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Journalism And Joyces A Painful Case English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 5645 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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I may not be the Jesus Christ I once fondly imagined myself, but I think I must have a talent for journalism.

-James Joyce, letter to Stanislaus Joyce, 1907

Exploiting the association of death with reportage came readily to Joyce’s mind as he struggled to support himself in Paris. He proposed the idea to his mother in February 1903, confessing that it would be quite easy for me to send any kind of news to that intelligent organ [Irish Times]-motor news, dead men’s news, any news-for I have all the Paris papers at my disposal(LettersII 27). By April Joyce submitted his interview with French race car driver Henri Fournier to the Irish Times, turning this bit of journalism into “After the Race” for publication in The Irish Homestead in December 1904. His review of William Rooney’s posthumously published Poems and Ballads for The Daily Express in 1902 nevertheless plays on his perception of journalism as “dead men’s news.” [1] To criticize Rooney’s poetry Joyce reminds us that, above other faults, the poems first appeared in the United Irishman, the nationalist newspaper which Rooney founded with Arthur Griffith in 1899: “Mangan’s Homeric epithet of ‘wine-dark’ becomes in his paper a colourless and meaningless epithet” (CW 86). Joyce recapitulates his scathing assessment, arguing “we find in these pages a weary succession of verses, ‘prize’ poems-the worst of all. They were written, it seems, for papers and societies week after week, and they bear witness to some desperate and weary energy. But they have no spiritual and living energy, because they come from one in whom the spirit is in a manner dead” (CW 86). Joyce would make much out of these motifs in Dubliners, frequently using “dead men’s news” and journalists “in whom the spirit is in a manner dead” to depict the paralysis of an Irish society on which the Dublin newspapers merely report.

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We first encounter his use of this device in “The Sisters” when Eliza mentions the “Freeman’s General” (Freeman’s Journal), in which Father O’Rourke publishes a notice about Father Flynn’s death (D 16). Throughout the collection we meet many newspapermen, browse numerous advertisements, and read countless clippings before learning in “The Dead” that Gabriel Conroy writes for the conservative newspaper The Daily Express, much to the displeasure of Miss Ivors (D 187-88). But as Joyce tells us beautifully, “Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland…falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling…upon all the living and the dead” (D 223-24). Such scrupulously mean sentiments also helped Joyce to cultivate the narrative style of “A Painful Case.” As Patrick Parrinder points out, the narration of this story demonstrates that, where “a lesser novelist might have been tempted to show Duffy coming across the dead body of his jilted lady on the railway line,” Joyce ingeniously “conveys her degeneration only through the flatfooted prose of a newspaper report.” [2] Thus complicating a straightforward understanding of the productive partnership between journalism and Joyce, “A Painful Case” has prompted scholars to examine both the story and its style anew.

As Stephen Donovan observes, until the 1980s most scholars thought Joyce felt sincere hostility toward the press and left it at that. [3] For example, Richard Ellmann identifies journalism as Joyce’s “principal emblem of modern capitalism, wasting the spirit with its persistent attacks upon the integrity of the word, narcotizing its readers with superficial facts, habituating them to secular and clerical authority.” [4] It now appears that Joyce’s attitude toward the press evolved through a series of 2quiangul positions. As Donovan indicates in his reading of “A Painful Case,” Ellmann’s comment leaves room for doubt even though it “may still hold good for the early stages of Joyce’s career, when he portrayed journalism in a way that had much in common with his contemporaries.” [5] Patrick Collier’s recent study of the relationship between journalism and Modernism reifies this position. [6] Yet Collier also finds that Joyce feared the power of newspapers to publicise and 2quiangula, revealing that Joyce was wary of how journalism thus limited freedom in the name of bourgeois sensibilities. Reading the inquest report “DEATH OF A LADY AT SYDNEY PARADE / A PAINFUL CASE” (D 113) from the middleclass perspective of Emily Sinico’s family, Collier finds that Joyce has the Evening Mail “situate the death as a moral failure” in order to point up the “intrusion of a public gaze that is simultaneously legalistic, clinical, and journalistic.” [7] But throughout “A Painful Case” Joyce appears less concerned with the prying of the press into our private lives in the name of “narrow social norms,” and more concerned with what if anything in the way of knowledge journalists really provide us when reporting a “commonplace vulgar death” (D 115).

