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James Joyce’s Eveline, in Dubliners: A Suffocating City

Southside of the Liffey facing the Fourt Courts (1807) by Thomas Roberts – (Public Domain)

The short story Eveline in James Joyce’s collection of short stories, Dubliners, is a representation of Dublin’s asphyxiation of its people. The short story’s protagonist, Eveline, is trapped in Dublin by moral and familial obligations. She is paralyzed in a state of indecisiveness and fear of the unknown. The short story chronicles Eveline’s irresolution, shedding light on the factors that ultimately prevent her from fleeing Dublin. The desire to escape Dublin is prevalent throughout the short story with hints of hesitation and attempts to rationalize the inner conflict experienced by the protagonist. The short story explores the theme of Dublin as a suffocating city while examining the underlying circumstances that trigger the protagonist’s pressing need to run away, and the subsequent opting for familiarity.

Dubliners, by James Joyce

Eveline: The Voyage of Disquieted Beauty

Eveline is a girl over nineteen years old who is living with her father that is known for his abusive behavior. Her mother passed away when she was a child, and Eveline promised her to keep the house together. Eveline meets Frank, a sailor, and decides to run away with him to Buenos Aires. She begins to ponder the wisdom of her choice as she sits observing life from her window. The beginning of the short story is indicative of the unfavorable life Eveline leads. The narrator describes “the evening” as “invad[ing] the avenue” (Joyce 1), which invokes a sense of hostility and callousness. Eveline herself seems to be in a state of desolation and sullenness as “her head [is] lean[ing] against the window curtains” (Joyce 1). Moreover, “the odour of dusty cretonne” (Joyce 1) is an indicator of the futility of life in Dublin and the approaching inevitability of Eveline’s desire to escape this tiresome and “dusty” existence. The opening lines are concluded with the short and poignant acknowledgment of the protagonist’s weariness, “[s]he was tired” (Joyce 1). The narrator does not make clear whether Eveline is physically or spiritually tired, however, drawing on the previous references of Eveline’s melancholy and the dismal state of the dusty curtains, indicative of her dreary dwelling, it is deduced that the protagonist is suffering from psychological torment.

As Eveline observes the surroundings from the window, she begins to reminisce about her once playful childhood. The descriptive scene of Eveline as a child playing with her siblings is disrupted by the appearance of her stern father. The reader gets to know that Eveline’s father was abusive when they were young, and that it was necessary for one of the children playing to keep guard in case the father appears. The mention of the father’s “blackthorn stick” (Joyce 1) carries a sense of foreboding. The narrator, however, mentions the children’s past happiness immediately following the mention of the fearful “stick”, which foreshadows Eveline’s upcoming thirst for contentment that can only be attained by breaking free of her father’s bondage. The first reference of the mother in opposition to the father’s rigidity suggests that the mother compensated the father’s austerity with compassion. The death of Eveline’s mother gave way to a life of hardship.

Eveline appears to have made up her mind to leave Ireland, “[n]ow she was going to go away… to leave her home” (Joyce 1). She then lingers on the word “home” in attempt to grasp the finality of her decision to abandon everything “from which she had never dreamed of being divided” (Joyce 1). This is to prove that Eveline’s desire to forsake Ireland had not been accompanying her for a long period of time, which in turn could suggest that Eveline had greater hopes of coping with her current life. Even though the short story does not disclose the turning point of Eveline’s situation -when exactly she decides to run away-, it is understood that her decision is a culmination of her barren existence. Eveline is still threatened by her father’s abusive behavior, which “give[s] her the palpitations” (Joyce 2). Furthermore, it is brought to light that there is a constant quarrel over money with her father who refuses to give her money, claiming “she [has] no head” and would squander “his hard-earned money” (Joyce 2). Taking care of the house is Eveline’s responsibility after her mother’s death. Her father, however, does not provide a helping hand, but instead additionally burdens her. Eveline’s father unconsciously encourages her to forsake their house and hometown by treating her badly and offering no appreciation.

Eveline’s hesitation begins to surface as she starts to question whether it is a “wise” (Joyce 2) decision to go away. She tries to rationalize her decision to go away by carefully examining both the advantages and disadvantages of staying or leaving. Eveline believes that she will find peace and comfort “in a distant unknown country” (Joyce 2) where her father will not treat her badly. Eveline is caught between two equally difficult choices. She can either opt for the “hard life” (Joyce 3) she is currently leading, which she is beginning to view as a not “wholly undesirable life” (Joyce 3) or she can choose to embark on a journey to seek a new, restful abode.

A male figure, who Eveline desires to run away with, is presented in the short story. It is important to note that the first introduction of the male figure in the short story is when Eveline ponders on how her coworkers would think of her if she ran away with him, “[w]hat would they say of her in the Stores when they found out that she had run away with a fellow? Say she was a fool, perhaps…” (Joyce 2). The portrayal of the male figure as someone who would arouse criticism and condemnation towards Eveline is significant. It brings to light the theme of Dublin as a suffocating city and its restrictive society where religion is put in the highest regard and disobedience is harshly denounced. Society’s perception of Eveline is a significant factor that could greatly affect her decision. It is observed, however, that Eveline does not have a strong connection with the place she works in, “[s]he would not cry many tears at leaving the Stores” (Joyce 2). Eveline does not feel obligated towards her job as much as she does towards the household where she is in charge of two young kids. Therefore, the prospect of being married and respected in a new country further kindles her desire to go away as she is not emotionally attached to her working place nor her home.

girl-by-the-window-edvard-munch (1)
Girl by the Window, 1896-98, by Edvard Munch – (Public Domain)

