James Joyce: An Introduction Through ‘Eveline’
The only demand I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.
To the uninitiated, the cannon of James Joyce is a daunting prospect with dubious reward for those who immerse themselves in it. The first half of this statement, at least, is correct. We should not delude ourselves: Joyce is a difficult writer. Yet for those who have the dedication and the patience to peer through his often willful obscurity, the rewards are all too obvious. As with all true masterpieces, his works only give up their secrets after years of careful study.
There is much to admire in Joyce; beauty and humanity, passages as poetic as any found in Shakespeare or Milton. In short, there is much to steal in Joyce. ‘Finnegans Wake’ and ‘Ulysses’ are literary supernovas, throwing core matter out into the cosmos that new life might be formed. Any author with ambitions of immortality would do well to take Joyce’s advice and study his novels in detail, for to read him is to open a linguistic third eye to literature’s glorious potential.
The fifteen short stories that make up ‘Dubliners’ (D) are a gentler introduction to Joyce’s world, but still require the reader to peer beyond their mere physicality. To examine why this is so, we will look in detail at the book’s fourth episode, ‘Eveline’.
As with all his major works, the plot of ‘Eveline’ is subordinate to the devices that Joyce employs to narrate it. The story conforms to ‘Dubliners’ general theme of inertia and futility in turn of the century Dublin. Eveline is nineteen. Her mother has died years before, leaving her to raise two young siblings and keep the family home in order. Her father is a drunk, prone to bouts of violence. She has a menial job in the ‘Stores’ and is demeaned by her superior, Miss Gavan. Her life is an unending cycle of servitude and drudgery, where each day varies only incrementally from the one which preceded it.
Into this scene steps Frank. Frank is ‘very kind, manly, open-hearted’. He has run away to sea and ‘fallen on his feet in Buenos Ares’. He is the antithesis of Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’, with a ‘face of bronze’ to identify him, like the bronze spears brandished by the Jason1 of Greek legend, as the embodiment of the new age, in opposition to the stone age mentality of the Old Country. Frank wants Eveline to be his wife in Argentina, ‘where he [has] a home waiting for her’. As the story opens, we find her sitting by the window, trying to decide whether or not to leave. Despite one brief burst of action, where she fears only Frank can rescue her from suffering the same fate as her mother, she finds herself paralysed at the quayside as Frank boards the boat alone.
Joyce uses a range of techniques to express both Eveline’s passivity and the oppressive weight of those around her. Firstly, there is her absence of voice. Although we are privy to Eveline’s train of thought, as she tries to ‘weigh each side of the question’, we never actually hear her speak. Her persecutors, on the other hand, are frequently vocal. Her father, Miss Gavin, even the deathbed gibberish of her mother, all are heard in ‘Eveline’, while she herself remains forever silent. Of course Frank also has a speaking part, but we will examine the significance of this later on.
The ubiquitous dust of the family home is also stifling. “She looked round the room, reviewing all its familiar objects which she had dusted once a week for so many years, wondering where on earth all the dust came from.” Joyce reinforces threefold the sense of decay by the repetition of ‘dusted’, ‘earth’ and ‘dust’. The priest‘s yellowing photograph redoubles this effect, whereas the significance of the broken harmonium should be all too obvious.
Dust also serves as a metaphor for the oppressive weight of the past, which shackles Eveline to her servile life and keeps her inert at story’s end. The odour of dusty cretonne invades the senses, as the past haunting the present, a hand pressed against her shoulder preventing her from leaving. The evening’s impeding darkness is also an intruder here, symbolising the long march of time, as she hurtles towards the point at which she will be forced to make a decision.
We have seen how Eveline’s lack of voice is relevant to her sense of oppression, but the literary voice is also important to the story. Consider the sentence in the opening paragraph: “Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne.” Here, Joyce is using the passive voice to express Eveline’s passivity. She does not lean her head against the window curtains, her head is leaned against them, as if acting independently of her. Moreover, rather than breathing in the odour of dusty cretonne, it is the odour that is in her nostrils, forcing its way into her lungs, with all that this implies. Eveline is inactive, resigned to her fate, when all that is required of her is to board a boat and be free2.
Now, compare this to later in the story, as the evening deepens in the avenue. Eveline continues to sit, but now Joyce employs the active voice. She leans ‘her head against the window curtain, inhaling the odour of dusty cretonne’, perfectly inverting the passage at the beginning of the story.