We certainly recognize the en bloc quotation of the Evening Mail paragraph as a Modernist motif. Similarly, the narration of “A Painful Case” depends on a literary convention that asserts reportage to be of an inferior epistemological value. What is more, Joyce affects journalism’s objectivity early in the story only to later subvert the scene of reportage completely when quoting the report in full. These touches depress the reader in two significant and related ways. First, we recompose details from both Joyce’s narrative and inquest report to write an ethical reading of Duffy’s character prompted by his denial that he hastened her demise. That this demoralizing struggle forces Duffy further from society and himself also proves the case painful for us as readers of reportage. Second, we follow Duffy in reading the circumstantial details of the report back to their textual sources. This process reveals that Joyce quite literally depresses us as readers of reportage, for our comparison finds his narrative not only more emotionally robust than the inquest report, but epistemologically as well. Yet recent scholarship offers little examination of how Joyce exploits journalism in “A Painful Case” to usurp its tenuous epistemological privilege as simply nonfiction.

That Joyce enters the fin-de-siècle debate over the power of press to comment in this way on the psychological impact of shocking news resonates with particular clarity in his depiction of Duffy’s alienation from himself and others. Joyce at once offers a lesson on the futility of fighting modernity and, principally, the power of the press, while also marking Duffy as a champion in the fight against the mass market for print through his aversion to “modern” suburbs (D 107) and “anything that betokened physical or mental disorder” (D 108). [8] Even in Duffy’s “short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense” (D 108) Joyce employs journalism’s objectivity with inimitable gallows humor to supply the ironic cliché of the inquest’s conclusion: “No blame attached to anyone” (D 115). This selfsame syntax reads ironically for the “certain other circumstances of the case” (D 114) as well as a mocking echo of the “certain circumstances” (D 109) of Duffy’s abortive bank robbery fantasy. Although a brief narrative exercise at distancing author from character, the lead up to “DEATH OF A LADY AT SYDNEY PARADE / A PAINFUL CASE” reveals Joyce’s interest in Duffy’s fate.

Joyce’s share in the story thus informs the narration and directs its rhetorical approach, the supply and censorship of information, and its objective tone much as a journalist’s might and Duffy’s “strange impersonal voice” does (D 111). But “A Painful Case” shows that straightforward description can also become a speech-act, an evaluation or declaration made by Joyce as narrator that Joyce as reporter cannot get away with, and so he at once describes and judges Duffy’s despair at the close of the story as well as in the beginning. As Margot Norris observes, “the narrative voice is doing something rather than just saying.” [9] Norris also reminds us that this element of Joyce’s style consists in this way with his focus on the aesthetic or poetic elements of language throughout Dubliners, rendering the role of voice in the collection both “extremely important and often highly ambiguous.” [10] Joyce indeed blends seemingly bland summary with vivid imagery in “A Painful Case” to tell at once the depressing tales of a bachelor banker and a neglected wife. Only after we realize our exclusive access to this relationship can we compare the inquest report to the narrative and, subsequently, to Joyce’s sources in the Irish press of the period.

Typically, journalists avoid irony-“Readers don’t understand it,” Alfred Harmsworth, the Viscount Northcliffe and founder of the Daily Mail, famously declared-and in his avid reading of the papers, Duffy, despite his prissiness, represents the struggle to refuse a community identity that most fin-de-siècle newspapers projected onto their readers. [11] But Joyce also has it that we read Duffy from the distance at which he reads himself, through the “odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense” (D 108). Learning of his fantasy about robbing the bank where he works-given “certain circumstances . . . [that] never arose” (D 109)-identifies Duffy as both severely alienated from any larger community and apparently innocuous. He exists as yet another clerical nonentity, a man about whom the newspaper-reading public wakes up one morning to learn that he has embezzled money or murdered his sweetheart like Henry James Capon, exposed to the world on 9 January 1901 by the Freeman’s Journal under the headline “SWINDLER AND HYPOCRITE / CONFIDENTIAL CLERK’S CAREER OF CRIME.” [12] By befriending Mrs. Sinico, Duffy initiates a fatal series of events that apparently leads to just such a newsworthy incident.

