“Eveline” belongs to the second of the four categories Joyce claimed to have constructed as a loose frame for the fifteen stories in Dubliners: adolescence (the protagonist is just nineteen). The first of course is childhood, followed by stories of mature and public life. These characters represent a cross-section of Dublin society, from the poorest to the bourgeois. Joyce’s central theme is the “hemiplegia” or paralysis he perceived in the city of his birth. As he showed in the largely autobiographical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (published 1916), he saw Ireland as priest-ridden, culturally and socially deprived and provincial, and stifled by the colonial imperialism of England. Like the protagonist of that novel, Stephen Dedalus, Joyce left Ireland in 1904 into self-imposed exile, returning only sporadically.
Eveline Hill’s “paralysis” is seen largely through her passivity and torpor in the story. As it opens we see her watching
the evening invade the avenue. Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odor of dusty cretonne. She was tired.
The metaphor strikingly foreshadows her dilemma that is soon revealed. The sense image of the cheap curtain fabric’s “odor” is characteristic of Joyce’s technique throughout the collection: a character’s mental or emotional state is suggested through such imagistic details. The passive, characteristically Dublin dialect structure of “was leaned” is suggestive of her inner weakness, her need of support from a stronger person. Her tiredness is emotional and spiritual as well as physical: it’s typical of the cast of characters in the collection.
There are several notable repetitions in the story that serve to highlight its central theme: Eveline’s inability to act decisively. The dust of the curtains is reiterated twice in the third paragraph as an indication of the neglect and squalor of her household, as well as the drudgery of her domestic life — she not only cleans, she also looks after two younger children. All this despite her drunken father’s brutality and expectation that she’ll hand over her meager wages as a shop assistant, yet still buy provisions for his meals.
As Eveline gazes out of the window at the drab, symbolically darkening cityscape Joyce adopts a technique he employs frequently in Dubliners: from a conventional position of third-person omniscience (“She sat at the window watching the evening . . .”) he slips into the consciousness of his character in an interior or narrated monologue:
One time there used to be a field there in which they used to play every evening . . . . Then a man from Belfast bought the field and built houses in it . . .
The idiomatic time adverbial at the opening of that section is clearly that of the uneducated, Dublin dialect-speaking protagonist; hers too is the near monosyllabic, limited, even childlike vocabulary and syntax.
When her thoughts turn from this deceptively pleasant memory to the threatening image of her father coming to “hunt them in out of the field with his blackthorn stick” we see this slightly rose-tinted reminiscence dissolve, to be replaced with the first indication of her father’s violent, dominating nature, and of the children’s submission to it.
Nevertheless Eveline is able to recall:
Still they seemed to have been rather happy then. Her father was not so bad then.
The repetition of “then” foregrounds the inevitable realization that now he’s worse. And the happiness she summons up in her memory is clearly forced. Her thoughts turn increasingly negative: most of those playmates have grown up, gone away or died. “Her mother was dead” bluntly presents Eveline’s solitude and lack of adult support. She struggles with the banal certitude that “[e]verything changes,” wishing that things could remain unchanged. Because now, she reflects, “she was going to go away like the others, to leave her home.”
But that notion of home, picked up ironically in the first word of the next paragraph, is hardly cozy. Dustiness represents its shabbiness and ugliness. Eveline is unable to banish the notion, however, that these “familiar objects” to which she has shifted her gaze are at least just that: representative of family, and comforting. She had “never dreamed of being divided” from them. The prospect of change is frightening.
She considers the yellowing photo of a priest (colors are another indication in the story of drabness and neglect in her life), who emigrated to Australia, as so many did. This revives the notion of emigration in the previous paragraph: Ireland’s poverty had often caused its inhabitants to seek a better life overseas, especially since the Famine of the 1840s.
And now “[s]he had consented to go away, to leave her home. Was that wise?”
The stream of free indirect thought again shows up the paucity of Eveline’s vocabulary, with the reappearance of phrases used earlier, and of her inability to think through her problem with any rational rigor. So she “tried to weigh each side of the question.” The narrator uses the rhythms of her own thought process here to indicate how she is equivocating, though: as she adduces the unconvincing point that “in her home anyway she had shelter and food” and those around her she’d known all her life, we recall that a moment ago she was reflecting that they’d all died or “gone away.”
Unable to continue in this positive way she recalls that her life at home and at work is “hard” — an adjective repeated several times through the story. Her reputation too was likely to suffer, and the language again here is that of the ingenuous young Dubliner:
What would they say of her in the Stores when they found out she had run away with a fellow? Say she was a fool perhaps.
She shifts to the other side of the question, and thinks of the attractions of her “new home” in Buenos Ayres, where Frank had supposedly “fallen on his feet.” Once they were married, “people would treat her with respect,” not “as her mother had been.”