This section follows on from the statement that her father could be ‘very nice’, but it seems that in nineteen years, Eveline can only recall two instances where her father has showed anything like warmth towards his family. Here we see Eveline desperately trying to justify to herself why she should not leave Ireland, yet all that she can come up with is that her father once made her toast and read her a ghost story and had, years before, put on his wife’s bonnet and made the children laugh. Eveline has tried to ‘weigh each side of the question’, but it seems the pros for leaving vastly outweigh the cons. The shift from the passive to active voice signposts Eveline’s subconscious realisation that there really is little to keep her in Dublin. However, by actively inhaling the dust, with all its associations to the past, she can equally be argued to be consciously resigning herself to her fate. She may stand in terror, protesting that she must escape, but what little energy Eveline can muster is expended with this one defiant act and, her defences spent, the curse of all Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ claims her.
All of the above techniques are further evidenced in Joyce’s description of Frank. Consider the paragraph in which we are first introduced to him, which it is worth quoting here in full:
“She was about to explore another life with Frank. Frank was very kind, manly, open-hearted. She was to go away with him by the night-boat to be his wife and to live with him in Buenos Ayres where he had a home waiting for her. How well she remembered the first time she had seen him; he was lodging in a house on the main road where she used to visit. It seemed a few weeks ago. He was standing at the gate, his peaked cap pushed back on his head and his hair tumbled forward over a face of bronze. Then they had come to know each other. He used to meet her outside the Stores every evening and see her home. He took her to see The Bohemian Girl and she felt elated as she sat in an unaccustomed part of the theatre with him. He was awfully fond of music and sang a little. People knew that they were courting and, when he sang about the lass that loves a sailor, she always felt pleasantly confused. He used to call her Poppens out of fun. First of all it had been an excitement for her to have a fellow and then she had begun to like him. He had tales of distant countries. He had started as a deck boy at a pound a month on a ship of the Allan Line going out to Canada. He told her the names of the ships he had been on and the names of the different services. He had sailed through the Straits of Magellan and he told her stories of the terrible Patagonians. He had fallen on his feet in Buenos Ayres, he said, and had come over to the old country just for a holiday. Of course, her father had found out the affair and had forbidden her to have anything to say to him.”
Despite his name, there is nothing straightforward about Frank. Joyce’s genius is to extol Frank’s virtues, while allowing the syntax to convey the opposite view. Close reading of the above passage reveals that of nineteen sentences, eleven begin with, ‘Frank’ or ‘He’. Conversely only two begin with, ‘She’, both of which appear at the front of the paragraph. At no point is Eveline mentioned by name. Taking this exert out of context, it can be seen that Eveline begins by being active and independent. However, from Frank’s first introduction by name he comes to dominate her more and more, until, ‘He’, virtually begins every sentence. Partially, this can be thought of as conveying a young girl’s obsession with her paramour (My boyfriend took me to see the Bohemian Girl; my boyfriend is awfully fond of music; my boyfriend started as a deck boy at a pound a month). Yet in the main Joyce is trying to demonstrate how Eveline’s passivity is such that she is easily manipulated even by those who treat her with kindness. Frank’s total domination of Eveline in this passage also offers an insight into why she ultimately turns away from him.
To expand this point further, consider the third sentence. “She was to go away with him by the night-boat to be his wife and to live with him in Buenos Ayres where he had a home waiting for her.” The first thing to note is that it contains no punctuation. This is open to interpretation, but one way to write this sentence might be: She was to go away with him by the night-boat, to be his wife and to live with him in Buenos Ayres, where he had a home waiting for her. I don’t think it is particularly controversial to say that this is probably deliberate, Joyce was famous for his rejection of punctuation where it suited his purposes3. The lack of punctuation is meant to convey the idea that Frank’s courtship and desire to take Eveline away with him has had happening at pace, overwhelming her, like a form of sensory overload. Moreover, ‘she was to go away with him’, ‘be his wife’ and ‘live with him’ in a place ‘where he had a home waiting for her’. Frank may be portrayed as a kind, open-hearted man, but the way Joyce structures his sentences shows Eveline to be as subservient to her lover as everyone else in her life. Agreeing to ‘go away with him’, it seems, is the nearest she ever comes to expressing anything approaching free will.
