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Joyce's Dubliners

Claudine Raynaud

The Self-Disputing Text of Dubliners

Margot Norris

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1Dubliners criticism has evolved traditions, inflected by various theoretical models, of recognizing that the telling of the stories invariably produces excessive and layered information, on the one hand, and gaps, contradictions, and inconsistencies, on the other. My own contribution to these traditions has been to explore the ways in which the stories signal the complexities of their own textual operations, and to demonstrate the dramatic, often antagonistic, character of the textual performance – what I think of as a textual self-dispute. I try to show that Dubliners repeatedly displays narrative voices that produce utterances, stories, and discourses that are undermined by silent countertexts, conflicting readings of what remains silent, tacit, or implicit, and which I characterize variously: as loud narrations that drown out silent narrations; as narrative discourses that are disrupted by the stifled back answers of characters who are refused voice by the narration; as a kind of textual "body language" that contradicts or challenges the verbal or stylistic utterance of the narration. These fascinating self-incriminating or self-contradicting textual operations – that I trope as textual self-dispute – function politically to challenge narrative authority and singularity. In consequence the reader is placed in a problematic and disconcerting position, and the reading of the stories becomes an interpretive adventure of the most dynamic and risky kind. The Dubliners' reader is subject to the narration's misleading rhetorical prompts, yet is continually prodded by the unease produced by the discursive gaps, elisions, contradictions, silences, and disjunctions to resist the narration, to read against its rhetorical grain, to take speculative risks and make hypotheses that can't be verified, and thereby surrender all hope of interpretive mastery. The Dubliners reader must function simultaneously as a credulous narratee, a skeptic, a detective, a rhetorician, a judge, a dramaturge, and finally, a writer of alternative fictions that Dubliners has already produced as an absence, I would like now to demonstrate all of these assertions by exploring the act of reading Joyce's story "A Painful Case."

2"A Painful Case" is Joyce's story about the ability of a text, a piece of writing, to severely shock a reader. But I believe that "A Painful Case" is not only thematically about Mr. Duffy's painful shock upon reading a newspaper article, but that the story's text actually performatively gives the reader a painful shock – perhaps twice. I will argue that what makes "A Painful Case" a painful case for the reader is that the narrator treats us precisely as Mr. Duffy treats Mrs. Sinico. With less confidence, I will then suggest that the narration treats Mr. Duffy as Mrs. Sinico treats Mr Duffy, and this makes the reader vulnerable to a second, even more painful shock. There is a method to Joyce's careful contrivance of reader surprise and discomfort, and it is to engage the reader not only in an ethical re-thinking, but an ethical re-feeling of the two great Irish sex scandals of the late nineteenth century: the case of Charles Stewart Parnell, and the case of Oscar Wilde.

3Let me begin with an example of how the narrator treats us the same way James Duffy treats Emily Sinico. In the passage describing the growing attachment between James Duffy and Emily Sinico, the prose "betrays every sign of unusual excitement" – to cite its own description of Mrs. Sinico. It attempts to put brakes on its excitement using the familiar techniques of Mr. Duffy – of trying to extricate itself through "the theme of disembodiment," as R.B. Kershner calls it (Kershner, 1989, 112), and by injecting itself with aphorisms and proverbs:

The dark discreet room, their isolation, the music that still vibrated in their ears, united them. This union exalted him, worn away the rough edges of his character, emotionalised his mental life. Sometimes he caught himself listening to the sound of his own voice. He thought that in her eyes he would ascend to an angelic stature; and as he attached the ferv ent 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: we are our own. The end of these discourses was that one night during which she had shown every sign of unusual excitement, Mrs. Sinico caught up his hand passionately and pressed it to her cheek.Mr Duffy was very much surprised. Her interpretation of his words disillusioned him. He did not visit her for a week. (Joyce, 1996, 111)