Still she itemizes the hardship of her life: she feels “in danger of her father’s violence” — this has “given her the palpitations.” The insight suggests her proximity to mental dissolution. “And so she had nobody to protect her.” The struggle to survive in this unbearable household had “begun to weary her unspeakably.” That is, she can’t articulate what is in her thoughts — but the narrator makes us privy to them with painful clarity.
Having concluded that for all this hers was not “a wholly undesirable life” — yet another equivocation — she appears for the first time to entertain more daring thoughts. She reflects on sun-bronzed Frank and their courtship, which has lasted just the few weeks of his holiday. He was “very kind, manly, open-hearted.” She would “be his wife.” He brought a glimpse of “elation” and excitement into her brutalized life. With his Othello-like traveler’s tales of “distant countries” and “the terrible Patagonians” and his love of music he had turned her head.
She slips back into idealizing her father’s image again: he is aging, she realizes, and “would miss her”:
Sometimes he could be very nice.
We wince as we realize this is the most positive way her thoughts can present him to herself. When she hears a street-organ playing outside the tune is the one that played the night her mother died; this reminds her of the promise she had made to her mother on her deathbed: that she would “keep the home together as long as she could” — a bitterly ironic echo of those promises optimistically printed beneath the pious image of the Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque that hung on the wall.
This summons up “the pitiful vision of her mother’s life.” She knows she is doomed to the same fate as her mother: “that life of commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness.” Trembling, she appears to make up her mind, and the first active verb is used to describe her:
She stood up in a sudden impulse of terror. Escape! She must escape! Frank would save her. He would give her life, perhaps love, too. But she wanted to live. Why should she be unhappy? She had a right to happiness.
That “perhaps” is telling: she’s astute enough to recognize that she and Frank don’t love each other. She accepts that she’s using him as an escape route as much as he’s possibly duping her. Her more worldly father’s warning against “those sailor chaps” must have resonated with her — but she also knows he’s not an impartial judge: he relies on her pay packet.
At the port-side station, as Frank is swept along by the crowd on to the boat and calls to her, she remains incapable of moving. The romantic image Joyce showed us in her thoughts of Frank enfolding her in his arms and saving her turns into the sinister “he would drown her” and how “impossible” it was for her to move. Her white face is “passive, like a helpless animal,” and the closing line is filled with negatives.
She has failed to escape. But I don’t think it’s in keeping with the ways Joyce tells her story to conclude either that Frank would have deserted her, leaving her presumably to a destitute life of prostitution, or that her staying put was to escape ruinous desertion by a feckless Frank. Joyce portrays Eveline as having failed to reach any decision. She’s paralyzed at the end. She doesn’t choose to stay or go: she simply goes numb. The frenzied, lyrical language at the end is partly that of the narrator, looking at her from a detached viewpoint again. We are no longer completely inside her head, and therefore unable to tell what she’s thinking. She’s not thinking anything. Language has deserted her. This is a passive, “unspeakable” ending, not a choice at all.
And that is the message that recurs throughout Dubliners: in his style of “scrupulous meanness” Joyce holds up his “looking-glass” to reflect the images of citizens most of whom he considers doomed to their lives of submissive, helpless passivity. Eveline had “wanted to live,” but to do so required more fortitude than she could muster at the critical moment.
What awaits her is possibly a fate like that of the lonely, dim-witted spinster Maria in “Clay” — or of the nuns like Blessed Margaret, who sacrificed all for the Sacred Heart.
Much has been made of Hugh Kenner’s initial observation that Frank is about to seduce and abandon her. The boats leaving the North Wall did not sail to South America. This is not convincing evidence of Frank’s duplicity, however. Most boats would have left Dublin for Liverpool and thence emigrants could sail for the Americas.
“Eveline” was written in the summer of 1904 when Joyce was just twenty-two, and published in September that year. It’s salutary to think that he met the twenty-year-old Nora Barnacle in June 1904, and that she accepted his invitation to elope abroad with him, unmarried, a minor. She showed the resolve and capacity to take a risk with a man whose prospects looked even less alluring than Frank’s. As he tinkered with later drafts of this story for its inclusion in the collected volume, it seems Joyce introduced details derived from his own and Nora’s earlier lives; perhaps it was unconscious coincidence initially that caused him to create this narrative of Eveline’s attempts to reconcile the allure of escape into the unknown with the fear of change, but given he had the chance to revise it for its subsequent publications it’s notable that he chose to contrast his and Nora’s elopement from stultifying Dublin with the inertia of Eveline. By doing so he acknowledged the peril she undoubtedly faced “running away with a fellow,” and hence her inability to accept such a risk, but also the courage shown by Nora in agreeing to “go away” with him.