For a life as empty as Mr Duffy's, we sure know a lot about him.
The German poet Goethe once said, "the world is empty; the heart is full," and it's probably something Mr Duffy would agree with. He hates his city and wants to live as far away from it as he can; he "had neither companions nor friends," and he only visits his family when he has to (A Painful Case.4); the most important facts we can cite about him, besides the titles of his favorite books, are the places he goes to every boring day of his life. With a character like this, how is this story so gripping?
Well, it's because somebody opens Mr Duffy up a little bit, and we start to get a glimpse of a man behind the mask. He's interested in politics, and once even worked alongside blue-collar labor union members. And in addition to all the thinking he has done, he's got an interesting personal life. And it's all thanks to Mrs Emily Sinico that we get some access to this.
He had only one vice, Mr Duffy: going to the symphony. Compared to the vices that Gallaher talks about in Europe, this is pretty tame. But it does allow him to meet Mrs Sinico and to start talking with her. And it's a really gradual friendship. After the first meeting, it's weeks before they see each other again, and it's not until the third accidental meeting that he asks to see her less accidentally. (The times of friending someone on Facebook the same night you meet them haven't yet arrived).
And even after they meet for long walks on dark nights, he doesn't really start talking about his personal life for a long time. And even after that (yes, we know, this is torture) they don't even touch. Sure, she's married, but there's a huge spark between these two that's unmistakable. Who else could spend hours and hours just talking and walking?
But when she touches him, that's taking things way too far. He breaks off the relationship, and doesn't see her or really even think much of her until he finds out that she has died.
So the most important question of the story is, "what happened?" How could Mr Duffy experience such a profound change with his first real friend and then back out so suddenly? Well, it all comes down to a stubborn resistance that he has to sex and sexuality.
After he broke things off with Mrs Sinico, he had written: 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" (A Painful Case.13). Thank you, Harry Burns.
First of all, this is about as direct as Joyce gets in Dubliners when talking about sex. And it's not exactly X-rated stuff. Strangely, these are also the least lustful or romantic lines. Mr Duffy has somehow gotten the idea that things are always like this. That there are no exceptions to this rule.
Obviously, he's ridiculously wrong, but the real question here is, why does he think that sexual intercourse is such a terrible thing? Why is it the reason that his relationship can't succeed?
Judging by the other stories in Dubliners, it seems like Mr Duffy's isolation is partly to blame. Maybe he just can't stand to actually touch anyone else. And even if he's gotten to a place where he can tolerate interacting with someone intellectually and emotionally, which is a big step, there's just no way he's willing or ready to take the big leap to interacting physically.
Think about this on an abstract level: if Dublin is a huge city in which people can't touch each other, it's a pretty frigid spot. Which is pretty much Joyce's point. In "A Painful Case," he lets a very specific and peculiar resistance shed light on the abstract problem of the entire city's failure to form connections, especially the kind that actually risk something and mean something.
The best way to get to know Mrs Sinico is through Mr Duffy's eyes, in the moment he first meets her. She's sitting next to him at the symphony, and what he notices about her, besides the fact that she is a confident speaker, is that "defiance" and "great sensibility" are equally part of her nature. How does he suss these qualities out? By looking closely at her eyes: "Their gaze began with a defiant note but was confused by what seemed a deliberate swoon of the pupil into the iris, revealing for an instant a temperament of great sensibility" (A Painful Case.6). Then, pretty quickly, they become defiant again.
What's amazing about Mrs Sinico (and it's something that Mr Duffy doesn't notice until it's too late) is that she's so successful in bringing Mr Duffy's own personality out as no one else had done: "With almost maternal solicitude she urged him to let his nature open to the full; she became his confessor" (A Painful Case.9). The relationship moves at his pace, suggesting that Mrs Sinico's "great sensibility" contains a lot of patience for someone who doesn't really know how this kind of thing works.
Mrs Sinico has feelings of her own, though. And she's defiant enough to show them, rather than just serve as Mr Duffy's relationship guidance counselor. So finally, in a move that turns out to be decisive, she's defiant when she "caught up his hand passionately and pressed it to her cheek" (A Painful Case.12). Because this is too much for Mr Duffy to handle, it marks the end of their relationship, and the beginning of the next phase of Mrs Sinico's "painful case."
Although we don't know exactly what happened, Mrs Sinico's life changed drastically in the years following her relationship with Mr Duffy. Two years after their awkward split, she "began to be rather intemperate in her habits," according to her husband. That is, she started drinking. Now that we've read this far in Dubliners, we know this is a really, really bad sign. Everyone who drinks ends up in trouble, from Mr Mooney to Little Chandler to Farrington.
And it's no different for Mrs Sinico. Not long after she started drinking, she also started going out late at night to buy alcohol, and to wander across the train tracks. For evening entertainment, it's not quite the same as going to the symphony, is it? The fact that she was hit and killed one night seems like an an accident waiting to happen. On some level, we're betting she knew she was putting herself in danger.
By turning to drink, Mr Duffy thinks, she's picked up a "miserable and malodorous" habit. But soon enough, he makes the connection that's all too obvious for the reader: "Why had he withheld life from her? Why had he sentenced her to death?" Mr Duffy had a bigger effect on her than he could have ever realized, and the fact that she shouldn't have had to die for him to realize it makes us wonder whose case is really more painful—hers or his.