Roberta Jackson’s “The Open Closet in Dubliners” examines the historical progression of theoretical examination (within a literary and cultural framework) of James Joyce’s short story “A Painful Case.” If queer theory requires research into context—as Donald E. Hall asserts that it does in Literary and Cultural Theory—then Jackson’s analysis provides an excellent analysis. Hall asserts that queer theory analysis is both textual and extratextual because nothing about sexuality or sexual identity is obvious or self-evident. And Jackson asserts that the previous extratextual analysis of Joyce’s short story sorely misses the mark. And I agree. Jackson points out that prior critics asserted that Joyce attempted to assert his own heterosexuality by simultaneously rejecting the homosexual opposite. His treatment of Duffy represented that attempt: “Since Stannie [Joyce’s brother] has been identified as the beast and since he also served as the model for Duffy and is the source for his admission of homoerotic desire, Duffy also becomes a beast that Joyce must drive before him. Joyce must repel the beast” (Jackson 330). Joyce wrote “A Painful Case” around the time of Oscar Wilde’s persecution. Thus, prior critics argued that he felt compelled to separate himself out of homosexual panic: “Joyce must assert his heterosexual identity through ignorance of its opposite” (Jackson 331).
But these prior critics misinterpret the story. Joyce wrote at the time of the Labouchere Amendment—the same Amendment used to convict Oscar Wilde that criminalized homosexuality. It was not repealed until 1967. Thus, Jackson takes critical license to surmise that Joyce’s title squarely confronts the view of homosexuality that prevailed at the time of the story: homosexuality was a medical condition.
Taking Jackson’s analysis one step further, I find it significant that Joyce’s title (if indeed it refers to Duffy’s condition—and I think that it does) also serves as the title of the newspaper story that reports on the woman’s tragic death on the train tracks. In repressing his homosexuality, Duffy too “dies.” His identity dies. Duffy understands that he is different: “[H]e heard the strange impersonal voice, which he recognized as his own, insisting on the soul’s incurable loneliness. We cannot give ourselves, it said: we are our own” (Joyce 93). Duffy directly addresses the fact that he lies outside the socially acceptable norm. More importantly, he understands that he is a part of an entire group. He knows that there are others like him—hence the collective “we.” And I contend that this recognition of similar people like him is the driving force for Duffy’s melancholy when he encounters the lovers in the park: “Those venal and furtive loves filled him with despair” (Joyce 98). And Duffy despairs because he is “alone” in the world, and he always will be because “Love between man and man is impossible because there must not be sexual intercourse and friendship between man and woman is impossible because there must be sexual intercourse” (Joyce 94). Thus, Jackson asserts that Duffy remains closeted because there was no chance (within the prevailing heterosexual patriarchy) for recognition of homosexuality within the culture. Most interesting to me is Jackson’s argument that Joyce purposely avoids direct speech in his story. Only once is sexuality explicitly mentioned, and that occurs in the passage quoted above (Joyce 98). Joyce wasn’t closeting his own sexuality. Instead, he exposes the pain of those who were closeted—who couldn’t assert their sexual identity. If there is anything closeted in this short story, it is Joyce’s effort to critique the prevailing attitude toward homosexuality. Duffy solicits our sympathies—he calls on us to examine our prevailing social constructs of what is acceptable and what is not. That assertion is where I break from Jackson. She asserts that the phallic worm “conflate[s] her death [Mrs. Sinico’s] with the diminishing possibility of love between men for Duffy, laying both at the feet of the patriarchy” (Jackson 341). I argue that the worm illustrates humanity’s attempt to wind its way through the dark depths of social persecution and constructs of acceptability.