At first openly sharing his “intellectual life with her” (D 110), Duffy describes his disgust with the “hard-featured realists” of the labor movement, workingmen who “resented an exactitude which was the product of a leisure not within their reach” (D 111). In such moments, he strives for a certain philosophical distance from the moralizing and otherwise philistine middleclass sentiments that are consistent with Nietzsche’s in Thus Spake Zarathustra and The Gay Science, volumes that he shelves with his copies of Wordsworth and the Maynooth Catechism after ending his friendship with Mrs Sinico (D 112). When Mrs. Sinico asks Duffy why he does not commit his thoughts to paper, the narrative reports rather than voices his answer: “For what, he asked her, with careful scorn. To compete with phrasemongers, incapable of thinking consecutively for sixty seconds?” (D 111). His criticism of journalism here, coupled with Joyce’s derisive reference to the “phrase-makers of Fleet Street” in his lecture “Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages,” links the epithet “phrasemongers” directly to reporters and back to Joyce. Although Duffy allows the companionship of the sentimental Mrs. Sinico to become “like a warm soil about an exotic,” he moves to maintain a more objective stance, and thus he judges her gesture of passion the unfortunate consequence of her rather mistaken “interpretation of his words,” ensuring that it will be “their last interview” (D 111). Joyce’s use of a more rhetorically objective tone of his own here brings the narration and Duffy’s odd autobiographical habit together, subverting the journalistic practice of personal remove from the subject matter. The incident proves to Duffy the impossibility of friendship not only “between man and woman” (D 112), but also between an intellectual like himself and a simpleton such as Mrs. Sinico.

After Duffy ends their union, his life of isolation remains hidebound by forces beyond his control. First among these influences are the primary features of his humdrum routine. These habits belie the basis of his exile. Although he rejects the world of “phrasemongers” and those who eat Bile Beans, he keeps the halfpenny Evening Mail as his only company at dinner (D 112). Reading a newspaper “for dessert” comments ironically on Duffy’s view of popular cultural products as objects that we literally consume, since the news he expects to find sweet and unimportant proves poisonous. [13] In one of the earliest examples of what now reads redundantly as a Modernist motif, Duffy considers his newspaper in a way that the average reader does not: Duffy reads the inquest report not once but repeatedly, minding less what it mentions than what it does not, cringing at stock phrases and reeling from an overwhelming sense of shock. As John Paul Riquelme points out, Duffy’s response to the article “is the longest intense evocation of thought in Dubliners. The narrator interrupts the flow of thinking only once, to describe the scene at the pub Duffy visits in order to meditate. This description, like the presentation of Duffy’s routine, increases by contrast our sense of the character’s inner turmoil.” [14] That Duffy reads the inquest report on separate occasions and in different places significantly heightens our curiosity. Joyce leaves us to guess at its content until Duffy reaches home, where he reads “Secreto” the several paragraphs of “DEATH OF A LADY AT SYDNEY PARADE / A PAINFUL CASE” (D 113).

Joyce’s use of en bloc quotation at this point in “A Painful Case” is essential, as the inquest report neither diverts significantly from the narration in style nor possesses any literary merit in its own right. Rather, it performs a complex narrative function in the story, prefacing Joyce’s use of this technique in his later works. Much more directly than other en bloc quotations in Dubliners, such as the campaign flyer and poem in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” Joyce’s reproduction of the inquest report anticipates the use of reportage in other works of Modernist fiction. As John Wyse Jackson points out, the article “reproduced” in the text resembles an item in the Illustrated Irish Weekly and Nation of July 1904. [15] Nevertheless, scholars generally fail to shed much light on Joyce’s use of an inquest report and instead treat his reproduction and its subject matter separately, ignoring altogether the combined impact of its content and style on the narration. In “A Painful Case,” Joyce writes in a purely referential way when he presents Duffy through the touchstones of his simple life, such as the objects of his humble room in Chapelizod and his daily travel by tram to work in central Dublin. But Joyce cannot surpass this style in the narrative, just as Duffy cannot conceive of himself otherwise. As Riquelme reminds us, “the teller’s language and the character’s interior voice diverge when the emotion can no longer be presented directly as referential language.” [16] Joyce thus leaves Duffy on the Magazine Hill with the sound of a chugging train reverberating around him (D 117).