4I would argue that, like Mrs. Sinico, the prose here leads us to believe we are caught up in a love story that is racing toward consummation and we are set up to overreach our romantic expectations and suffer, like Mrs. Sinico – a verbal version of a brutal coitus interruptus. "Mrs Sinico caught up his hand passionately and pressed it to her cheek. Mr Duffy was very much surprised. Her interpretation of his words disillusioned him" (Joyçe, 1996, 111). In this moment of reading it is we the readers who are surprised by Mr Duffy's surprise: why on earth would he be surprised at her gesture? This man and woman are reported to have previously been united and exalted by shared music, entangled by a newly emotionalised discourse; drawn together by a growing closeness and intimacy that had permitted Emily Sinico's fervent nature free play – "he attached the fervent nature of his companion more and more closely to him" (Joyce, 1996, 111), The effect of Duffy's cold surprise must have come to Mrs. Sinico like a shock – an unexpected figurative slap in the face for having presumed an amorous expectation, an expectation that Duffy treats as a woman might treat a threatened date rape. Is Duffy horrified by the sexual overture or scandalized by the adulterous advance? In either case, why? We are never told.

5The entire narrative leading up to this moment has conditioned the reader to expect an adultery story. Mr. Duffy has taken surprising initiative in arranging to speak to Mrs. Sinico privately at a concern, has learned her name and that of her husband, has made a date to begin meeting her alone – a series of gestures that the narrative, in calling it "an adventure," signals to us, as it signals to Emily Sinico, that James Duflfy is preparing to court her as a lover. The expectation of adultery is further reinforced by certain semiotic prompts: the woman's name, which reminds Mary Lowe Evans of Emma Bovary, and the story's location in Chapelizod, the chapel of Iseult, of which Don Gifford writes, "some Irish versions of the Tristan and Iseult story say that it was here that they consummated their ill-fated love" (Lowe-Evans, 1995,, 81). Finally, the unsympathetic husband in the Parnell affair – Captain O'Shea – appears to be glossed in the title of Mrs. Sinico's husband, Captain Sinico, as Wilhelm Wicht has pointed out.

6The narration of James Duffy's romantic adventure contextualizes itself as an adultery story, and as the relationship blossoms into greater intimacy, the narration becomes lyrical with metaphorical intimations of impending sexuality. "Little by little, as their thoughts entangled, they spoke of subjects less remote" (Joyce, 1996, 111). We are not told what these "less remote" subjects are, but the trope of entanglement, with its botanical imagery of enfolding vines and branches points toward the sexual imagery of enfolding human limbs. James Duffy's surprise at the woman's gesture therefore produces a crisis of interpretation that involves not only the man and the woman, but also the narrative voice and the reader. The narration had clearly interpreted Duffy's words, gestures, and feelings in precisely the same way Emily Sinico interpreted them, and the narrative voice, deeply embedded in Duffy's feelings during this culminating discourse, suggests that Mrs. Sinico had misinterpreted nothing.

7Duffy's abrupt withdrawal has turned the impending adultery narrative into a frigidity narrative, a mode of story telling that orchestrates a reader deprivation and frustration that reenacts Emily Sinico's deprivation and frustration. Or, to put the matter more extremely, the story has turned into an emotionally sadistic narrative, a mode of story-telling that incites in the reader a desire for romance, a wish for a story about the fulfillment of love even if illicit, only to abruptly punish that desire with a brutal refusal and rebuff And for the reader, as for Emily Sinico, insult is added to injury when not only is passion withdrawn and withheld, but its withdrawal is justified with a tacit, self-righteous indictment of the woman as guilty of vulgar lechery. We expect the narrative voice to come to Emily Sinico's defense, but it does not. Instead it colludes with Duffy's course of aggressive withdrawal, telling us nothing of what she feels, and nothing of what she says during the painful three-hour long argument as they walk in the Park in the cold. We are obliged to ask why Joyce would withhold from us precisely what the nineteenth century adultery novel delivered: the intimate feelings of the adulterous woman and her sufferings when the plot turns on her and punishes her for her desire? That question becomes even more urgent when, along with Duffy, we learn of Emily Sinico's death that "The evidence showed that the deceased lady, while attempting to cross the line, was knocked down by the engine of the ten o'clock slow train from Kingstown, thereby sustaining injuries of the head and right side which led to her death" (Joyce, 1996, 113). This report produces a stunning moment of literary déjà vu as we are transported back to nineteenth century Moscow, to another railroad track on which another woman in despair confronts an oncoming train, a woman whose polysyllabic name echoes that of Emily Sinico – Anna Karenina. But Tolstoy gives us what Joyce withholds – the exquisitely painful body language of the woman supplemented by the riot of her thoughts and feelings:

