Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Joyce's Dubliners--The Specter of Death in "Clay" and "A Painful Case"


While Little Chandler and Farrington (from "A Little Cloud" and "Counterparts") show no appreciation for the love and companionship that their families provide, in both "Clay" and "A Painful Case" the main characters seem terribly lonely, denied the warmth and love that a family can give. Maria (from "Clay") and Mr. Duffy (from "A Painful Case") are middle aged and single, and they are both haunted by the foreboding of death.  

Maria is a plain woman who works at a laundry (possibly a Magdalene laundry, although that's not made explicitly clear). She likes her job and thinks everyone is fond of her there.  She tries to hide her disappointment that she has never married or had children, comforting herself that she was a mother to her younger brothers.  But even those brothers are a disappointment.  They fight with each other and will not make peace, and the brother she visits, Joe, is "so different when he took any drink." Although Joe has asked her to live with him and his wife, Maria refused because she was afraid of being in the way (and possibly afraid of Joe's drunken temper).  On Halloween, Maria takes a tram to visit Joe and his family, buying them sweets and a special plum cake.  But when Maria arrives at Joe's, she's distraught to realize that she left her expensive cake on the tram--putting a damper on her holiday.  She has literally bought her cake, but she cannot eat it. She cheers up when her brother treats her nicely and the children begin to dance and be merry.

The older girls at the party decide to play a divination game--they set out plates of a prayer book, water, a ring, and clay.  They blindfold each participant, and lead them up the table, and whatever object they touch signifies their future (prayer book means joining the church, water means emigration or travel, the ring means marriage).  They insist that Maria plays as well, and when she reaches over the table, she touches "a soft wet substance"--the clay, which signifies death.  To keep from hurting Maria's feelings, her sister-in-law insists that the clay be thrown away, and Maria plays the game again, this time getting a prayer book. Her family treats her nicer than they ever have, now that they fear for her death, and Maria sings a song so moving that her brother must hide his tears.

Although her family's loving treatment seems comforting, it also indicates that they take the game's predictions seriously--they think that Maria is going to die soon.  Maria's pathos is deepened by the fact that she has so many disappointments, and her meekness and humility have had so little reward. Indeed, although she may not physically die, her hopes and dreams for her life are dying.  The song she sings--I Dreamed that I Dwelt--is about dreaming of wealth and power, but most of all, love.  It's clear that Maria knows that she has become a maiden aunt, with no real hope of marriage or love. Joe's tears at the end of the song might be more for his sister than the music.       

In "A Painful Case," Mr. Duffy is a man who prides himself on his orderly, philosophical habits.  But as he reminisces about his life, he remembers a married woman, Mrs. Sinico, who he considers his "soul's companion." They had an affair of the mind only; after they met at several concerts they had many deep conversations at her home until he felt that their minds were entangled.  But when Mrs. Sinico revealed her more passionate attractions to him by clasping his hand to her cheek, he became upset.  After carefully considering the situation, he decides to break things off with her, which she finds so distressing that on their way back to the tram, "she trembled so violently that, fearing another collapse on her part, he bade her goodbye quickly and left her." His actions, while perhaps intended to be driven by logic, reveal his emotional cowardice and callousness.


For four years he avoids contacting or seeing Mrs. Sinico, refusing to even attend concerts since he knows she enjoys them.  But by chance, he reads a newspaper article about her death.  The article reveals that she had been drinking heavily and "accidentally" walked in front of a train.  At first, Mr. Duffy reacts harshly and angrily to her sordid death--he feels soiled by her weakness, regretting his connection to her.  But as the night progresses, he can feel her beside him, and his mind takes a different track.  He goes out to drink in a pub, perhaps trying to understand her need for drink.  He wonders what else he should have done, since he found the idea of an affair impossible.  As her death sinks in, he realizes that his rejection condemned her to a life of dreary loneliness, "night after night alone in that room,"and feels that he denied her life.  As he wanders through Dublin at night, he sees other couples meeting secretly in the park, and he feels as though he has been "outcast from life's feast," and that he sentenced the one person who'd seemed to love him to "ignominy, a death of shame." When he sees a train, it is "like a worm with a fiery head" that seems to be calling out her name.  Joyce depicts the train as a Satanic presence--the fire suggesting hell fire, and the worm reflecting Satan's form as a great dragon or serpent. It's as though the train is tempting him to share her fate. In his mental anguish, he realizes that he is completely alone.  The title of the story "A Painful Case," refers not only to the tragic Mrs. Sinico, but to the lonely, emotional crippled Mr. Duffy, who realizes too late that he has sacrificed his one chance at love and happiness.

Mr. Duffy's fate mirrors the earlier tragedy of Eveline, who was too crippled by doubt and fear to elope with her lover.  Both characters reflect Joyce's theme of the paralysis of Dublin, a city that seemed during Joyce's time to be unable to move forward or develop itself.  Indeed, even the priest from "The Sisters" suffered from literal paralysis.  Without change, the same miserable patterns will continue to haunt the characters.

Dubliners blogs:

"The Sisters" and "An Encounter"



"After the Race" and "Two Gallants"

"A Little Cloud" and "Counterparts"



"Ivy Day in the Committee Room"

"A Mother"

"Grace" 

"The Dead"


Blogs for James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five


Blogs for James Joyce's Ulysses: 


Chapter Four, Calypso

Chapter Five, Lotus Eaters

Chapter Six, Hades

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