Middle-aged and solitary, Mr. James Duffy lives in a house in Chapelizod, a suburb of Dublin. His home is small and orderly. The narrator describes the place in some detail. There are books ordered on the shelves according to bulk, simple and completely functional pieces of furniture, and a well-ordered desk.
His days are run by a schedule, and the schedule is always the same. He has a well-paying job at a bank. He comes in the morning by tram; eats lunch at Dan Burke's; leaves work at four; takes dinner at an eating-house on George's street, where fashionable young people will not bother him; and spends his evenings either in front of his landlady's piano or out to enjoy a Mozart opera or concert. He is not a churchgoer, and he has no friends. He sees his family only at Christmas and funerals.
One evening in the rotunda, he is at a thinly attended concert when the woman next to him makes a casual comment about the unfortunately small audience. She has an intelligent, attractive face, with eyes revealing a sensible nature. He takes her comment as an invitation to talk, and they do. She is with her daughter. A few weeks later, he sees her again. He tries to strike up a more intimate conversation while the daughter is distracted. The woman, whose name is Mrs. Emily Sinico, has mentioned her husband. Mr. Duffy and Mrs. Sinico meet a third time by accident, and this time Mr. Duffy is bold enough to invite her to meet with him again sometime. They begin to see each other regularly, always in the evening and in rather obscure neighborhoods. Mr. Duffy, who doesn't like the secrecy of these meetings, insists on seeing her at her own home. Captain Sinico is always traveling on business, but he encourages the visits because he thinks Mr. Duffy is interested in his daughter. The idea of his wife being attractive or desirable never occurs to him.
Mr. Duffy shares his ideas with her, and she opens up to him. He loans her books and music. They become very close. He tells her of his former experiences with the Irish Socialist party; the meetings did not appeal to him, as the other men were all workers with very practical concerns. When the party divided, he stopped going to meetings. No revolution in thinking would come of these men; their concerns were too pragmatic to change the world. She asks Mr. Duffy why he doesn't write out his thoughts, and he scorns the idea; recognition from the unrigorous and conventional-minded masses means nothing to him.
They spend more and more time alone together, including evenings at her college. They speak of personal matters. One night, when speaking of the individual's insurmountable loneliness, she takes his hand passionately and presses it to her cheek. Mr. Duffy is surprised; she has misunderstood. He does not see her for a week, and then sends word asking to meet her. The meet in a cakeshop near the Parkgate, and then walk in Phoenix Park for three hours. They agree that they cannot meet again.
His life continues in its orderly fashion. He reads some Nietzsche and avoids concerts, for fear of seeing her. Life goes on. Finally, one night when his is out dining he is reading the paper when he sees something that stops him. He reads the same piece again and again, unable to eat; he tries to finish his meal, but must stop after a few mouthfuls. When he goes home that night, he reads the paper again. It is an article about the death of Mrs. Sinico. She was struck accidentally by a train; evidence suggests that she was drunk. Her daughter Mary reveals that lately Mrs. Sinico often drank at night.
Mr. Duffy is at first disgusted by the story; she seems to him crude and degraded for having fallen into drink and having died in such an undignified manner. Then the memory of her hand touching his hits him, and he goes out to the pub at Chapelizod Bridge. He drinks there for a while, becoming more ill at ease. He struggles with the two images he now has of her: the lonely drunkard and the charming woman he became close to. He wonders if he could have done more for her. He goes out on a walk, even though it is biting cold.
He thinks of her lonely life, and his, which will simply continue in the same routine until he dies. As he walks, he almost believes that she is there with him; it seems as if his memory is so strong that he can hear her voice, or feel her hand. From a hill, he looks down at the wall of the park, where he sees lovers lying. He feels outcast from human life. He knows the lovers are aware of his presence and want him to leave; so they, too, reject him. He hears a train. The engine seems to be repeating her name.
He stops to rest under a tree until the rhythm fades. But then he can no longer hear her voice or feel her presence. All is silent: he is completely alone.
"A Painful Case" is another story dealing with isolation. Yet another failed or distorted love story, Joyce uses allusion to make his own tale more biting. The site of the affair, Phoenix park, was the supposed location for parts of the tale of Tristram and Iseult, the passionate but doomed lovers of Arthurian legend. Tristram and Iseult were legendary for their passion, and were two beautiful people in the prime of life. Joyce juxtaposes this background to Mr. Duffy and Mrs. Sinico, middle-aged and participating in an entirely sexless affair.
Mr. Duffy's imprisonment is self-imposed. He is terrifyingly alone and isolated, but he has chosen this life for himself. He is also prudish, as we can see in his treatment of Mrs. Sinico. Duffy lacks the courage or imagination to pursue happiness with Mrs. Sinico, despite the fact that both people are clearly dissatisfied with their current situations. However, Mr. Duffy does not realize the extent of his loneliness until it is too late.
One of his great failures is his basic lack of empathy, as seen in his experience with the socialist group. He is more concerned with abstractions than wages, and he cannot seem to empathize on a meaningful level with the workers in the group. Later, his cold treatment of Mrs. Sinico stems from this same shortage of empathy.
The story of Mrs. Sinico's death is the catalyst for Mr. Duffy's revelation. The circumstances surrounding her demise seem to suggest that suicide was a possibility, although Mrs. Sinico may merely have been drunk. The coroner's report indicated that she was taken completely by surprise and died of shock, although one could argue that a moving tram comes as a surprise even when one has stepped in front of it intentionally. The story's climax, as with many other stories in Dubliners, is the protagonist's epiphany. Once her presence leaves him, he realizes that he is alone, that he has been alone all along, and that he will always be alone.