I sing of the revered goddess Demeter and her daughter
Persephone, seized from her by the Host of Many, Him who has many
names, by leave of his brother Zeus. (Myths of the Greeks and
James Duffy, protagonist of Joyce's "A Painful Case," is a fastidious, unmarried bank cashier approaching middle age who becomes briefly involved with Emily Sinico, a bright, compassionate, frustrated married woman and mother. In a moment of enthusiastic transport, Mrs Sinico errs by taking hold of Duffy's hand and pressing it to her cheek. Duffy immediately cuts her out of his life. A full four years later in a newspaper account subtitled "A Painful Case," Duffy reads of Mrs Sinico's death from injuries sustained after having been knocked down by a train. In the accident report her husband notes that only two years earlier Emily Sinico had become "intemperate in her habits." Nonetheless, the self-absorbed Duffy overcome first by disgust, then guilt, then self-loathing, concludes that he has caused Emily Sinico's death.
Predictably, Florence Walzl's brief analysis of this story in A Companion to Joyce Studies reaches the same conclusion; however, for Walzl, it is Duffy who is the true victim of the "plot." She concludes that "Mr Duffy, fearful of emotion, rejected his new friend and so doomed them both -- she, to death from alcoholism, and he, to an existence as a mere shell of a man without human communion, paralyzed in feelings as in action" (179). Michael West and William Hendricks are notable exceptions in the critical history of "A Painful Case." As early as 1977 they had observed that "the vulgarity of Duffy's pretentious sense of guilt is devastatingly exposed through a key detail carefully planted by Joyce" (702). That detail is the two-year time lapse between the Duffy-Sinico split and Mrs Sinico's acquired drinking habits. More recently Zack Bowen and Garry Leonard have made the same observation (Leonard 220).
Nonetheless, William Corrington's more detailed analysis of the story, which first appeared in the Spring 1966 James Joyce Quarterly, provides authority for Walzl's relatively recent position. Having been collected in Baker and Staley's critical handbook on Dubliners, Corrington's essay has attracted a wide readership. Corrington, in turn, had taken his cue from Hugh Kenner who had earlier designated "A Painful Case" "the heart of the matter" (58). Kenner, Corrington, and Walzl, among numerous others, all offer variations on what has become the traditional reading of "A Painful Case" (the only reading to which most casual students of the story will be exposed): It is a pivotal story in Dubliners, it is Duffy's story; Duffy killed Emily Sinico.
Certainly there is justification for these positions. Both the introduction and conclusion belong to Duffy. His room and furnishings are open to the reader's scrupulous inspection. Duffy's religious, political and dietary preferences are made our business. W even obliquely witness his "confession," one that traditional critics seems to take at face value: "Why had he sentenced her to death . . . One human being had seemed to love him and he had denied her life and happiness: he had sentenced her to ignominy, a death of shame" (117). West and Hendricks, finding the slightly overblown quality of Duffy's rhetoric [here] suspicious" (701), opt for a more profoundly and consistently ironic reading of the story, but other important clues in this painful case besides the time discrepancy and the inflated rhetoric have been overlooked in the traditional reading. If the opening belongs to Duffy, the title that precedes it belongs to Emily Sinico for it introduces the report of her death. And even granting the title a certain ambiguity, the pain-filled life and death of Emily Sinico are undeniably central to Dubliners both in terms of their physical location in the story cycle and in regard to their symbolic value. …