends that he write down his thoughts.
Soon, the two are talking of more personal subjects, and Joyce writes, "Her companionship was like a warm soil about an exotic." One day, Mrs. Sinico grabs his hand and holds it to her cheek. Mr. Duffy thinks she misunderstood him and is put off by the physical contact and emotional outburst. He stops seeing her for a week but writes asking to see her again so that he can make their last meeting less troubled. They meet at a cake shop and agree not to see each other anymore. They are walking to the tram when Mrs. Sinico begins shaking, and Duffy quickly leaves.
Four years later, Mr. Duffy's room is much the same with a few new books and a few new pieces of music on his landlady's music stand. He doesn't write much; his last sentence was written two months after he left Mrs. Sinico at the tram, "Love between man and man is impossible because there must not be sexual intercourse and friendship between man and woman is impossible because there must be sexual intercourse." His life has gone on much as before. There are a few short sentences about his father dying and the junior partner at his bank retiring.
One evening as he is eating at his usual place, he notices a paragraph in the paper. Unable to eat after reading it, he walks quickly home. There, he looks at the piece again. It notifies the public of the death of Mrs. Emily Sinico, who walked in front of a train. The train was going slowly and the injuries, according to one Dr. Halpin, were not enough to kill a healthy person. She likely died of the shock or a heart attack. In the article, an interview with Captain Sinico and his daughter reveals that two years ago, Mrs. Sinico had begun going out late at night for alcohol. She was in the habit of crossing the tracks.
Duffy is "revolted" by this discovery, as he loathes any indication of mental weakness. He is disgusted that he ever spoke with her of personal matters. He thinks of how she must have been unfit to live and that her death was degrading to the two of them. He thinks of the way she touched him, and the thought troubles him.
Reeling, Duffy goes to the local public house. He runs over his interactions with Mrs. Sinico in his mind. He questions how he broke things off and considers how lonely she must have been. He thinks that he will die lonely, too; it is unlikely that anyone will remember him.
He goes to a park and feels that Mrs. Sinico is with him. He hears a train going by and thinks the engine is "reiterating the syllables of her name." When he cannot feel her presence anymore, and the train goes silent, he feels that he is alone.
Joyce began sending the manuscript for Dubliners
to publishers in 1905. He sent the text eighteen times before it was published in 1914. While the manuscript had been accepted a few times previously, negotiations often fell through due to printing costs and printers refusing to set parts of his more controversial stories.