A Painful Case by James Joyce, 1914
The magic trick:
Model efficiency of characterization
Essentially, Joyce gives us a complete life story told in some 3,592 words. That is insane. Just totally remarkable. It helps of course that this particular biography features a singular relationship and incident that go a long way to summarizing the entire life. But the story’s accomplishment is due to far more than a mere plot point.
I say this as nothing close to an expert, but I would hold the first four paragraphs of this story up as the perfect example of how to establish a character. Joyce jumps right in, as he does in all of these stories, wasting no time. “Mr. James Duffy,” he writes, “lived in Chapelizod because he wished to live as far as possible from the city of which he was a citizen and because he found all the other suburbs of Dublin mean, modern and pretentious.” So there you go.
There is an idea that good writing must show the reader, not tell. And I think that by and large that is very good advice. But it’s wonderful the way Joyce so often does both. In the first four paragraphs here he tells the reader about Mr. Duffy. He tells us all kinds of vital information in a rapid-fire style. He tells us about his rooms, the way he lives. He describes his physical appearance. He tells us of his likes and dislikes. He briefs us on his career. He quickly sums up his routines and habits.
It’s all there. Very quickly told.
Now the story is free to show us what happens to Mr. Duffy, and with so much ace background information, the reader is well-equipped to assess all of it. And that’s quite a trick on Joyce’s part.
He had neither companions nor friends, church nor creed. He lived his spiritual life without any communion with others, visiting his relatives at Christmas and escorting them to the cemetery when they died. He performed these two social duties for old dignity’s sake but conceded nothing further to the conventions which regulate the civic life. He allowed himself to think that in certain circumstances he would rob his hank but, as these circumstances never arose, his life rolled out evenly — an adventureless tale.