Towards a New Language:
Comparing the Role of Music in ‘A Painful Case’ and ‘The Dead’
In this essay I will argue that in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ music is the language through which
successful communication is attained, both in the forms of social unity and of a sudden, insightful
revelation. I will first proceed to analyse the use of music and sound in ‘A painful case’ as an
anticipation of the more complex and encompassing function it performs in ‘The Dead’. I will also
suggest that the choice to elect music as one of the three aspects of ‘Public Life’ in ‘A Mother’,
along with politics in ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’, and religion in ‘Grace’, is not a casual
one. The exploration of the complexity and provincialism of the musical world during the Irish
Revival allows Joyce to reflect on the similar situation -i.e., corrupted, hypocritical and stagnating-
in the literary field. The Irish Revival mainly interested the literary field, so choosing to make light
on the musical panorama in the tripartite section dedicated to ‘Public Life’ sent a precise message.
Throughout Dubliners , music works as a substitute for verbal language and writing, actually
providing the key of reading of some relevant moments in the short stories, both at a symbolical and
a meta-textual level. It triggers epiphanies, as in ‘The Dead’; it is a metaphor for complete and utter
failure to bring Nationalism forth, as pictured by the harp in ‘Two Gallants’, where a youth without
perspectives nor hope is portrayed; and it functions as the sole form of recreation and means of
social interaction for the isolated, spiritually barren character in ‘A painful case’.
Joyce knew a great deal about music, Irish tunes and popular songs. An accomplished tenor himself
and a good pianist, too, he could have considered a career in the musical field, had not his voice
been too feeble. He knew very well the musical context of his period, in fact the songs quoted in
‘The Dead’, notably ‘Arrayed for the Bridal’ and ‘The Lass of Aughrim’, were very popular at
Joyce’s time. Joyce’s attitude towards music was a really positive one, as Dowling points out:
[…] in fiction and in life, Joyce articulated a distinctive approach to musical performance
that resonates with a positive notion of authenticity deriving from practices of ‘traditional’
music, song, and dance that were themselves being developed in Ireland after the Famine.
This attitude particularly reflects in the use of music in ‘The Dead’, while in ‘A Painful Case’, as
we shall see, music is the only channel through which Mr. Duffy expresses his repressed emotions.
But music alone, without the desire to share and give freely, does not suffice to save the main
The final section of Dubliners is dedicated to Pubic Life, the previous three being ‘Childhood’, ‘Adolescence’,
and ‘Maturity’. Joyce himself states this division in his letter to Grant Richards of 5 th May 1906, quoted in James Joyce:
Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, A Selection of Critical Essays , ed. by Morris Beja, MacMillan
Education LTD (Hong Kong, 1987), p. 38.
A reflection on the musical world during the Irish Revival gives Joyce the occasion to critic the political
institutions and the corrupted, ineffective nationalism following the death of the Nationalist hero Parnell, as well: see
M. Dowling, ‘‘Thought-Tormented Music’: Joyce and the Music of Irish Revival’, in James Joyce Quarterly , Vol. 45,
n° ¾, University of Tulsa (Tulsa, 2008), pp. 437-458.
See J. W. Weaver, Joyce’s Music and Noise: Theme and Variation in His Writings , University Press of Florida
J. Joyce, Dubliners , ed. by Paolo Bertinetti, Penguin Classics (Genoa, Italy, 1995), p. 79: ‘His harp, too,
heedless that her coverings had fallen about her knees, seemed weary alike of the eyes of strangers and of her master’s
hands’. The harp is a metaphor for old Ireland (see footnote 4).
M. Dowling, ‘‘Thought-Tormented Music’: Joyce and the Music of Irish Revival’, p. 452.
Ibid. , p. 437.