Significantly, Joyce’s headline abandons both the language and content of his probable source in the Illustrated Irish Weekly and Nation. The much shorter notice in the Nation does not suggest that the victim, an “old lady” named Mrs. Sarah Bishop, was suicidal or under the influence of alcohol. [17] Neither her relatives nor the railway company officials interviewed provide any evidence, and only the signalman’s testimony at the inquest-“During his time at the station witness had only known the deceased to cross the line on two occasions”-could hold some other meaning. [18] Joyce’s reproduction also significantly differs from the Nation by reporting courtroom dialogue. The Nation’s lengthy sentences also sharply contrast with Joyce’s more telegraphic phrases: “The train was going slowly,” “Constable 57E corroborated,” and the literally depressing “No blame attached to anyone” (D 114-15). But we can only attribute some of Joyce’s revisions to an obsession with verisimilitude that led him to criticize a story by George Moore in which a character living by a railway line consults a train timetable (LII 71), the kind of criticism one could also expect from Duffy. As Warren Beck remarks, “Seen in its possible connections with the man James Joyce rather than Stanislaus, the story may seem in part a protective shield for an uneasy author rather than a proper mask in the fictional presentation of human behaviour.” [19] Take for example Mrs. Sinico’s injury to her left side. Since she is returning home, the train should strike her on the right, which it does in the corrected draft of “A Painful Case” (D 231).

Yet other alterations look less pedestrian. Joyce’s first draft of the report opens with “Today at the Morgue,” crude symbolism that he first revises to read, “Today at Vincent’s Hospital” (D 231). Joyce eventually settled on “at the City of Dublin Hospital” for publication (D 113). By changing the date of the accident from “Wednesday last” to “yesterday evening,” Joyce also made the newspaper report sound more up-to-the-minute (D 113, 231). A string of revisions to the text-“Mrs Emily Sinico, aged 42 years, of Leoville Merrion who was killed was knocked down died was killed” (D 230)-suggests that Joyce would also have his report comment ironically on the verdict that Mrs. Sinico’s death was accidental. As Donovan points out, the Nation merely reported that Mrs. Bishop “died.” [20] Joyce’s qualification “death in a normal person” (D 114) thus rebukes Duffy’s heartless dismissal of Mrs. Sinico. Joyce leads us in this way to understand, before Duffy does, that his absence diminished her will to live: “Why had he withheld life from her? Why had he sentenced her to death?” (D 117).

As Joyce has it, then, his reproduction of the inquest report reads for accuracy rather than parody. The medical evidence determining the coroner’s verdict indeed matches that in contemporary cases. [21] For example, an inquest reported by the Freeman’s Journal on 4 January 1901 under the headline “DUNDALK CHRISTMAS TRAGEDY / THE INQUEST” ends: “The jury returned a verdict of death from shock.” The moments of absurdity that Joyce records-“Captain Sinico, of Leoville, Sydney Parade, husband of the deceased, also gave evidence. He stated that the deceased was his wife” (D 114)-are generally recognized as regrettable features of inquests. Furthermore, the phrase “Constable 57E corroborated” (D 114) references the way in which police officers often speak, at least in court, while “Death, in his opinion, had been probably due to shock and sudden failure of the heart’s action” (D 114) reads in the hedging manner of a doctor speaking under oath. [22] Joyce does not, however, pursue this level of accuracy for its own sake. Rather, Joyce lends his reproduction the epistemological status of nonfiction by following the style he found in his sources. Thus subverting the scene of reportage, Joyce also usurps the epistemological privilege of journalism as simply nonfiction.