A feeling such as she had known when about to take the first plunge in bathing came upon her, and she crossed herself. That familiar gesture brought back into her soul a whole series of girlish and childish memories, and suddenly the darkness that had covered everything for her was torn apart, and life rose up before her for an instant with all its bright past joys. But she did not take her eyes from the wheels of the second carriage. And exactly at the moment when the space between the wheels came opposite her, she dropped the red bag, and draw ing her head back into her shoulders, fell on her hands under the carriage and lightly, as though she would rise again at once, dropped on to her knees. And at the same instant she was terrorstricken for what she was doing 'Where am I? What am I doing? What for? She tried to get up, to drop backwards; but something huge and mericless struck her on the head and rolled her on her back. (Tosltoy, 1950, 894)

8There is strong evidence that Joyce had Tolstoy's Anna Karenina in mind as he was writing "A Painful Case." On September 24, 1905, Joyce wrote to Stanislaus asking him to verify certain details in the story – but a week earlier he had written another letter in which he discussed Tolstoy's greatness with his brother, and specifically mentioned Anna Karenina Why would Joyce pervert Tolstoy's magnificent adultery novel by writing "A Painful Case" as a story in which there is no adultery, in which it is the failure of adultery – not its commission – that putatively drives the woman to suicide, and in which her Liebestod,, if that's what it is, is brutally stripped of all romance and transcendence? At least one plausible possibility may be that fifteen years after the scandalous adultery, divorce, censure, and death of Charles Stewart Parnell, the topic of adultery and its punishments remained an unresolved ethical wound in the Irish conscience. Joyce, who would revisit the scandal a decade later in the famous Christmas dinner scene in Portrait, may in 1905 have created a satirical parable about the self-righteous prescriptions of Parnell's censors, an imaginary scenario of the hideously ironic outcome had Parnell resisted the temptations of the adulterous woman's sexual advances and behaved as Dante Reardon and the priests demanded. The righteous James Duffy – a man who flirts with politics, literature, philosophy and woman with no willingness to give, commit, or risk – becomes the absolute antithesis of Charles Stewart Parnell After Mrs. Sinico's death, Duffy "asked himself what else could he have done. He could not have carried on a comedy of deception with her; he could not have lived with her openly" (Joyce, 1996, 116). Why not? Given his complete social indifference, what had Duffy to lose except his adventureless job as a bank cashier. As a popular, powerful, and highly visible politician, Parnell had everything to lose, and he risked and lost it all.

9If it is the business of the adultery novel to explain to us why there is adultery, "A Painful Case" refuses to explain to us why there is no adultery when all the presumptive conditions for its commission are clearly in place Given Duffy's atheism, indifference to society, and amorality, what possible inner or outer constraints could have prevented him from yielding to Emily Sinico's overture? His reaction to this warm and giving woman made no sense at the time of his rejection of her, and it continues to make no sense after he reads of her death. Duffy's moral excoriations of her are histrionic and exaggerated ("He saw the squalid tract of her vice, miserable and malodorous" and the troublesome excess of recoil at her gesture is reiterated again, "He remembered her outburst of that night and interpreted it in a harsher sense than he had ever done" (Joyce, 1996, 115). There is something simply wrong with this whole story, which never answers the central question, "Why had he withheld life from her? Why had he sentenced her to death?" (Joyce, 1996, 117)

10And yet we are given a clue to this mystery – a solution in plain sight, like Poe's purloined letter, a solution totally obvious and yet functionally so shocking that critics and readers have overwhelmingly failed or refused to see it. The clue has surprising authority for it is provided not by the narrator or by the narration, but by James Duffy himself, when we are given a glimpse into a journal entry he wrote two months after his break-up with Mrs Sinico:

One of his sentences written two months after his last interview with Mrs. Sinico, read: Love between man and man is impossible because there must not be sexual intercourse and friendship between man and woman is impossible because there must be sexual intercourse. (Joyce, 1996, 112)