This theme is continued throughout the paragraph. Although, ‘they had come to know each other’, there is little equality in this relationship. ‘He used to meet her’; ‘He took her to see the Bohemian Girl’; He told her the names of the ships he had been on’, Frank is literally a man of action to Eveline’s passive doormat. He is the subject of almost every sentence; Eveline the eternal object. Joyce gives us no physical description of Eveline, but it can be assumed that she is a fairly plain creature, unaccustomed to receiving such attentions. The fact that she works at the ‘Stores’, where she must come into contact with male customers on a regular basis, coupled with her statement that it had firstly ‘been an excitement for her to have a fellow’, gives credence to this view. That she had then ‘begun to like him’, also suggests what a novelty it is for her to have a man interested in her, that an attraction to him has only begun after the fact. The motivation for Frank’s interest in her is unclear, but there is a sense that he is more drawn to her domestic skills than her personally, as if she could be anybody. The sentence we considered in the previous paragraph is evidence of this, but his calling of her, ‘Poppens out of fun’, also suggests that he thinks of her as some kind of joke.
Skipping forward, we see that even Eveline doubts Frank‘s motivations. “He would give her life, perhaps even love too.” As we have explored, she fears suffering the same fate as her mother, that she will live out the same pitiful life, ‘that life of commonplace sacrifices’, the menial mentality that has been imposed upon by religious indoctrination, which Eveline believes has ended her mother’s life prematurely. Frank is Eveline’s salvation, who will, ‘take her in his arms, fold her in his arms’. “Frank would save her.”
So, why does Eveline reject escape? Well, many commentators state that it is because of the promise she has made to her mother on her deathbed to, ‘keep the home together as long as she could’. There is also the suggestion that, having put on his wife’s bonnet all those years ago, Eveline’s father has associated himself with the nurturing instincts of the mother, triggering a maternal response from the daughter. However, I cannot see that there is any one reason which we can positively identify for her decision. In an important sense, Eveline is always destined to reject her one chance of escape. Not only does she review those ‘familiar objects from which she had never dreamed of being divided’, foreshadowing her ultimate decision, but the phrase ‘familiar objects’ itself is used twice in quick succession, reinforcing this idea.
Joyce also embeds in ‘Eveline’ an idea of foreigners and foreign shores being associated with danger and misery. There is the Belfast man who has built strange houses on the field where Eveline and her friends once played as children. The Waters’ return to England is prefaced by mention of her mother and Tizzie Dunn being dead. There are also the ‘terrible Patagonians’ and the ‘damned Italians’ with their, ‘melancholy airs’. In comparison, Dublin seems relatively sedate. At face value, the pros for leaving outweigh the cons. However, Joyce is a master at narrative structure and with his syntactic description of Frank, he shifts the balance in the opposite direction, establishing an equilibrium between the two sides. Given two equally undesirable options, better the devil you know. The final nail comes when we finally hear Frank speak. ‘Come’ he repeats, effectively identifying himself with her tormentors, the only other voices that echo within ‘Eveline’.
‘Eveline’ is not only deeply autobiographical, but contains motifs that appear again and again in Joyce’s work. Mary, Joyce’s mother, had died of cancer in 1903. She haunts the pages of Ulysses, causing Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s alter ego, to cry out, ‘No mother. Let me be and let me live.’ His father, John Joyce, was a Cork born man who squandered his inheritance and spent much of his time drinking. He appears in some form in all of Joyce’s novels, most notably as Simon Dedalus. And Frank and Eveline themselves are caricatures of Joyce and his girlfriend, eventually wife, Nora Barnacle. The two eloped to Europe in 1904 and it has been suggested that with ‘Eveline’, Joyce is demonstrating what Nora’s life may have been like had she not left Dublin. Joyce is identified as Frank by the peaked cap pushed back on his head4.
There is much more to say on the subject of ‘Eveline’ (thousands of words have been written on it, far exceeding the stories actual length), but I hope I have been able to give some insight into why this early piece is an important portal into James Joyce’s fascinating world. Without this insight, ‘Dubliners’ can appear boring. Indeed, Joyce purposefully gives the book a mundane veneer, which he uses to convey the tedious existence that his characters find themselves frozen within. Eveline’s name is well chosen in this regard. Middle class Dublin life is a form of purgatory, yet, despite everything, Buenos Ares offers a kind of return to the Garden of Eden.
As a critic once wrote, “James Joyce was and remains almost unique among novelists in that he published nothing but masterpieces.” I agree, and would urge all brave souls to scale his heights. Just be sure that you are well equipped before you do so.
1 Jason, of course, was also a sailor.
2 Incidentally, Eveline is the only character in ‘Dubliners’ for whom the opportunity of escape presents itself.
3 See the Penelope episode of ‘Ulysses’.
4 Cf: ‘Two Gallants’ (D): ‘A yachting cap was shoved far back from his forehead and the narrative to which he listened made constant waves of expression break forth over his face from the corners of his nose and eyes and mouth.’.