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Many incongruities remain, though, such as this exchange: “A juror-You saw the lady fall? / Witness-Yes” (D 114). The issue is a crucial one for the inquest, as the railway porter gives eyewitness testimony that Mrs. Sinico did not jump in front of the train. But even in the interest of verisimilitude, Joyce need not report the testimony as dialogue. It reads instead as an instance of what Kershner calls Joyce’s “scrupulous attention to . . . all of the exactitudes of language interaction in the social dynamics of speech.” [23] Yet a greater irregularity is the length of Joyce’s inquest report. It must, for its effect, far exceed not only that of his likely source in the Nation but also that of comparable literary examples like that in Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray (LII 150). Joyce describes the inquest as a single “paragraph” several times in the story when, in fact, it is eleven paragraphs long (D 112 [2], 113 [3]). Because this misrepresentation serves no obvious purpose, Joyce presumably intended it to link the report with Duffy’s negative attitude toward the press. [24] Both Joyce and Duffy do indeed take the brevity typical of newspaper articles to represent the nonchalant and otherwise trivializing nature of reportage. Joyce would thus appear to have it that his reproduction of the Evening Mail’s “paragraph” feels longer as well. Joyce’s deviating from convention in this way certainly affects our reading of the shocking report and, attending to every word with Duffy, we also discover how such an experience proceeds: the rate at which time passes seems to slow down and formulaic expressions become strangely ambiguous. [25] 

While making his final revisions of “A Painful Case,” Joyce indicated to Stanislaus his keen interest in the fact that common occurrences often entail extraordinary consequences for those immediately affected. His well-known example resonates in this context:

Do you see that man who has just skipped out of the way of the tram? Consider, if he had been run over, how significant every act of his would at once become. I don’t mean for the police inspector. I mean for anybody who knew him. And his thoughts, for anybody that could know them. It is my idea of the significance of trivial things that I want to give to the two or three unfortunate wretches who may eventually read me. (quoted in JJII 163)

We “unfortunate wretches” who read “A Painful Case” know that the inquest misreports, or at least fails to investigate, Duffy’s role in Mrs. Sinico’s life before it took a turn for the worse. Fortunately, Joyce positions us at Duffy’s level of epistemological privilege, which the inquest report cannot achieve. We thus understand with Duffy that she tried to drown in drink her sorrow over losing him and, though not necessarily while drunk, ended her own life. And unlike other readers of the Mail that evening, our reaction also stems from our privileged knowledge of Duffy’s mounting guilt over her death. The report therefore reads cathartically, though only at first.

Rather remarkably, Duffy reacts to the article’s crude style instead of to the grief her family must feel at their loss. In his revulsion at the “threadbare phrases”-“a painful case” perhaps the most poignant of them-he displays an inappropriate reaction to the report of her death. As careful readers, we respond to the news not as Duffy does in this moment but as judges of his callousness and self-pity. Angered by what he considers Catholic hypocrisy, Duffy resents what he reads as the reporter’s participation in the newspaper’s reluctance to report the suicide of a derelict in Dublin. The epithets “threadbare,” “inane,” “cautious,” and “vulgar” reveal Joyce’s prose to double as a mirror that reflects the “degraded” Mrs. Sinico. Yet in what sense does Duffy believe Mrs Sinico to be “one of the wrecks on which 7quiangular7 has been reared” (D 115)? At first this conceit reads as Duffy’s Nietzschean euphemism for Dublin’s alcoholic citizenry, but the word “wrecks” also refers to the railway accident-suicides making “easy prey” of contemporary newspaper readers. [26] We therefore witness Duffy redouble his effort to distance himself from Mrs. Sinico in death as the narration focuses on his psychological breakdown.