11The narration has pried into the most private recesses of Duffy's papers in his desk, given us his most secret comment on his break-up with the woman, and yet makes nothing of this aphorism, gives us no encouragement to ponder its significance for explaining Duffy's action We are distracted by the epigrammatic style without recognizing in it the signature of Oscar Wilde, and without inclining to take this utterly private thought, intended to be shared with no other human being, at face value: as a revelation that James Duffy cannot give himself to this woman because if he could love, he would love a man. The narration has not authorized this interpretation, and told us nothing explicitly that would support it. Consequently to speculate in explicit ways about James Duffy's sexuality obliges the reader to come to terms with what Joseph Valente has called "the compulsory heterosexuality that has encumbered even the most critically astute, theoretically sophisticated and politically progressive Joyce scholarship" (Valente, 1998). By opening the gap into a queer interpretation of the story, the reader's shock or surprise becomes an ethical boomerang, exposing the strength of the heterosexual assumptions and their control of the generic conventions of romantic fiction that we have reflexively brought to the story. In treating Duffy as a promising heterosexual lover, the reader had treated him with Emily Sinico's own expectations.

12Once the possibility of homosexuality – acknowledged or repressed – is considered, the reader must take ethical responsibility for now imagining the thoughts and feelings of the homosexual man as we had earlier been obliged to take ethical responsibility for imagining the thoughts and feelings of an adulterous woman. If we remember that Duffy lives in a social world that punishes homosexuality even more seriously than it punishes adultery, Duffy's isolation, aloofness, asceticism, and misanthropy take on a wholly different character. His abstemiousness could now imply an avoidance of temptation – for example, dining in a dull eatery in George's Street "where he felt himself safe from the society of Dublin's gilded youth" (Joyce, 1996, 109). The narrative assurance that opera and concerts "were the only dissipations in his life" (Joyce, 1996, 109) now takes on a hint of defensiveness. We can now understand differently why he cannot write his thoughts or make them public, why Duffy pushes his most intimate sexual expressions toward impersonality and generality, and why the woman's sexual overture might have triggered a moment of shock and recoil in the man. Duffy's dismissive scorn of an "obtuse middle class which entrusted its morality to policemen and its fine arts to impresarios" (Joyce, 1996, 111) reminds us that the trial of Oscar Wilde would have been recent history at the time of his conversation. If the concealment of Duffy's sexuality may be imagined not only in a social closet but further internalized in latency, then his autobiographical resort to a "disembodied" voice no longer seems particularly "odd."

13Once we interpret Duffy's rebuff of the woman's romantic overture as homosexual recoil, the reader must revisit with a queer perspective the redacted scenes of the week of silence ("He did not visit her for a week; then he wrote her asking her to meet him" [Joyce, 1996, 112]) and the break-up ("It was cold autumn weather but in spite of the cold they wandered up and down the roads of the Park for nearly three hours" [Joyce, 1996, 112]). In order to retrieve these narratively censored scenes which conceal from us the drama at the heart of this story, the heterosexual reader experiences a thickening of identity and a doubling of vision as different questions pose themselves in an effort to enter a gay subjectivity. What sensations of panic and responsibility Duffy might have felt upon recognizing that this woman had fallen in love with him How did his own feelings of recoil present themselves to him? What choices was he obliged to ponder? Would he tell her or not tell her of his predicament? What vulnerabilities and risks would disclosure of such a secret pose to him. What, if anything did James Duffy tell Emily Sinico of his dilemma during that three-hour break-up in the Park? Perhaps he told her the truth. Perhaps he told her nothing If not, what forms of discursive deception and indirection would have been required to justify the break-up of their relationship. Was her fit of trembling the result of embarrassment or disappointment only, or something much larger and more tragic – a glimpse into a deeper meaning in Duffy's pronouncement that "every bond … is a bond to sorrow."

