Emily Sinico

In Brief

Three times in Ulysses, Bloom recalls the death of "Mrs Emily Sinico," bringing back to Joyce's readers the sadness of her death at the end of "A Painful Case." The Dubliners story memorably casts her as an aging, lonely woman seeking intimacy outside of a loveless marriage. When the man she falls in love with rejects her sexual overture, and she dies, she becomes for him a searing reminder of his passionless, isolated existence. Some readers of Ulysses are convinced that this is the unnamed man who appears clad in a macintosh near Paddy Dignam's grave in Hades.

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Emily Sinico was not a real person, but Joyce named her after his singing teacher in Trieste in 1905, Giuseppe Sinico. Emily acquired the Italian name by marrying a man whose "great-great-grandfather had come from Leghorn." As the captain of a merchant vessel he spends long periods away from home, and he has "dismissed his wife so sincerely from his gallery of pleasures that he did not suspect that anyone else would take an interest in her."

But a man named James Duffy, a sternly intellectual and somberly ascetic young bachelor whom Joyce based in some measure on his brother Stanislaus, does take an interest in Mrs. Sinico. He meets her at a music concert where she has come with a daughter approximately his age. After a couple of other chance meetings he finds the courage to ask Mrs. Sinico out. They have many quiet evening walks, but he dislikes subterfuge, so he begins coming to her house, where her husband assumes he is courting the daughter. Although Mrs. Sinico is old enough to be his mother and displays a maternal solicitude, the relationship is clearly charged with erotic interest. The two become intimate, but Duffy remains caught up in the idea of himself: "He thought that in her eyes he would ascend to an angelical stature; and, as he attached the fervent nature of his companion more and more closely to him, he heard the strange impersonal voice which he recognised as his own, insisting on the soul’s incurable loneliness. We cannot give ourselves, it said: we are our own." When Mrs. Sinico passionately seizes his hand one night and presses it to her cheek, he decides to break off the relationship.

Four years later, Mr. Duffy is having supper in a Dublin restaurant when he notices a story in an evening newspaper of "an inquest on the body of Mrs Emily Sinico, aged forty-three years, who was killed at Sydney Parade Station yesterday evening." Sydney Parade Avenue, and the railway station on it, now part of DART, are in Merrion, just south of Sandymount. A slow-moving train struck Mrs. Sinico there as she crossed the tracks one night. At the inquest, her husband and daughter have testified that she began drinking immoderately about two years earlier and often went out at night "to buy spirits." The coroner's judgment, repeated in the subtitle of the newspaper article, is that this is "a painful case," with no blame attaching to the driver of the train.

The story's title applies equally well, however, to Mr. Duffy. His first reaction to the sad news is censorious disgust: "What an end! The whole narrative of her death revolted him and it revolted him to think that he had ever spoken to her of what he held sacred. . . . Not merely had she degraded herself; she had degraded him. He saw the squalid tract of her vice, miserable and malodorous. His soul's companion! He thought of the hobbling wretches whom he had seen carrying cans and bottles to be filled by the barman. Just God, what an end! Evidently she had been unfit to live, without any strength of purpose, an easy prey to habits, one of the wrecks on which civilisation has been reared. . . . He remembered her outburst of that night and interpreted it in a harsher sense than he had ever done. He had no difficulty now in approving of the course he had taken."

Duffy's moral blindness makes for tough reading, but as the evening goes on he becomes a painful case in a still stronger sense. He feels her hand touch his, feels her voice touch his ear. He wonders what he could possibly have done with a married woman: "He could not have carried on a comedy of deception with her; he could not have lived with her openly." He thinks of how lonely she must have been, and realizes that his own life is no less impoverished. He reproaches himself: "Why had he withheld life from her? Why had he sentenced her to death? He felt his moral nature falling to pieces." Seeing some lovers in the grass, "Those venal and furtive loves filled him with despair. He gnawed the rectitude of his life; he felt that he had been outcast from life's feast. One human being had seemed to love him and he had denied her life and happiness: he had sentenced her to ignominy, a death of shame." At the end of the story he feels profoundly "alone."

Ithaca gives a precise date to these events when Bloom reaches into the waistcoat of his black funeral suit and finds "a silver coin (1 shilling), placed there (presumably) on the occasion (17 October 1903) of the interment of Mrs Emily Sinico, Sydney Parade." He has thought in Hades that the "Last time I was here was Mrs Sinico’s funeral." Nothing in the novel explains how Bloom knew Mrs. Sinico, or how well (this chapter shows that he does attend funerals of people he barely knows), but he clearly has taken a strong interest in her. Earlier in Ithaca he goes out of his way to ask Stephen whether he knows this woman "accidentally killed at Sydney Parade railway station, 14 October 1903." Stephen's answer—no—increases the sad impression that only a few people in the world had any inkling of who Emily Sinico really was.

One other person at Paddy Dignam's funeral may be echoing Bloom in thinking about the unhappy woman. In Cyclops, one of the mocking narrative voices observes that "The man in the brown macintosh loves a lady who is dead." Joyce's critics will probably never definitively establish the identity of this enigmatic figure, but for many readers his ghostly passage through the pages of Ulysses continues the painful story of James Duffy, a man whose face was "of the brown tint of Dublin streets," and who was last seen haunted by the memory of the love he turned away.

JH 2019
Illustration of "A Painful Case" for the de Selby Press edition of Dubliners, from a 2014 giclée print by Stephen Crowe. Source: www.mhpbooks.com.
The crossing at the Sydney Parade train station today. Source: jj21k.com.