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Eveline Summary & Analysis by James Joyce

‘Eveline’ is one of the shortest stories that make up James Joyce’s collection Dubliners (1914), a volume that was not an initial commercial success.

Eveline Summary & Analysis by James Joyce

Brief Summary of ‘Eveline’

Eveline is a young woman living in Dublin with her father. Her mother is dead. Dreaming of a better life beyond the shores of Ireland, Eveline plans to elope with Frank, a sailor who is her secret lover (Eveline’s father having forbidden Eveline to see Frank after the two men fell out), and start a new life in Argentina. With her mother gone, Eveline is responsible for the day-to-day running of the household: her father is drunk and only reluctantly tips up his share of the weekly housekeeping money, and her brother Harry is busy working and is away a lot on business (another brother, Ernest, has died).

Eveline herself keeps down a job working in a shop. On Saturday nights, when she asks her father for some money, he tends to unleash a tirade of verbal abuse and is often drunk. When he eventually hands over his housekeeping money, Eveline has to go to the shops and buy the food for the Sunday dinner at the last minute. Eveline is tired of this life, and so she and Frank book onto a ship leaving for Argentina. But as she is just about to board the ship, Eveline suffers a failure of resolve, and cannot go through with it. She wordlessly turns around and goes home, leaving Frank to board the ship alone.

Main Summary of Eveline

Eveline Hill sits at a window in her home and looks out onto the street while fondly recalling her childhood when she played with other children in a field now developed with new homes. Her thoughts turn to her sometimes abusive father with whom she lives and to the prospect of freeing herself from her hard life juggling jobs as a shop worker and a nanny to support herself and her father. 

Eveline faces a difficult dilemma: remain at home like a dutiful daughter, or leave Dublin with her lover, Frank, who is a sailor. He wants her to marry him and live with him in Buenos Aires, and she has already agreed to leave with him in secret. As Eveline recalls, Frank’s courtship of her was pleasant until her father began to voice his disapproval and bicker with Frank. After that, the two lovers met clandestinely.

As Eveline reviews her decision to embark on a new life, she holds in her lap two letters, one to her father and one to her brother Harry. She begins to favour the sunnier memories of her old family life, when her mother was alive and her brother was living at home and notes that she did promise her mother to dedicate herself to maintaining the home. She reasons that her life at home, cleaning and cooking, is hard but perhaps not the worst option—her father is not always mean, after all. The sound of a street organ then reminds her of her mother’s death, and her thoughts change course. She remembers her mother’s uneventful, sad life, and passionately embraces her decision to escape the same fate by leaving with Frank.

At the docks in Dublin, Eveline waits in a crowd to board the ship with Frank. She appears detached and worried, overwhelmed by the images around her, and prays to God for direction. Her previous declaration of intent seems to have never happened. When the boat whistle blows and Frank pull on her hand to lead her with him, Eveline resists. She clutches the barrier as Frank is swept into the throng moving toward the ship. He continually shouts “Come!” but Eveline remains fixed to the land, motionless and emotionless.

Analysis of the Eveline

Eveline’s story illustrates the pitfalls of holding onto the past when facing the future. Hers is the first portrait of a female in Dubliners, and it reflects the conflicting pull many women in early twentieth-century Dublin felt between a domestic life rooted in the past and the possibility of a new married life abroad. One moment, Eveline feels happy to leave her hard life, yet at the next moment, she worries about fulfilling promises to her dead mother. She grasps the letters she’s written to her father and brother, revealing her inability to let go of those family relationships, despite her father’s cruelty and her brother’s absence. She clings to the older and more pleasant memories and imagines what other people want her to do or will do for her. She sees Frank as a rescuer, saving her from her domestic situation. Eveline suspends herself between the call of home and the past and the call of new experiences and the future, unable to make a decision.

The threat of repeating her mother’s life spurs Eveline’s epiphany that she must leave with Frank and embark on a new phase in her life, but this realization is short-lived. She hears a street organ, and when she remembers the street organ that played on the night before her mother’s death, Eveline resolves not to repeat her mother’s life of “commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness,” but she does exactly that. Like the young boys of “An Encounter” and “Araby,” she desires to escape, but her reliance on routine and repetition overrides such impulses. 

On the docks with Frank, away from the familiarity of home, Eveline seeks guidance in the routine habit of prayer. Her action is the first sign that she in fact hasn’t made a decision, but instead remains fixed in a circle of indecision. She will keep her lips moving in the safe practise of repetitive prayer rather than join her love on a new and different path. Though Eveline fears that Frank will drown her in their new life, her reliance on everyday rituals is what causes Eveline to freeze and not follow Frank onto the ship.

Eveline’s paralysis within an orbit of repetition leaves her a “helpless animal,” stripped of human will and emotion. The story does not suggest that Eveline placidly returns home and continues her life, but shows her transformation into an automaton that lacks expression. Eveline, the story suggests, will hover in mindless repetition, on her own, in Dublin. On the docks with Frank, the possibility of living a fully realized life left her.

A Summary and Analysis of James Joyce’s ‘Eveline’

A close reading of Joyce’s story by Dr Oliver Tearle

‘Eveline’ is one of the shortest stories that make up James Joyce’s collection Dubliners (1914), a volume that was not an initial commercial success (it sold just 379 copies in its first year of publication, and 120 of those were bought by Joyce himself). 

Yet Dubliners redefined the short story and is now viewed as a classic work of modernist fiction, with each of its fifteen short stories repaying close analysis. ‘Eveline’ focuses on a young Irish woman of nineteen years of age, who plans to leave her abusive father and poverty-stricken existence in Ireland, and seek out a new, better life for herself and her lover Frank in Buenos Aires. You can read ‘Eveline’ here.

