Eveline by James Joyce, 1914

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by James Joyce, 1914

"Eveline," the fourth story in Dubliners, illustrates both James Joyce's thematic concerns and his meticulous treatment of language and structure. Like most of the characters in the book Eveline is oppressed by her circumstances, and like many others she considers the possibility of escape. But when she is offered a positive opportunity to leave she refuses.

Most of the story is mediated through Eveline's consciousness as she explores three well-defined stretches of time: her past, her present, and her doubtful future. She evokes images of all three only to find that they need painful revision. She has memories of a happier, freer past, which is a parody of Eden: Eveline is a little postlapsarian Eve, remembering a time before she had to earn her bread by the sweat of her brow. As a child she had lived in circumstances that, in contrast with her adult life, seemed (a verb Joyce uses with ironic force) a muted version of paradise. She played in fields that have now disappeared: "they seemed to have been rather happy then…. That was a long time ago." Now in a dusty fallen world she hopes for salvation and thinks at first that the Messiah may indeed have arrived: Frank, her sailor suitor, "would take her in his arms, fold her in his arms. He would save her." In the end she refuses his bell-like litany: "Come! …Come!" Along with this clear but not schematic pattern, Joyce emphasizes ambiguities. Eveline's twilight musing on home and the adventurous alternative to which she "had consented" poses the explicit question for reader and character, "Was it wise?"

Even in this very early work Joyce demonstrates his mastery of form. He divides the story into three distinct parts that, though related to the three periods of time on which Eveline focuses, are more than a simple chronological sequence. "Eveline" is cast in a formal pattern found often in Dubliners: a long initial expository passage, exploring problems but containing little action that might lead to a climax, is followed by a short conclusion in which possibilities of further development come to nothing. The first two parts of this story, in which Eveline sits at the window, make up the exposition, while the third contains the brief flurry of action and inaction at the wharf. Especially characteristic of Joyce's stylistic skill is the way the first two parts are related. Part one begins with the description of Eveline at the window: "She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue. Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired." After her first long evocation of past, present, and future, Joyce returns to that opening to begin the short second part: "Her time was running out but she continued to sit by the window, leaning her head against the window curtain, inhaling the odour of dusty cretonne." Now the dust of the curtains is not simply "in her nostrils"; she actively inhales it. The addition of the verb is indicative of Eveline's growing change of heart as Joyce prepares us for her final rejection of salvation.

Repetition with variation is central to Joyce's quasi-musical methods of composition both in this story and throughout his career. In this very brief short story the important words "home" and "house" occur with varying resonance 18 times. After the opening of the second part the first important motif to be reconsidered is the relationship of music to promises. In part one Eveline remembers the "yellowing photograph" of the priest that "hung on the wall above the broken harmonium beside the promises made to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque." Unlike the principal characters in Dubliners, the priest has managed to escape (to Australia). In part two music and promises are again juxtaposed as Eveline hears a street organ and thinks it strange "that it should come that very night to remind her of the promise to her mother, her promise to keep the home together as long as she could." She also remembers an occasion on which her father ordered an Italian organ player to go away: "Damned Italians! Coming over here!" Both passages are closely related to the promises made by Frank to Eveline. Music has played an important part in their courtship. He "was awfully fond of music," he sang her "The Lass That Loves a Sailor," and he took her to see The Bohemian Girl. Now he promises her a better life. Her father, however, who dismissed the Italian organ grinder, now effectively orders Frank away, too: "her father … had forbidden her to have anything to say to him."

Early in the story Joyce indicates through Eveline's use of language why she will not, in fact, be able to escape. Dublin has so reduced her that she is unworthy to do so. She thinks in clichés: "the invariable squabble for money on Saturday nights had begun to weary her unspeakably"; "as she mused the pitiful vision of her mother's life laid its spell on the very quick of her being…"; Frank, whose apparently genuine affection she does not reciprocate, is her "lover." In the same vein she thinks (in part one), "Everything changes. Now she was going to go away like the others, to leave her home." These last two sentences are characteristic of Joyce's method. While there have been superficial changes in Dublin and in Eveline's personal circumstances, they have made no significant difference to the patterns of people's lives. Similarly, although the early parts of the stories often give the impression of containing much busy activity, it is rare for anything important to happen.

While Eveline's verbal imagination dominates the first two parts of the story, juxtapositions and the narrative content induce the reader to see beyond it. When she thinks that "few people passed" the reader is prepared for the "passage," twice mentioned, which Frank has booked for her and which she will reject. In the third part the narrator begins to take more positive control. Eveline's style slowly gives way to a voice, familiar elsewhere in much of Joyce's work before Finnegans Wake, which speaks in quiet, rhythmic cadences and uses formal diction unavailable to Eveline: the boat has "illumined portholes"; Eveline "kept moving her lips in silent fervent prayer"; and "her eyes gave no sign of love or farewell or recognition." While Eveline herself is unable to escape, Joyce quietly extracts the reader from the pitiful but deadening effects of her imaginative world.

—Clive Hart