Only the unwary or inexperienced reader of Joyce would trust the author's own evaluation of his work. He famously remarked of "A Painful Case," that it was one of the "two worst stories" in Dubliners (LettersII 189). But Cóilín Owens—who is neither unwary nor inexperienced—has written an entire book that treats only this single tale, a study that is revelatory not only of the hidden meanings and workings of the story but of Dubliners as a whole and, indeed, of Joyce's entire method.
Owens approaches "A Painful Case" with an insistence on historical fidelity, assuming "the position of an Irish Catholic reader of a century ago" in an effort to appreciate how Joyce's sensibility was "deeply conditioned by his ethnicity, sect, and prewar manners" and how the Dubliners stories' "incidents and idiom are embedded in the cultural life of Dublin between 1899 and 1904, and how they are refracted through Joyce's subsequent personal experience: familial, literary, and spiritual" (xv). The result is an extraordinarily informative "historicization of the story" (5), in which the specific cultural context out of which Joyce wrote emerges and the reader sees how that culture affected him and how he responded to it. Owens rejects as too simplistic the general reading of Dubliners as expressing Joyce's sense of his native city's paralysis—"'hemiplegia of the will' and all that"1—and instead insists that the deeper structures of the collection have much in common with the complex narrative strategies of Ulysses (even, in places, Finnegans Wake) while revealing Joyce's perennial concerns with "death, providence, fate, freedom, and faith" (8).
Owens begins his complex and multifaceted argument with the premise that James Duffy is a "spoiled priest," the title of chapter 4 (108-43): in the Irish vernacular, a man who has rejected his spiritual vocation. Having felt a call to the priesthood, and then rejected that call for the world, Duffy is left with the cold comforts of high culture, a meaningless job, and his seemingly complete isolation. Into this empty order intrudes the figure of Mrs. Sinico, who offers him the possibility of earthly love and companionship, which he rejects partly through his early indoctrination into the precepts of his abandoned faith and partly through his paralyzing fear of moving out of isolation into the possibility of greater emotional experience. Ultimately, Owens reads the story as Duffy's "failure of the heart: in the first place to respond to the offer of God's love, and in the second to respond to that of Mrs. Sinico" (13). Placing Duffy's failure in the larger context of his refusal of divine grace opens up the implications of the story far beyond what most readers have seen. Duffy's dilemma, Owens [End Page 142] argues, is "the product of an early modern Irishman's encounter with what we now call a 'post-Christian' world" (xv-xvi). By considering carefully the contents of Duffy's bookshelves—and thereby the intellectual progress of his life—we see that he has moved from the stable instruction of the Maynooth Catechism2 to the providential pantheism of William Wordsworth to the skepticism of Arthur Schopenhauer to the nihilistic denial of metaphysics of Friedrich Nietzsche (114-15).3 This intellectual trajectory from hope to despair, belief to nihilism, a meaningful future to a meaningless present is also the personal trajectory of Duffy within the story—as well as the overarching intellectual genealogy from the early nineteenth century to the nascent modernity of Joyce's own moment. This trajectory allows Joyce to explore one of the major themes of Dubliners: "the relationship between the order of nature and 'that other world' of grace" (3-4).
The story's philosophical context is further informed by Owens's detailed consideration of the major role music plays in it. He notes that Duffy and Mrs. Sinico meet at a concert, their intimacy structured around shared musical interests. When they part, Mrs. Sinico sends him a parcel of his...