I just finished reading ‘Eveline’ from Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’, and I feel I must type a few words.
I’m sure you are both familiar with this story which can be summarised in one sentence:
Bored Dublin girl from a dodgy home is divided between whether to leave Ireland with a sailor to a live a life of sun, sea and sand, or stay at home and fulfil her dying mother’s request to take care of her family.
Sounds easy. But when you dig a little deeper complexities immerge that, in true Joyce style, keep you guessing.
Considering the story is only a handful of pages long, it covers a hell of a lot of ground. Joyce never ceases to amaze me with his mastery of the written form. In Eveline he hints, suggests, teases and nudges, leaving the whole shebang hanging in the air at the end.
Plot-wise, Joyce plays it safe with three distinct phases: the first shows Eveline’s home and family; the second ushers in the major conflict of the story - Frank the sailor; and the third is the climactic boarding the ship scene.
The story lets us peep into the inner world of a nineteen year old Dublin girl called Eveline, a young woman born into a world of relentless hardship and tedium.
We meet Eveline in the first line of the story:
“She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue”.
Joyce introduces Eveline as a young lady, staring out of her bedroom window. Symbolically, she is isolated and framed off from the outside world. The use of the verb “invade” implies impending doom or threat giving us an emotional clue about the world in which Eveline lives. Her world is far removed from other 19 years olds. At this age people feel as if the world is their playground, a place full of fun, friendship and adventure Not so for Eveline.
Her memories allow the reader direct access into her past which overflows with responsibilities beyond her years: tending to the housework, looking after young children, coping with her father’s violence and drunkenness, all in the wake of her mother’s death. This death may have been the fault of Eveline’s father, with his blackthorn stick and aggressive temperament. A dripping wet, black cloud hung over the family's’ life, and most of the darkness a product of Eveline’s father. He’s portrayed as a sour old man, a kind of fairytale monster, fond of snarling at children and swiping at them if they come within his sight..
“Her father used to hunt them out of the field with his blackthorn stick.”
So, with premature death, alcoholism, poverty and lack of hope in Eveline’s life, it’s no wonder we feel sorry for her.
Suspense in the story compounds around the ambiguity of Eveline’s character. She still feels a responsibility to heed her dying mother’s plea to look after the family. This is a heavy burden for a nineteen year old, especially considering her father appears bend on self-destruction, her mother and younger brother are dead, and her older brother is too busy with his church decorating business to be around.
Joyce offers Eveline a way out of the mess by introducing Frank, a handsome sailor, a man of means who promised to take her away to Buenos Ayres.
Their relationship starts off as a bit of fun, but then Eveline realises her feelings run deeper.
“First of all, it had been a bit of excitement...and then she had begun to like him.”
Franks charms Eveline with his stories of far off lands and his suntanned smile.
“He was standing at the gate, his peaked cap pushed back on his head and his hair tumbled forward over a face of bronze.”
Eveline glows with confused admiration and begins to feel human. For the first time in her life she has a chance to win happiness.
Frank offers to take her to Argentina.
Should she go?
Eveline begins to ponder how leaving Ireland would affect not only her but her father. She thinks back to a time when her father acted compassionately while she lay sick.
“When she had been laid up for a day, he had read her out a ghost story and made toast for her at the fire.”
Also, her mind flashes back to a family picnic on The Hill of Howth when her father made the children laugh.
“She remembered her father putting on her mother’s bonnet to make the children laugh.”
Eveline’s father’s kind and humorous actions perplex her. Perhaps her father’s behaviour can be changed. Maybe it’s his age or a stage he’s going through. Surely, if he was sweet once, he can do it again.
Her mind contorts in eddies of confusion.
“She sometimes felt himself in threat of her father’s violence.”
Eveline feels life wrapping a noose around neck and tightening it slowly.
As the story unfolds, we see the world from inside her head. Eveline’s inner thoughts and memories sketch a vivid picture of her world, and by the end we’re forced to interpret her final decision not to leave Ireland with her sailor man.We, the reader, has to decide if Eveline makes the right decision. Joyce puts the cards into the reader's hands and challenges us to make a judgement call. This is pretty cool and creates endless interpretations.
After much thought, Eveline decides not to board the ship with Frank. Instead, she reverts to what she knows best, a life of poverty, drudgery and repetition. You may say this is unwise, but maybe she does the right thing. Perhaps her decision was born out of self-awareness. Frank seems sincere enough, but you never know. If all goes tits up, being alone in South America sucks for a insecure Dublin girl. What would she do? How would she get home?
While waiting in the line to board the ship, Eveline get the fear.
“A bell clanged upon her heart...All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart. He was drawing her into them: he would drown her.”
Maybe this is a bit harsh. Frank could have been her model man. There’s nothing about his character in the text to suggest his motives are impure. Maybe, he fell in love with Eveline. She could be the one. Again Joyce leaves this question dangling in the air. Frank is perfect: handsome, gentlemanly and attentive. However, he is a sailor, and we know what they get up to, the dirty devils. So, maybe Eveline makes the right decision after all. Her father leaps on the stereotype.
“I know these sailor types.”
Regardless of her father’s opinion Eveline hangs on to the railings as Frank urges her to follow. She presents a final image of blankness.
“She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love of farewell or recognition.”
Why does Eveline behave this way? Maybe she did it for Frank, her brother or herself? Maybe all three? Joyce could be hinting at the destructive power of routine. Who knows? What we do know though is her sense of identity has a pulling effect as does her history. So Joyce points out brilliantly the difficulty we have in choosing between the familiar and the unknown. The former appeals because our sense of self is wrapped up ideas of social class and the familiar. We associate these with being ‘me’. The latter is a step into the Twilight Zone, a place full of insecurities and challenges to self identity. People get homesick when they can’t speak a language and the weather is weird, and these insecurities lead to fear and from there to doubt. Is there anything worse than doubting who you really are?
So, finally fear wins the day and Frank returns to the sun. Eveline, sadly, lets him go and with him the chance of new life.
Did she do the right thing? It’s up to you.