14The narration tells us nothing of this and therefore puts us in a risky interpretive quandary. Why doesn't the narrative voice tell us more. If we had been permitted to hear the break-up between Duffy and Mrs. Sinico we might know what exactly went on, and know whether we are justified in suspecting that Duffy refuses Emily Sinico because he is homosexual. If "A Painful Case" is a story about a man in the closet, then it is also a closeted story. Why would Joyce have written it like this? Perhaps for the same reasons Oscar Wilde wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray as a novel of which Joyce wrote "It is not very difficult to read between the lines" (Joyce, 1989, 96), and of which Eve Sedgwick wrote "it is worth emphasizing how thoroughly the elements of this novel can be read doubly or equivocally, can be read either as having a thematically empty 'modernist' meaning or as having a thematically full 'homosexual' meaning" (Sedwick, 1990, 165). Given the unrelenting and serious censorship problems Joyce faced in his protracted nine-year struggle to get Maunsel & Company to publish Dubliners, could he have hoped to write openly about either adultery or homosexuality? In 1906 Grant Richards objected to the mere allusion to "a man with two establishments to keep up" (Joyce, 1989, 82) and as late as 1912 – seven years after "A Painful Case" was written – Joyce's solicitor, George Lidwell, urged him not to run afoul of Dublin's Vigilance Committee "whose object it is to seek out and suppress all writings of immoral tendencies" (Ellmann 330). Both Joseph Valente and Jean-Michel Rabate have argued that the scandals of Charles Stewart Parnell and Oscar Wilde were linked in Joyce's mind as parables of the punishment that "exceptionalism" earned nineteenth century Irishmen (in Valente, 1998).

15My speculative reconstruction of "A Painful Case" remains indeterminate and unverifiable – itself a somewhat scandalous or double of the adultery narrative with which it is entangled in ambiguity and equivocation. But this inability to "prove" the reading can itself be read as a performance effect of a narration which enacts the "love that dare not speak its name" by refusing to speak it and by refusing to let Duffy speak it except as a prohibition ("Love between man and man is impossible because there must not be sexual intercourse" Joyce, 1996, 112]). "A Painful Case" therefore remains an opaque narrative closet at best. The discourse that constitutes its "closet" is the one that resolutely interprets Duffy's refusal of heterosexual love as volitional in specific registers of ethical culpability coded as egotism, narcissism, solipsism, and coldness. That Duffy's "hunger-strike against desire," as Earl Ingersoll suggestively calls it, could be prompted by a criminalized, prosecutable and therefore frustrated and perhaps repressed desire for a same-sex object does not readily occur to either the narrator or the reader, and it is precisely this not-occurring that is the epistemologically closeting gesture. Once the queer interpretation does occur to the reader, it produces the Tiresian optics that abash the reader in ethically productive ways. At story's end, Duffy's regret and remorse may enfold not one but two closeted lives: that of the abandoned wife ("how lonely her life must have been, sitting night after night alone in that room" [Joyce, 1996, 115]) and that of his own monological existence. If Emily Sinico may be imagined as the only person on earth who might have known his secret ("it revolted him to think that he had ever spoken to her of what he held sacred" [Joyce, 1996, 15]), then her loss represents the loss of his only witness, his only validation. This insight restores an achieved fulness of pain to the loss of the woman's friendship expressed in the other half of Duffy's private aphorism, "and friendship between man and woman is impossible because there must be sexual intercourse" (Joyce, 1996, 112). These reflections bend our attention on the exceptional possibility of absolute closeting that Eve Sedgwick ascribes only to the homosexual: consignment to a life undisclosed to anyone and thereby reduced to a Derridean trace, unregistered on any consciousness. Perhaps nowhere in Joyce's work is paralysis invoked more poignantly than in this subject's inability – on literal peril of death, if we recall that Parnell and Wilde were both dead within a few years of their scandals – to be anything other than static, silent, and still.


Works cited

Gifford, Don 1982. Joyce Annotated Notes for. Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Second edition Berkeley: University of California Press.

James Joyce, 1996 Dubliners Ed Robert Scholes and Walton Litz New York: Penguin Books.

———, 1989. Selected Letters. Ed. Richard Ellman Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Kershner, R. B. Joyce, Backtin and Popular Literature Chronicle of Disorder Chapel Hill University of California Press

Lowe-Evans, Mary 1995 "Who killed Mrs Sinico?" Studies in Short Fiction 32 Summer, 395-402.

Sedwick, Eve Kosofsky, 1990. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tolstoy, Count Leo. 1950. Anna Karenina. Trans. Constansce Garnett. New York The Modern Library

Valente, Joseph. 1998 Quare Joyce Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.


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