Eveline: Analysis of the Story

Like many stories in Dubliners, ‘Eveline’ explores the relationship between the past and the future by examining a single person’s attitude to their life in Dublin. Joyce was interested in this relationship and believed that Ireland – which often had a habit of nostalgically looking backwards and holding onto the past – needed to progress and strive to bring itself up to date.

In contrast to those writers and artists such as W. B. Yeats who embraced the ‘Celtic Twilight’ – a mythical, traditional view of Ireland as a land of faery and history – Joyce wanted to see Ireland bring itself into the modern world.

In many ways, Eveline typifies the difficulties faced by many Dubliners at the time. Joyce depicts her current existence as dull, uninspiring, and even oppressive, with her abusive father highlighting the idea that the older generation needs to be cast off if young Ireland is to forge itself into a new nation. Even the good aspects of the old Ireland, such as Eveline’s mother and her older brother Ernest, are dead and gone. There is also, though, Eveline’s (by no means unfounded) fear that history will end up repeating itself and she will end up becoming her mother, trapped in a marriage to an abusive alcoholic and caught in a life of poverty and flattened dreams:

As she mused the pitiful vision of her mother’s life laid its spell on the very quick of her being—that life of commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness. 

The promise of a new start in a new country (in a city that means literally ‘good air’) seems like the best way to shake off the musty old air of Ireland:

She was about to explore another life with Frank. Frank was very kind, manly, and open-hearted. She was to go away with him by the nightboat to be his wife and to live with him in Buenos Aires where he had a home waiting for her. 

And yet when it comes to crunch time, to the moment when she must board the boat, Eveline is unable to do so, and instead clings to the barrier as though literally clinging to old Ireland and the past which is dead and gone but which she cannot leave behind:

He rushed beyond the barrier and called to her to follow. He was shouted at to go on but he still called to her. She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.

The way that final triplet builds out from love to farewell to recognition (what, she now doesn’t even recognise him?) is a masterstroke on Joyce’s part.

She cannot let go of the past, as the early sections of the story reveal:

The man out of the last house passed on his way home; she heard his footsteps clacking along the concrete pavement and afterwards crunching on the cinder path before the new red houses. One time there used to be a field there in which they used to play every evening with other people’s children. Then a man from Belfast bought the field and built houses in it – not like their little brown houses but bright brick houses with shining roofs. The children of the avenue used to play together in that field – the Devines, the Waters, the Dunns, little Keogh the cripple, she and her brothers and sisters. Ernest, however, never played: he was too grown up. Her father used often to hunt them in out of the field with his blackthorn stick; but usually little Keogh used to keep nix and call out when he saw her father coming. Still they seemed to have been rather happy then. Her father was not so bad then; and besides, her mother was alive. That was a long time ago; she and her brothers and sisters were all grown up her mother was dead. Tizzie Dunn was dead, too, and the Waters had gone back to England. Everything changes. Now she was going to go away like the others, to leave her home.

‘That was a long time ago’, and everything has changed, yet Eveline sits and reminisces about this happy time from her childhood.

And this brings us to one of the most difficult aspects of Joyce’s story to analyse and pin down. Is it this nostalgia for old Ireland – embodied by her childhood memories – that prevents her from emigrating with Frank? Perhaps. The masterstroke on Joyce’s part is refraining from telling us precisely what makes Eveline stay in Dublin at the end of the story. Is it filial duty to her father and brother that makes her turn back? Or is it a nostalgic attachment to Ireland, and the happy memories that it carries for her, even though most of the people who shared those memories with her have either emigrated (back to England, revealingly) or have died?

This is in keeping with much modernist fiction, which avoids giving us clear direction as to how we should respond to the events described in the story. Life is often full of half-grasped truths and hidden motivations, and sometimes our motivations are even partially concealed from ourselves, as we exist in a state of ambivalence and uncertainty.

One of the key words in Joyce’s Dubliners is ‘paralysis’: people feel immobilised, unable to move or progress, trapped in their own lives. This, Joyce believed, is what Dublin – and, indeed, much of Ireland – was like as a whole: paralysed. ‘Eveline’ offers in a little snapshot an example of how deeply such paralysis could run, even leading a young woman to forgo the chance of a new start in favour of remaining in an abusive, dead-end life.

The irony of Eveline, though, is that the very paralysis she fears succumbing to – that life of commonplace sacrifice that typifies her mother – also prevents her from escaping that world through fear or lack of certainty that to abandon the old world would be the right thing to do. Her paralysing world even paralyses her as she attempts to escape it, dooming her to remain in Dublin and, quite probably, repeat the same mistakes her mother made.

About The Writer of Eveline - James Joyce

James Joyce (1882-1941) is one of the most important modernist writers of the early twentieth century. His reputation largely rests on just four works: a short story collection Dubliners (1914), and three novels: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Ulysses (1922), and Finnegans Wake (1939). Each of these works represents a development from the last, with Joyce’s writing becoming increasingly experimental, obscure, and challenging.

Like his fellow countryman, the Irish poet W. B. Yeats, Joyce writes about the country he knew so well: Ireland, the country of his birth. But unlike Yeats, Joyce had no time for the romantic vision of Ireland encapsulated by the Celtic Twilight. Joyce said that he wrote the short stories that make up Dubliners in order to give Ireland one good look at itself in the mirror: his vision of Ireland is an unflinching realist ‘warts and all’ depiction of a country which, especially in those early works, seems gripped by a paralysis (a keyword for Dubliners) that is partly a result of the country’s obsession with its own past and with Catholicism.

It’s telling that Joyce spent much of his adult life living outside of his native Ireland, on the Continent, where he could absorb French literary influences which would be so important for his development as a novelist.

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