James Duffy lives in a distant suburb of Dublin called Chapelizod because he wants to be far away from the city.
The only unique things about his apartment are the bookshelf and a writing desk—this is a smart guy.
Duffy's temperament is "saturnine," which is basically like saying he's determined to be sad. His face is unfriendly, even "harsh."
Aren't the eyes the window to the soul, though? Well, Duffy's "gave the impression of a man ever alert to greet a redeeming instinct in others but often disappointed." (Here's a fun little game: try making your eyes look like this.) (A Painful Case.2)
Duffy works in a bank, and his schedule never changes. He rides there in the morning, goes to lunch at the same place every day and then, before heading home alone, he eats dinner and reads the paper at the same restaurant every evening.
He plays piano at night and sometimes goes out to hear classical music. But that's about it for entertainment.
No friends, either. And he hardly sees his family, and doesn't really care too much about them. Here's the key line describing Duffy's life up until now: "His life rolled out evenly—an adventureless tale" (A Painful Case.4).
Until… something happens.
The woman next to him at the opera house speaks to him. She's Emily Sinico. They strike up a conversation and Mr Duffy is surprised that she's not "awkward." He notices that she has a daughter and that she has an "intelligent" face (A Painful Case.6). Maybe she won't disappoint him?
They meet at two more concerts, and talk at each. Then, Mr Duffy invites her over to his house. "This was the first of many meetings" (A Painful Case.8).
They even start meeting at her house, and it doesn't even bother her husband, Captain Sinico.
Mr Duffy jaws about books and ideas a lot, but Mrs Sinico starts talking to him about personal stuff, too. At least eventually. Finally, Mr Duffy comes around, too: "Little by little, as their thoughts entangled, they spoke of subjects less remote." (A Painful Case.11)
All these talks come to an end one night when Mrs Sinico reacts to one of his phrases differently: she "caught up his hand passionately and pressed it to her cheek" (A Painful Case.11). Whoa there. Scandalous.
Mr Duffy doesn't visit for a week and then decides to have a last meeting with her in public so it doesn't get too messy. She sends him back his books and that's that.
After that, life goes on as it always did for Mr Duffy. He's back to his old routine of going to work and walking home.
Until one night when he reads about Mrs Sinico's death in the newspaper. She had been "knocked down by the engine of the ten o'clock slow train from Kingstown, thereby sustaining injuries of the head and right side which led to her death" (A Painful Case.16).
The article goes on to explain that the real blame lay with Mrs Sinico and not with the train. She was out "late at night" and had "been in the habit of crossing the lines […] from platform to platform" (A Painful Case.24). Her daughter even testifies that she'd recently started drinking a lot.
Mr Duffy's first reaction is disgust: "she had degraded him." He regrets ever getting involved, wondering, "Was it possible he had deceived himself so utterly about her?" (A Painful Case.29).
Then he thinks about it more and, as he goes in to get a drink at a pub, he remembers the whole relationship.
That's when he starts to get really bummed out. "He began to feel ill at ease" and realizes how "lonely" she must have been without him, and that he's to blame for his own loneliness: "His life would be lonely too until he, too, died, ceased to exist, became a memory—if anyone remembered him" (A Painful Case.32).
He retraces the steps of their old walks and "felt his moral nature falling to pieces" because he realizes that he had "sentenced her to death" (A Painful Case.32). Melodramatic, much, buddy?
He doesn't make it home by the end of the story, but stops walking at one point and is perfectly still: "He began to doubt the reality of what memory told him.
He halted under a tree and allowed the rhythm to die away. He could not feel her near him in the darkness nor her voice touch his ear. He waited for some minutes listening. He could hear nothing […] He felt that he was alone" (A Painful Case.34).