A Painful Case: murdered by her maternal solicitude? By his latent greatness?

And here you go: the second part of this commentary. As I had anticipated in the first half, I will now focus on the main themes of the short story: the development of Mrs. Sinico and Mr. Duffy’s relationship, the accuracy of the use of words throughout the narration, my personal hatred for both characters, and, in the end, a quick personal reasoning. I would suggest that you keep the text (or at least the passages that have been reported already) handy 🙂

We have spoken about Mr. Duffy’s character and his disgust for Mrs. Sinico’s “commonplace, vulgar death” and, broadly speaking, behaviour. Why did he enjoy her company in the first place then?

First of all, I would not take it for granted that their relationship was established so that they could keep each other company. In fact, it is easy to notice how their relationship is characterised by loneliness (her first, and only, sentence in the entire story is “It’s so hard on people to have to sing to empty benches”; they met alone, “always in the evening and chose the most quiet quarters for their walks together”), so it only seems reasonable that the author makes Mr. Duffy change his mind on her only after he has been on a walk on his own, confronting himself with “bleak alleys”, “darkness”, a “cold night” and the “shadow of the wall of the Park”, where he sees lovers -that constitute his ‘epiphany’, as he realises that he “has been” and still is “an outcast from life’s feast”, this realisation leading to the ending sentence “He felt that he was alone”.

Even more interesting is the fact that this realisation, which comes suddenly through an epiphany, had in fact been prepared and anticipated by Mr. Duffy’s own doubts (“He asked himself what else he could have done”), which he tries to suppress (“How was he to blame?”), as they would disrupt his habit of thinking highly of himself, but which in the end take over – stylistically, this is highlighted so well by the use of the direct speech/flow of consciousness that repeats “too”, uses synonyms in an increasing climax that is completed by a dramatic pause (“–”) to reveal the man’s fear of being forgotten completely.

A hint of the revelation of this fear could have been found even earlier in the text, when it is clearly stated that Mrs. Sinico and Mr. Duffy’s relationship became deeper after Mrs. Sinico assumed an “almost maternal solicitude” towards her conversational partner, to the point that “She became his confessor.” (and, again, let me point out how this sentence perfectly sums up the woman’s only mistake and her most important characteristic at the same time: only one verb, used as a predicative nominal, underlined by the opposition between the pronouns “she” and “his”; interestingly, the sentence is structured so that Mrs. Sinico is the active subject -she ‘does’ the action- and Mr. Duffy seems to be the receiver, whereas, in the rest of the story, it seems that Mrs. Sinico does not do anything but being a passive receiver of Mr. Duffy’s stories, ideas, theories. Also, notice the resemblance of this sentence’s structure with Manzoni’s character Gertude’s sentence “La sventurata rispose.” [“The miserable/ill-fated woman answered.”], which marks Gertrude’s mistake, that works as the starting point of her story).

Last but not least, I find it fascinating how the whole story gave me a feeling as if I were always waiting for something, and the characters were as well, but this something did not come. Probably it was a suggestion evoked by the athmosphere, which was slow and routine-bound at the beginning, with a hint of adventure obscured by Mrs. Sinico’s passivity in the middle, to become gloomy again, then again exciting when Mr. Duffy reads the news, only to end in the worst sadness and darkness.

In fact, while the very beginning of the text includes word that convey stability and order (in different context, but all belonging to the same semantic group, there are “iron”, “arranged”, “held together”, “firmly”, “evenly”), later on we find a strong presence of words involving novelty (“surprised” is the first emotion felt by Mr. Duffy; “courage”; “exotic”, “exalted”, “fervent”, “excitement”), but when those get too many (“passionately”), the tone turns into something darker and more similar to what it was at the beginning (“troubled”, “cold”, “silence”, “orderliness”), until Mr. Duffy reads the papers and has a bit of a shock (“pushed”, “difficulty”, “quickly”, the assonances in “his stout hazel stick striking the ground regularly” and “his stick struck the ground”), from which he initially recovers (and the language used becomes stronger and visually more striking, for instance “attacked” and “outburst” convey an idea of speed and strength, reinforced by the use of exclamation and question marks), but that in the end overpowers him (as already analysed when talking about the last three paragraphs; for instance, remember about “cold”, “gloomy”, “darkness”, “memory”, “die away”, “nothing”, “silent” and “alone”).

It would be interesting to compare “A Painful Case”’s end with “Frankenstein”’s: in the latter, the monster is “soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance”; most probably, this end was chosen by Shelley in order to demonstrate the monster’s humanity (he will go and make things right by disappearing from this world) and it is possible that Joyce’s choice of leaving Mr. Duffy meditating about his loneliness serves the same purpose, even if I would not be able to provide any certain evidence of this within the text -apart from the flick of compassion he feels for Mrs. Sinico when he reflects: “Now that she was gone he understood how lonely her life must have been, sitting night after night alone in that room”.

Obviously, the use of words must be analysed in every literary text; however, it is particularly relevant in this story, since the character of Mr. Duffy himself is, in a way, presented as a writer/philosopher: he always has writing material on his desk and he presents himself as a deep, tormented thinker. I would suggest that, in reality, he really is not: please refer to the following passage:

She [Mrs. Sinico] asked him why did he not write out his thoughts. For what, he asked her, with careful scorn. To compete with phrasemongers, incapable of thinking consecutively for sixty seconds? To submit himself to the criticisms of an obtuse middle class which entrusted its morality to policemen and its fine arts to impresarios?”

Notice that he answers with “careful scorn”: almost as if he were acting. The indirect speech reported gives the reader the impression that he was trying to be as pompous as possible in his wording, which is usually related to either a very formal context, or the attempt to fool and confuse a less educated person. The reference to “an obtuse middle class” seem to suggest that we are facing the second situation: Mr. Duffy is trying to trick Mrs. Sinico into thinking that he is such a good and exceptional philosopher that people are ‘not ready yet’ for his astonishing words.

Undoubtedly, Mr. Duffy had tricked himself way earlier:

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.

His use of ‘ready-made sentences’ to express his profoundest thoughts (later on, Joyce reports: “…every bond, he said, is a bond to sorrow.”) seems to confirm the hypothesis that he likes presenting himself as a cultured intellectual (and, once again, I would refer to the characterisation of Don Ferrante for a comparison).

He also makes me think about Svevo‘s aforismÈ un modo comodo di vivere quello di credersi grande di una grandezza latente” [It is a convenient way to live, that in the belief that you are great when your greatness is latent]: he believes that he can write seriously meaningful things, he believes that he is a very knowledgeable man, he believes that if he made his thoughts known, they would be acknowledged by the wisest… but he never tests this belief ‘in real life’, so to speak. In the end, this is why I dislike his character so much.

But I do not want to spoil what I would dare defining a decent analysis with too many personal and partial comments; let’s sum up. I have found that Mr. Duffy, among his many flaws, mostly is a petty man, who does not want to face reality (he tries to escape Dublin; he stays far from people; he enjoys the company of a submissive person and not of a peer; he does not take the initiative), but who, in the end, can just be Everyman (he is conscious of his loneliness); Mrs. Sinico does not have a strong character, or it is not really shown-, but her sole presence is the starting point of every event; and their relation cannot be called a relationship, a friendship, not even a mentoring project.

It is an interesting story.

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One Response to A Painful Case: murdered by her maternal solicitude? By his latent greatness?

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