Gnomon in “A Painful Case” and “The Dead” from Dubliners, Joyce

December 31, 2008 at 5:26 pm (Critical Writing, Prose)

Here’s another quick rendering of some notes into a more solid idea, focusing on one of the short stories from Joyce’s Dubliners short story collection. This is sort of a prelude to a longer essay on Joyce’s “The Dead” that I hope to have up before long (probably as the first post in 2009!).

     In “A Painful Case,” the story is driven by gnomon. Gnomon meaning absence or what remains, referenced from Euclid. Duffy, the main character, has politely removed himself from society. He lives on the outside, and he keeps to himself. Society, in this case, can initially be seen as what is left without him. Then he meets Emily and ventures back to society, seeing plays, et cetera. But then Duffy breaks off the affair (Emily is married). He gets close, and leaves because he is uncomfortable. It does not disturb him, and Emily becomes gnomon incarnate–she is all that remains. It is evidenced that her husband was never around–he never discovers the affair and is on a trip when she dies. So, he too had abandoned her. Now she is a remainder, and decides to kill herself. This passes on the role of remainder to Duffy, as he reads her obituary–he is now what remains. Routine becomes his prison and he burned his last bridge to freedom with Emily. We know that he will be comfortable in his obscurity, but all the knowledge and wits he amasses alone in his study will never replace her, and it will amount to nothing. And because of this he will die, largely unnoticed. Society shall persist in his absence, not truly a remainder in this case, except for what might have been.
     This ties in well with “The Dead” since the dead themselves in leaving this world make the living into gnomon. Still, Joyce suggests they have a role. What we perceive as gone still defines us. In parallelograms, when the adjoinder is removed, what remains of the other is also called gnomon, and the living are similar. We who are left alive are defined by those gone before us. We see this in “The Dead” in the instance of Michael Furey. Gretta loved him and he loved her. When he died, he took a piece of her with him. Gabriel, once made aware of this situation, feels the sting of loss as well, but moreso because what he thought was true love seems gone and now unattainable. His love for his wife becomes empty, and he is left with fewer pieces of himself.
     Considering that the dead are a type of absence and create an unavoidable and undeniable circumstance of gnomon for the living, Joyce wanted to establish this as essential to the human condition. We all die, but we also get left behind. This seems most strongly reinforced by the closing poetic line of Dubliners: “… over all the living and the dead.” We are joined because we are separated, uniformly. Gnomon is what Joyce leaves us with as we leave Dubliners.



  1. roya said,

    your comments about The Dead in this essay and The Warning from The Dead helped me alot to understand the story. would you please tell me your idea about stephen and the ending of A portrait of the artist as a young man? as you remember im not a native speaker . iam persian. im writing a deconstructive essay on these two texts, ive quoted you in my chapter on ‘the dead’. would you please help me in understanding Portrait? i can send you my paper when it is finished. perhaps it may be interesting to read an essay on joyce by an an Asian . if you can help me this is my mail. . thanks

  2. JB said,

    This is the second article I read on this site, my english is not very good but I liked it either way.


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