This writer has come to be known, among other titles, as an innovator of the difficult, of the abstruse, of the unnecessarily and overindulgently literary. A judgment that renders his early works even more shocking if one considers their bluntness. They are not, it should be said, simple works. "Simple" in literature should only apply to books for children and young adults, where certain conventions are followed, or to the etiolated parcels that litter every convenience store and airport, the formulaic kitsch of which some people cannot get enough (explaining this type's everlasting appeal). Dubliners is blunt in the manner that a strong cordial does not get away from you: you know what it will do, you feel at once empowered and weakened, and yet you cannot but have another sip because even the most jaded among us are always impressed with quality. Yet our subject James Duffy, for whom life has been constructed as a fortress, is not impressed with much at all.
A bachelor and "for many years cashier of a private bank," Duffy is a resident of the Irish capital's Chapelizod "because he found all the other suburbs of Dublin mean, modern, and pretentious" (ironically perhaps, the protagonist of this very modern and very pretentious work hails from this same area). Duffy clearly does not desire much human kindness, milky or otherwise, and has shut himself up in a bourgeois bunker "as far as possible from the city of which he was a citizen." A survey of his shelves does not dissuade us from the suspicion that James Duffy does not believe in anything finer or greater than himself, which some may call solipsism and others misanthropy. There is a reason why Duffy "had bought himself every article of furniture in the room," but it is not ours to discover. There is also a reason (perhaps the very same one) why "he allowed himself to think that in certain circumstances he would rob his bank," and why the probability of such a crime dissipated. Maybe a snapshot of our man will yield more clarity:
Mr. Duffy abhorred anything which betokened physical or mental disorder. A medieval doctor would have called him saturnine. His face, which carried the entire tale of his years, was of the brown tint of Dublin streets. On his long and rather large head grew dry black hair and a tawny moustache did not quite cover an unamiable mouth. His cheekbones also gave his face a harsh character; but there was no harshness in the eyes which, looking at the world from under their tawny brows, gave the impression of a man ever alert to greet a redeeming instinct in others but often disappointed. He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances. He had an autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense. He never gave alms to beggars and walked firmly, carrying a stout hazel.
To paraphrase this author, you cannot know how ugly or beautiful a face is until you try and draw it (I will say that I initially read "not quite unamiable mouth," a dull bromide). But we have already sketched Mr. Duffy, so how should we presume? From this passage and his subsequent acts, there remains no doubt as to his character. Self-serving, arrogant, vain, and asocial, he is well-read but far too enamored with his own literary knowledge, which for him means absorbing a lot of 'important' books so as to be able to present them to lesser minds in a discreetly condescending manner. A person far unkinder than I might even suggest that Mr. James Duffy could represent the typical talentless literary critic ("ever alert to greet a redeeming instinct in others but often disappointed" seems to lean in that direction), but there is no need for such contumely. Which is why his sudden romance with a married woman, a certain Emily Sinico, takes everyone, Mr. James Duffy included, rather violently by surprise.
What befalls the lonely coparcenaries of this little fling, and how the story won its title, will be left to the curious reader. The last paragraph of A Painful Case has been much discussed among people who like to discuss such things, undoubtedly because it forfends any hope for humankind and its sentiments. Similarities to another, far greater tale with an equally ambiguous ending are unavoidable, but Chekhov's masterpiece at least envisions the couple acting in unison, as two halves of a whole that, per society's conventional mores, is not permitted to endure. For all the effortless beauty of the prose that cages the two lovebirds, Duffy's affair with Mrs. Sinico must be considered nothing if not implausible. That is, unless we truly subscribe to his interpretation of her as an empty vessel, a hollow orb polished by his palms:
Neither he nor she had had any adventure before and neither was conscious of any incongruity. Little by little he entangled his thoughts with hers. He lent her books, provided her with ideas, shared his intellectual life with her. She listened to all. Sometimes in return for his theories she gave out some fact of her own life.
Whether Mr. Duffy has indeed squeezed the universe into a ball, and whether that ball will be rolled toward some overwhelming question, will be discussed by those who deem the identification of literary allusions the mark of a cultured mind. For some reason Mr. Duffy strikes one as belonging to that group, even if the only group he could ever imagine joining is some cenacle in which he obtained a lifelong presidency. One also has the distinct impression that the currency that Mrs. Sinico utilizes, a plain fact from her plain existence ("Her husband's great-great-grandfather had come from Leghorn"; "Her husband was captain of a mercantile boat"; "They had one child," and so forth), is not much valued by the recipient, who has assumed the far more generous task of imbuing her with ideas from books – as if life outside of libraries were entirely notionless. Is it because he has seen the moment of his greatness flicker? Much more likely that Mr. Duffy could not distinguish a mermaid from the eternal foam.