Joyce’s use of journalism here has an additional significance that is often overlooked. Given the driver’s testimony at the inquest, both court and reporter have reason enough to believe that Mrs. Sinico fell from the platform. The inquest establishes that she had a habit of drinking, was on her way home from purchasing alcohol, and was not in the habit of using the railway footbridge. The verdict that her death was accidental follows from this explanation and the medical evidence that confirms it. Only the rail company representative’s reference to “certain other circumstances of the case” hints at suicide (D 114), and Duffy certainly reads her death this way, but it may well refer to Mrs. Sinico’s drinking, which the inquest established at the outset. Even so, the driver could have been instructed on what to say in order to spare the family a suicide verdict. But Joyce makes the point that it simply does not matter. Even if the reporter had his suspicions, Duffy’s belief that the reporter was “won over”-that is to say, induced to participate in a cover-up of the truth-remains absurd for the simple reason that inquest reports were restricted to a narrow account of the facts. [27] Joyce does not deviate from this convention despite his stylistic license with other aspects of the report. Furthermore, for the reporter to speculate in print that Mrs. Sinico did not accidentally cross in front of the train-the “painful” verdict the reporter does nothing to conceal-might well subject the Mail to a libel action and would probably put the reporter in contempt of court. [28] Even a cursory perusal of Dublin papers of the day makes it clear that journalists hardly sought to “conceal the details of a commonplace vulgar death” (D 115). Doubtless to the chagrin of some on their staffs, newspapers frequently ran lurid stories about suicides: “SHOCKING SUICIDE IN DUBLIN” declared the Irish Times on 2 October 1899 after the death of an Australian medical student.

The final scenes of “A Painful Case” document the inquest report’s effects on Duffy: “The shock which had first attacked his stomach was now attacking his nerves” (D 116). Apparently consumed by guilt and anxiety, Duffy heads into a pub where he drinks “hot-punch” while the proprietor reads the Herald (the Independent’s evening paper) (D 116). Here an acute sensation of alienation from “life’s feast” starts to overwhelm him (D 117). If Duffy feels that he has “sentenced her to death”-a death memorialized only in the “threadbare phrases” of a journalist-he now sees himself as equally likely to suffer the same fate, namely, to become the subject of an obituary quickly forgotten by readers “incapable of thinking consecutively for sixty seconds” (D 111). Thus affirming Duffy’s failure to successfully fight modernity, Joyce closes “A Painful Case” with a paragraph of eight sentences exhibiting the “odd autobiographical habit” that separates Duffy from himself throughout the story and links its objective style to that of journalism. Ironically, Duffy stands alongside Gabriel Conroy among Joyce’s Dubliners as the only other character capable of rendering a negative self-conscious judgment. He realizes with great pain and guilt that his habitual decision to withdraw from the world has resulted in a state of permanent isolation from it. That this realization should be triggered by a newspaper report deals an ironic blow to Duffy’s ability to shield his life from honest reflection. Joyce leaves Duffy to serve as both subject and object of his negative epiphany: “He felt that he was alone” (D 117).

Joyce has Duffy imagine a journalistic conspiracy of silence on the cause of Mrs. Sinico’s death to indicate the absurd extent of his psychological breakdown under the pressure of a guilty conscience, his depressing end. Overlooking this key detail, many critics follow Duffy in reading the inquest report “DEATH OF A LADY AT SYDNEY PARADE / A PAINFUL CASE” as merely a microcosm of the hypocrisy and corruption of Dublin’s press and judiciary, a paralysis of reportage. Joyce traps the careless reader by moving in the second half of “A Painful Case” to narrate more directly from Duffy’s perspective. Joyce’s use of journalism to bring off this overthrow of journalism’s epistemological privilege as nonfiction has, therefore, a more important implication: quotation of newspapers in this way depresses the reader. Not only do we identify with the facts as reported by the fiction rather than the inquest report, we do so even when it requires us to assume what we cannot support. We easily read facts into the inquest report as Duffy does. So common did this device become during the early twentieth century that it now requires little effort to appreciate it as more than merely a clever motif, for Joyce situates “A Painful Case” within the context of Modernism’s 8quiangul reaction to the press revolution of the late nineteenth century.

University of Warwick


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