The very isolated Mr. James Duffy, who lives in Chapelizod, a suburb of Dublin, keeps a very neat, orderly home where books are precisely placed on shelves and the furniture is plain and entirely functional: "Mr. Duffy abhorred anything which betokened physical or mental disorder" (88). He follows a schedule to the minute, working at a bank, taking the tram, eating lunch at the same restaurant, leaving work at four and eating dinner at the same quiet eating house. His only pleasure in life is music and sometimes he spends his evenings playing the piano or going to a concert. He has no friends and "visits his relatives at Christmas," and escorts "them to the cemetery when they died" (88).
One evening at a concert he meets an attractive woman. Mrs. Emily Sinico is extremely lonely living in an unhappy marriage, and she accepts Duffy's invitation to meet again. They continue to meet at her cottage: "the dark discreet room, their isolation, the music that still vibrated in their ears united them" (90). Mr. Sinico, who is always away on business, believes Mr. Duffy is interested in his daughter because he has lost interest in his wife and cannot believe another man would find her attractive. Mr. Duffy and Mrs. Sinico talk of books and music and over time become increasingly close. Duffy complains about politics especially, how things never change, while she listens patiently and encourages him to write newspaper articles. Time passes until one evening Mrs. Sinico, in a fit of excitement, takes his hand and lovingly presses it to her cheek. Mr. Duffy is shocked and doesn't meet her for a week. They walk in Phoenix Park for three hours and decide they cannot continue to see each other.
Mr. Duffy's life returns to normal. He avoids concerts so as not to see her. Four years pass until one night at dinner he reads in the newspaper of an unfortunate event. He attempts to finish his meal but he becomes disturbed and goes home where he looks at the paper once more; it is an article about the death of Mrs. Sinico who was struck accidentally by a train. Her daughter reveals that lately Mrs. Sinico often went out to buy spirits at night. The newspaper called it "a painful case."
At first Mr. Duffy is appalled at the story and becomes angry at Mrs. Sinico for dying in such a demeaning manner. However, then he goes to the pub for a drink, where he attempts to put things in perspective. However, he looks back on the time he spent with her and begins to feel sad for her lonely circumstances. He realizes that he too is lonely and will continue to be lonely until he dies. He thinks he can hear her voice, that her ghostly form is with him as he takes a walk in the park, "an outcast from the life's feast," and hears in the distance a train rhythmically echoing the sound of her name until all is "perfectly silent," and he feels "that he was alone" (96).
Once more the twin themes of isolation and paralysis permeate the eleventh Dubliners story. "A Painful Case" is indeed painful. It illustrates how in Duffy's quest for sanity and order he becomes deformed and imprisoned as a human being, emotionally unable to form any attachment whatsoever. While both people share the same love of music, interest in politics and genuinely like each other, they cannot find a way to be as a couple "united." It is Mr. Duffy's ingrained love of order, money and position that has stifled him as a human and made him into an emotional cripple. In short, he is cold. The color white predominates in his room: "white wood.white bedclothes.white shaded lamp.white wooden shelves, like the deadening snow that falls in "The Dead," the final story in Dubliners. Duffy has unknowingly in the past been lonely, presently he is lonely and he will be lonely forever. Mrs. Sinico was lonely too. She might very well have jumped in front of the train to die, or if not, she might have chosen a slower way of dying through drink. Regardless, her death can be seen in effect as a suicide.
contract broken and she will receive nothing. However, the stubborn Mrs. Kearney will not acquiesce. She wants the money now. Things continue to escalate until eventually no one sides with Mrs. Kearney. Miss Healy finally takes on the role of accompanist and all the Kearney's march out with Mrs. Kearney threatening Mr. Holohan: "I'm not done with you yet," to which he responds "but I'm done with you." Mr. Holohan feels as if his skin is on fire and Mr. O'Madden Burke assures him: "you did the proper thing, Holohan" (125).