And now, a more positive post. About a couple of months ago, I was talking with a close friend about, basically, relationships, listening to people and always being wrong with the whole ‘friendzone’ thing. For some weird coincidence, she was reading Joyce’s collection “Dubliners” (1914): in case you did not know, this is probably the easiest piece of work to read out of his opera omnia. It tells the stories of fifteen people in Dublin (hence the title); Joyce was particularly attached to the city and his works were to some extent meant to help defining a national identity. However, from a strictly literary point of view, “Dubliners” is particularly interesting because it analyses problems related to different stages of life and, as it always happens in Joyce, each character is defined by a specific event, a small detail in his/her life that makes him/her realise the meaning of his/her action and, more generally, of existence.
This is a very crappy way to explain what is called “an epiphany”, or “a moment of being” in Virginia Woolf; try and think about the fact that “epiphany” means “sudden discovery after a divine appearance”. To understand this concept, I would suggest you to read Joyce’s “Eveline” (included in “Dubliners”): the protagonist hears the sound of an organ playing and this reminds her of a promise she had made to her mother, thus changing all of her plans: this is a proper epiphany, because it makes the character realise something big about her life.
Now that you know what I will be talking about, let me begin:
I will try and comment on one particular short story; the entire commentary that I have written is quite long, so I will divide it into two parts: this first bit consists of a brief introduction to the story and to the character that I focused more on, Mr. Duffy; the next part will focus on the wider themes of the story. I apologise right from the start for any grammar/syntax mistake I will make: this is my first proper commentary to a piece of literature in English, and I tried my best. Feel free to stop reading if it is too horrible, but please give me advices on how to make it more bearable!
So, this friend of mine suggested me to read again “A Painful Case” because, she said, it was relevant. I did – http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2814/2814-h/2814-h.htm#link2H_4_0011 – and, as usual, she was absolutely right. Not to spoil the pleasure of reading the story for you, I will just comment on those things that I found particularly enlightening (even if I will not pretend I understood everything; plus, I have not read any other commentaries on the short story, because I am still making up my own interpretation: please, feel free to challenge it), trying not to give away too much of the plot… I even wrote in white those bits that you may not want to read if you do not want to now what happens to the characters in the end; if you do, just highlight them with the cursor ~you’re very welcome. Even if it would only take ten minutes for you to read the story, I try and be a nice person 🙂
The first bit I would like to report here is:
“What an end! The whole narrative of her death revolted him and it revolted him to think that he had ever spoken to her of what he held sacred.
The threadbare phrases, the inane expressions of sympathy, the cautious words of a reporter won over to conceal the details of a commonplace vulgar death attacked his stomach. Not merely had she degraded herself; she had degraded him. He saw the squalid tract of her vice, miserable and malodorous.
Evidently she had been unfit to live, without any strength of purpose, an easy prey to habits, one of the wrecks on which civilisation has been reared. But that she could have sunk so low! Was it possible he had deceived himself so utterly about her? He remembered her outburst of that night and interpreted it in a harsher sense than he had ever done. He had no difficulty now in approving of the course he had taken.”
The way in which Mr. Duffy talks about his bound with Mrs. Sinico is the same in which someone would speak about having befriended a rapist. It sounds even worse because a person, who “had neither companions nor friends, church not creed”, like Mr. Duffy, can still feel conscious about his image (“she had degraded him”), thus suggesting that Mr. Duffy’s attention is all on himself -in fact, in an earlier passage, their relationship, alongside with its end, is described with the following words:
“This union exalted him, wore away the rough edges of his character, emotionalised his mental life. Sometimes he caught himself listening to the sound of his own voice. He thought that in her eyes he would ascend to an angelical stature; and, as he attached the fervent nature of his companion more and more closely to him, he heard the strange impersonal voice which he recognised as his own, insisting on the soul’s incurable loneliness. We cannot give ourselves, it said: we are our own. The end of these discourses was that one night during which she had shown every sign of unusual excitement, Mrs. Sinico caught up his hand passionately and pressed it to her cheek.”
He only likes her company because it made him feel important, a guide, as if he was of “an angelical stature”: Hobbes would say that he felt that he was as useful as he could have ever been, and this made him feel content with his life.
As far as my understanding goes, Mr. Duffy interrupts this relationship only after Mrs. Sinico has tried to establish herself as his peer rather than as his subordinate: physical contact and sharing “some facts of her own life” (as said earlier in the text) risk forming a deeper bound, where Mr. Duffy would have to actively listen to his companion and confront his ideas and his experiences on a peer basis, whereas he is content with their relation only being one where “he entangles his thoughts with hers. He lent her books, provided her with ideas, shared his intellectual life” and then, big pause because we expect to hear about her philosophy and her behaviour… but no: full stop and “She listened to all.”. She is not presented as a dynamic character: the only action she takes, speaking to Mr. Duffy, is the beginning of the whole story/relationship, but, after that, it is as if all of her activeness had been drained by that very relationship. We will go back to this later.
I do not fully understand Mr. Duffy’s character: he is presented as a snob (an elitist bastard, to be fair) in the first paragraphs, someone who tries to live as far as possible from the heart of a city that he somehow despises, and who enjoys portraying himself as a wise and well-educated person, with a wide culture, but in fact arranges his books “according to bulk”; he reminds me of Manzoni’s character Don Ferrante (The Betrothed). Furthermore, he can be described with the adjective “saturnine” and the fact that his full attention is on himself and in creating a character of himself is proven by his “odd autobiographical habit” of describing himself in short sentences, formulated in the third person.
His attention on his own character and his being regular and routine-bound appear particularly clear in his second reaction to the piece of news he receives about Mrs. Sinico (for his first reaction, refer to the first paragraph I reported):
“As he sat there, living over his life with her and evoking alternately the two images in which he now conceived her, he realised that she was dead, that she had ceased to exist, that she had become a memory. He began to feel ill at ease. He asked himself what else could he have done. He could not have carried on a comedy of deception with her; he could not have lived with her openly. He had done what seemed to him best. How was he to blame? Now that she was gone he understood how lonely her life must have been, sitting night after night alone in that room.
His life would be lonely too until he, too, died, ceased to exist, became a memory — if anyone remembered him.”
At the very beginning, he had felt disgusted and almost deceived by the fact that he had had a relation with such a person as Mrs. Sinico had revealed herself to be. It could even be argued that, in being disgusted by the woman’s attachment to habits and by her general weakness, he was trying to fight the realisation that his was an “even way of life”, that lacked new emotions and ideas as much as Mrs. Sinico’s.
AND… stop here. I will post the second half of this commentary as soon as I have finished proof-reading it and I will think that the first half has been ‘digested’. Thank you!