The Symbolism of Mr. Duffy´s Room in James Joyce´s "A Painful Case"

Essay, 2018
5 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Close Reading of the first passage of James Joyce´s A Painful Case

In his short story collection Dubliners from 1914, James Joyce draws a portrait of the everyday life of 15 different ordinary Dublin citizens. The passage to be analyzed is taken from the 11th short story “A Painful Case”. In this passage, the author describes the protagonist´s Mr. Duffy´s flat in Chapelizod, Dublin.

Mr. Duffy´s life is told from the outside to the inside and the reader is provided with a thorough description of Duffy´s living conditions in what seems to be a story in its own right. Chapelizod seems to be the ultimate symbol of exile for both the author and the protagonist, as both were hiding from their own people. Joyce left Ireland for exile as early as 1904. Further information Joyce offers is that Mr. Duffy lives there, because unlike all the other “mean, modern and pretentious”(1992:103) parts of Dublin, it is rather old-fashioned, suiting Mr. Duffy´s attitude. Chapelizod could be derived from the Chapel of Isolde. The story of Tristan and Isolde is a classic romantic love story and it seems that the name of his home town will remain the only romantic element in his life. In detail, he “could look into the disused distillery or upwards along the shallow river on which Dublin is built” (1992:103). The two sites are very opposite, as on the one hand, the disused distillery could be a perceived as a symbol of decay and the river as a symbol of life. Distilleries produce uisce beatha (Irish word for Whisky), translated as water of life. Once the distillery is disused, the water and therefore the life will be gone. The river, on the other hand, could be interpreted in the Biblical sense again. Rivers can be important borders and crossing them means a better life. The Biblical book Joshua tells the following story: “And the priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood firm on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan while all Israel crossed on dry ground, until all the nation had finished crossing the Jordan” (Joshua:3:17), the result being that the Israelites from then on believed in God. However, Mr. Duffy is probably never going to cross this river and remains within his self-imposed prison.

The evaluative and explaining description of his home town and room allows the assumption that the narrative voice of the passage could be Mr. Duffy himself introducing the reader to his life. The very description of everything in the room without leaving out any detail and emphasizing that he “bought all of them himself” (1992:103) imply Mr. Duffy´s control over everything in his life. Joyce probably intentionally has Mr. Duffy´s room speak, since it seems to disclose a lot more than Mr. Duffy himself; it could be a monument of his personality. It is simple, plain and clean and everything is in order and under control. The fact that the books “[…] were arranged from below upwards according to bulk”(1992:103) speaks for his pettiness and longing for balance in every term.( On the one hand, by providing details on everything in the room show that every color, furnishing and book has a meaning, on the other however, the absence of objects may be even more telling. The fact that his room was “uncarpeted” and “free from pictures” (1992:103) seems to indicate that Mr. Duffy´s loneliness and the literal absence of friends or family.

The two colors black and white are prevalent and become important markers of Mr. Duffy´s life and personality. The color black is strikingly present in every sphere of his life. The “Dub” in Dublin is the Irish word for black. Besides, Mr. Duffy “lived in an old somber house (…)”, sombre meaning dark, too and then there is many black objects such as the “(…) black iron bedstead” (1992:103) in his room. The depressing state of Duffy´s life seems to be encoded in his home town and projected upon him. Besides, the name “Duffy” is also derived from Dub or Dubh. (1992:281) Black could be interpreted as darkness or in a Christian sense as sin, and Mr. Duffy seems to be encircled by both. Though, there are also white objects to be found in his room. His bed is “clothed with white bed-clothes”, the “white-shaded lamp” and “white wooden shelfs” (1992:103). There obviously is a white element in his life. When looking at the Christian meaning of the color white again, one could interpret it as purity and innocence. In sexual terms, the white bed-clothes could stand for his innocence. However, white has more than this meaning, as his lamp is white, too. In this context, it could be a sign of wisdom and hope, showing Mr. Duffy the right way.

It seems that the only sense and entertainment in the life of Mr. Duffy is translating works and plays. Even though, he might be an aspiring artist, his ambitions are caged and circumcised by isolation and sterility. Once again, every work he owns shows the senselessness and the routine in his life and the reader might ask themselves what Duffy is waiting for. The parallels in Duffy´s life and the lives of Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett´s “Waiting for Godot” are obvious. One is asking oneself, what Mr. Duffy is waiting for, for the senselessness of their being is depressing. The selection of works certainly is no coincidence, since Joyce used to translate Nietzsche´s and Hauptmann´s works himself. Besides, Joyce chose these books for their telling stories. It seems that Nietzsche´s “Also sprach Zarathustra” has been a significant factor in shaping Mr. Duffy´s opinions, personality and way of life. In this work, Nietzsche presents his idea of what makes a superman, which Mr. Duffy seems to copy and paste into his life. Being a master over his mind and his emotions, he achieves to have an entirely ordered; but lonely; life. Through the achievement of a radical strict routine, Mr. Duffy is in practice emotionally dead. The second influential personality can be found in Gerhard Hauptmann´s “Michael Kramer”. Following his son´s death, Michael Kramer shuts down his emotional world, however his emotionlessness is followed by a tragedy, which in some ways forecasts the tragedy in Mr. Duffy´s life. Both are artists and decide to isolate themselves from the world, both out of hatred and to avoid criticism from what to them are amateurs. Besides, the Maynooth Catechism is another clear pointer to the strong religious atmosphere that the whole story is set in. It is a kind of Catholic life advisor and it may be concluded that this book may be the cause of why Mr. Duffy decided to live a life in asceticism.

In an “ironical moment” (1992:103), Mr. Duffy pasted a Bile Beans advertisement to his notes. To be able to understand the meaning of this gesture, one must know what Bile Beans were a “laxative, advertised “for biliousness and constipation, headache, indigestion, impure blood, sallow skin, dizziness, bad bile, debility and other liver and stomach troubles, also


Excerpt out of 5 pages


The Symbolism of Mr. Duffy´s Room in James Joyce´s "A Painful Case"
University of Aberdeen
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
symbolism, duffy´s, room, james, joyce´s, painful, case
Quote paper
Victoria Schatara (Author), 2018, The Symbolism of Mr. Duffy´s Room in James Joyce´s "A Painful Case", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The Symbolism of Mr. Duffy´s Room in James Joyce´s "A Painful Case"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free