As I begin my review of Cóilín Owens’s encomium to the Dubliners story “A Painful Case,” the adjective that comes first to mind is “formidable.” For his extensive study of this rather short, short story inspires awe, admiration, and wonder. At the same time, Owens’s treatise challenges nearly every alternative interpretation past or future. Characterizing Joyce’s story as “deceptively simple,” Owens nonetheless deems it “the most melancholy and the darkest story in Dubliners,” and proceeds to reveal the text’s extraordinary allusiveness and philosophical sophistication. The matter of greatest concern in the story, as Owens views it, is “the idea of disappointed spiritual hope” embodied in the central character, James Duffy.
One of Joyce’s many alter egos, Duffy is a “spoiled priest,” a term Joyce’s contemporary Irish reading audience would have understood to mean one who had rejected the grace to follow a priestly vocation. Having refused that empowering sign of God’s love, yet incapable of reciprocating the human affection Emily Sinico offers him, Duffy is rendered a figure of despair. Owens deduces from his examination of Joyce’s revisions of “A Painful Case” (as well as from his extensive research into Joyce’s life, times, and oeuvre) that, in spite of Joyce’s apostasy, he was no spiritual nihilist. On the contrary, Joyce maintained a lifelong belief in the immortal soul, as the recurrent appearances of ghosts in his works indicate. In “A Painful Case,” the ghost of Emily Sinico seems to offer James Duffy a chance to regain his lost hope. Duffy, however, fails to answer her postmortem call. Reinforcing this theme of spiritual nihilism and its consequences are numerous interconnected allusions, [End Page 497] “an enormous, encyclopedic and largely occluded body of cultural texts, only some of which it expressly indicates.” Drawing on his own experience as an Irishman and a Catholic, Owens hopes, by investigating those works, to produce “Joyce’s ideal contemporary reader.”
Not surprisingly, the books in Duffy’s bookcase are among such allusive texts, and Owens reads them—from the doctrines set forth in The Maynooth Catechism through the pantheistic poetry of William Wordsworth to the nihilism expressed in Nietzsche’s works—as indicators of Duffy’s regress from hopeful youth to despondent adult. Less obvious, but especially salient for Owens, is Duffy’s kinship with Arthur Schopenhauer whose “pessimism, elitism, misogyny, and personal spiritual despair” Duffy shares. Owens makes the connection between Duffy and Schopenhauer through implied allusions in “A Painful Case” to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (Owens expounds on Joyce’s interest in the Celtic roots of the myth) and through the overt reference in the story to Duffy’s translation of Gerhardt Hauptmann’s Michael Kramer. Equally persuasive is Owens’s argument that Duffy’s eccentric, precisely described daily regimen, as well as his lack of sentimentality and disdain for common vulgarity, are modeled on the image made popular in William Wallace’s biography of Schopenhauer.
Mozart, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, W. B. Yeats, George Moore, and even Thomas Aquinas all receive their due attention as Owens scrupulously unties the intertexts of “A Painful Case.” Nor does he neglect the influence of Joyce’s brother Stanislaus on the depiction of James Duffy. Based, to begin with, on an incident in Stanislaus’s life, “A Painful Case” also derives from the similar yet uniquely personal estrangements from Catholicism of the brothers Joyce. Indeed, Owens understands the “case” under scrutiny in the story—at least on one level—to be “a case of conscience” much like those posed to seminarians or theology students in Catholic universities. As the vehicle for this cautionary tale about spiritual disappointment, James Duffy is clearly the central character in the story. Thus, while he certainly considers Mrs. Sinico’s contribution to the plot, Owens never questions that the story belongs to Duffy.
Though I have attempted to convey the astonishing depth and breadth of Owens’s study, I admit that it simply cannot be done in a review such as this...