Eveline’s relationship with Frank, the person she intends to run away with, is an allusion to Shakespeare’s Othello. Othello, who is an outlandish figure and does not belong to the Venetian society, marvels Desdemona. Desdemona is captivated by Othello’s tales about distant lands and decides to elope with him against her father’s wishes. “Like Othello, Frank has been to exotic locales, and like Desdemona, Eveline is attracted to his stories. Eveline’s admission that she likes Frank follows immediately upon a description of his stories” (Luft 49). It appears that Frank easily woos Eveline due to his being an outsider. Frank arouses Eveline’s curiosity for he represents all that is wild and foreign. This brings into question the sincerity of Eveline’s feelings towards Frank. Is her seemingly shallow admiration sufficient to sustain a marriage away from her hometown and family? It is important to note that Desdemona is eventually killed by her husband, which also casts doubt on Eveline’s relationship with Frank. However, as Luft explains, “[t]he implication is not that Eveline is in danger of such violence, but that Frank may prove unreliable as a husband” (49). Eveline is aware that Frank may not provide her with love, but that “he would give her life” (Joyce 4). She believes he can nourish her existence so that it may become as wholesome and happy as it used to be. In other words, Eveline’s ticket out of distressing Dublin may not lead to the perfect life she is expecting, but it could provide her with a sense of relief, releasing her from the bondage of her hometown.

Among the moral obligations which bound Eveline to her futile existence in Dublin is the promise she made to her mother before she died, “her promise to keep the home together as long as she could” (Joyce 4). Her mother is what ties her to the house she despises and the father she fears. The mother’s death was not a peaceful one, but was rather plagued with inexplicable delirium. The narrator describes her death as “that life of commonplace sacrifices closing to final craziness” (Joyce 4), which could be a means of foregrounding Eveline’s fate if she chooses to remain in the life that paralyzes her whole existence. Furthermore, the use of the word “sacrifices” to describe the life of the mother brings to light Eveline’s own sacrificial nature. She takes it upon herself to take care of the house, sacrificing her own happiness and allowing her father to control her life in whichever way he wants. Her father forbids her “to have anything to say to [Frank]” (Joyce 3), which results in establishing a relationship with Frank in secret, behind her father’s back. However, Eveline’s insistence on maintaining contact with Frank while disregarding her father’s order indicates her growing desire for freedom of society and family.

Johannes Vermeer, 1632-1675 – (Public Domain)

Eveline does not seem to be completely convinced of her decision to run away as she holds two letters, one for her brother and one for her father. She realizes her father is not a cruel man for “[s]ometimes he could be very nice” (Joyce 4). She remembers incidents when her father had been sweet and loving before her mother died, which is an attempt to persuade herself to stay with her father. Eveline thinks to herself that her father “would miss her” (Joyce 4), which is yet another sign of hesitation. Eveline is once again putting her father’s wellbeing before her own. It seems that Eveline is incapable of forsaking her family. She is standing on the fringe of life in Dublin, constantly swinging back and forth between the possibility of a new life and the familiarity of her current life. However, after deep pondering over the matter, a sudden “pitiful vision of her mother’s life” penetrates her soul and urges her to “escape” (Joyce 4).

As Eveline is on the verge of a new life, she suddenly feels paralyzed and unable to board the ship that is to take her to Buenos Aires, where she is to be respected and happily married. She stands before the “black mass of the boat” (Joyce 4) incapable of carrying out the ultimate step of her escape plan. As Luft points out, the “black mass of the boat” is reminiscent of the father’s “blackthorn stick”, which carries a sense of foreboding (50). The color black denotes a sense of pessimism and puts her “escape route” (Luft 50) into question as to whether it is the path she should follow. Furthermore, Eveline prays fervently to God to guide her to the right path, which sheds light on the religious nature of the people of Dublin. Eveline’s reliance on God to “direct her” and “to show her what was her duty” further highlights the fact that the religiosity of Dublin is an important factor that influences Eveline’s decision. Eveline is fearful of her impending departure. She finally comes to the realization that Frank would “drown her” (Joyce 5) in the vast sea. She is slowly coming to believe that her attempt to escape is as futile as remaining to live in Dublin as Luft explains:

Opening references to the dust that pervades her home, and which imply the desirability of leaving Dublin for the fresh air of Buenos Aires, are recalled by Eveline’s fears of drowning when about to embark on the boat: the choice is either to suffocate on the dust or be drowned in the sea. (Luft 50)

Eveline remains “passive, like a helpless animal” (Joyce 5) as Frank begs her to board the ship, recalling the scene of her mother’s death and shedding light on Eveline’s vain attempt to escape the same fate. The short story does not provide the reader with a definite ending, but rather leaves room for a number of possibilities. For instance, does Eveline go back to her father or does she decide to run away by herself?

The short story is entangled in a web of possibilities that afflict Eveline and never ease her wandering mind. She is constantly torn between her moral and familial duties and between her desire for happiness. Dublin paralyzes Eveline and does not relinquish its grip on her. Eveline seems to be condemned to a life of stagnancy, unable to accept her current living condition nor able to break free of the city that suffocates her soul. The theme of Dublin as a suffocating city poignantly portrays Eveline in her dismal state of indecisiveness as she attempts to create for herself a meaningful existence away from stifling Dublin and her oppressive father.

Works Cited:

Joyce, James. “Eveline.” Dubliners. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 1-5. Print.

Luft, Joanna. “Reader Awareness: Form and Ambiguity in James Joyce’s “Eveline” The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies 35.2 (2009): 49-50. JSTOR. Canadian Journal of Irish Studies. Web. 15 Dec. 2015.

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