A commentary on “Eveline” (James Joyce)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
The opening of “Eveline” (1904-1907; published in 1914), from Dubliners, by James Joyce:
She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue.
Notice that Eveline is not named at the beginning of the story. Her name is given in the title, it is true, but not in the first sentence of the text. She is a nameless, passive percipient, rather than an agent (an actor). She does not act; she observes. It is the evening that is performing an action; it is the evening that is acting. The evening is invading—Eveline is already paralyzed, immobile, static at the very opening of the story, as she will be at the story’s close.
Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired.
Joyce does not write, “She leaned her head against the window curtains…” He writes that her head was leaned. The head is described as an object, as the object of an action. The head was leaned—this means that Eveline was not leaning her own head; someone or something was leaning her head against the window curtains. The use of the passive voice illuminates Eveline’s own passivity and immobility.
In her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne: The odour of the heavy fabric enveloping the furniture was invading Eveline’s nostrils. Again, an image of invasion, of infiltration, of violation. She was tired: This was Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite of all sentences, presumably because the simplicity of the language is a red herring, distracting the reader from the complexities of the text-web.
Few people passed. 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.
The last house where? Where is the cinder path? Where are the new red houses? It is difficult to locate any of these things. Joyce is generally very good with space and with describing the placement of objects within spaces, but here, he leaves it to the reader to imagine where the last house is, where the cinder path is, and where the new red houses are.
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.
Notice that Eveline places herself after the Devines, the Waters, the Dunns, and little Keogh the cripple. Eveline puts herself at the end of the line. Already we have a sense that this girl has abysmal self-esteem.
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.
“In” and “out” are a strange coupling of prepositions. What does it mean to hunt children in out of the field? Shouldn’t the independent clause read: Her father used often to hunt them out of the field? Incidentally: “To keep nix” means “to be on the lookout.”
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.
If Eveline’s father was not so bad then, just imagine how bad he is when the story takes place.
Home! 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.
Eveline identifies herself as a duster-of-inanimate-objects.
Perhaps she would never see again those familiar objects from which she had never dreamed of being divided.
She does not distinguish herself from the static objects that surround her. At the end of the story, when she has the opportunity to realize her human freedom and spontaneity, she imitates the inertia of inactive objects.
And yet during all those years she had never found out the name of the priest whose yellowing photograph hung on the wall above the broken harmonium beside the coloured print of the promises made to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque.
Beloved of Irish Catholics, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque was a French Catholic nun who was the embodiment to pious devotion to tradition—much in the same way that Eveline is piously devoted to her family and her homeland.
He had been a school friend of her father. Whenever he showed the photograph to a visitor her father used to pass it with a casual word:
“He is in Melbourne now.”
She had consented to go away, to leave her home.
The fact that she describes her decision to escape Dublin as one of consent implies that she does not see that decision as her own, but rather as one that has been made for her and one to which she has assented.
Was that wise? She tried to weigh each side of the question.
Apparently, she assented reluctantly. Her mind has not yet been made up. The reader also is invited to weigh each side of the question: Should she leave? Should she have left? No answer is given. A literary work of art, “Eveline” provokes questions that it never answers; it never gives readers the means of answering these questions.
In her home anyway she had shelter and food; she had those whom she had known all her life about her. Of course she had to work hard, both in the house and at business. What 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; and her place would be filled up by advertisement. Miss Gavan would be glad. She had always had an edge on her, especially whenever there were people listening.
“Miss Hill, don’t you see these ladies are waiting?”
“Look lively, Miss Hill, please.”
She would not cry many tears at leaving the Stores.
But in her new home, in a distant unknown country, it would not be like that. Then she would be married—she, Eveline. People would treat her with respect then. She would not be treated as her mother had been. Even now, though she was over nineteen, she sometimes felt herself in danger of her father’s violence. She knew it was that that had given her the palpitations.
At this point, one has to wonder why any person of sense would want to stay in the Hill household. Her father is abusive; this much is clear. She is treated derogatorily by her employer, Miss Gavan. Her brother Ernest and her mother are dead. She is suffering from violent paroxysms, tremors brought on by her father’s abuse. What is there to keep her in Dublin? And trying her luck in the open air of Buenos Ayres would afford her a new possibility. Though not everything that is possible is positive, at least she would have the possibility of something positive being brought into her life.
[Frank] told [Eveline] 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.
Now, the bit about the Patagonians makes me wonder if Frank is a liar. A chronicler of Magellan’s expeditions wrote that the Patagonians were a race of giants. Is Frank repeating the same myth of the “terrible Patagonians”? If Frank is telling Eveline such nonsense, this should lead us to question the integrity of his intentions.
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.
“I know these sailor chaps,” he said.
Is the father necessarily incorrect? As dour as Eveline’s life is in Dublin, is it not preferable to being seduced and abandoned in South America? There is no way to know with authority whether or not Frank is a reptilian seducer. He very well might be a boa constrictor in human form. Not even Frank might know if he is a seducer, if we consider the unconscious sources of human cognition and activity. Frank is inscrutable to us, and perhaps Frank is even inscrutable to himself. The inscrutability of Frank summons forth the indeterminacy of life itself.
Sometimes [Eveline’s father] could be very nice. Not long before, when [Eveline] had been laid up for a day, he had read her out a ghost story and made toast for her at the fire. Another day, when their mother was alive, they had all gone for a picnic to the Hill of Howth. She remembered her father putting on her mother’s bonnet to make the children laugh.
The atypical tenderness of the father only serves to underline his general abusiveness.
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.
The grammar changes here: Now, Eveline is playing a more active role: She was leaning her head, she was inhaling the odour of dusty cretonne.
Down far in the avenue she could hear a street organ playing. She knew the air. 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 remembered the last night of her mother’s illness; she was again in the close dark room at the other side of the hall and outside she heard a melancholy air of Italy.
The song of the Italian organ player conjures the most dominant figure in Eveline’s life. Neither her father, her surviving brother Harry, nor Frank, her lover, but rather her dead-yet-deathless mother. The mother is resurrected, invoked by the organ-player’s song, and reminds Eveline of the latter’s death-bed oath to glue together the unglueable pieces of their shattered family. As if to hook and draw Eveline into the tomb. To save her from life.
The organ-player had been ordered to go away and given sixpence. She remembered her father strutting back into the sickroom saying:
“Damned Italians! coming over here!”
The father’s hatred of itinerant foreigners stands in contrast to the Wanderlust of Frank, an émigré from Ireland who travels to the “good air” of Buenos Ayres.
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.
Notice the use of the verb to close. Three sentences before, Joyce used close as an adjective. Here, he is using close as a verb. This is paronomasia (punning). An adjective in one sentence is used as a verb in another. The fact that Joyce is using close twice in proximity means something: Close evokes the sepulchral narrowness of the life that Eveline will choose.
She trembled as she heard again her mother’s voice saying constantly with foolish insistence:
“Derevaun Seraun! Derevaun Seraun!”
This is, apparently, corrupt Gaelic for: “The end of pleasure is pain! The end of pleasure is pain!” It is as if the mother were admonishing her daughter from beyond the grave to avoid pleasure—to live in a narrow life of nunnish self-renunciation, to stay mired in the misery in Dublin, to languish in Dublin, to duplicate the self-negations of her mother and the insanities of her mother’s dying. These are irenic words, sibylline utterances. They are necrotic commandments, words spoken from the tomb, words spoken from deathness.
She stood up in a sudden impulse of terror. Escape! She must escape! Frank would save her. He would give her life, perhaps love, too. But she wanted to live. Why should she be unhappy? She had a right to happiness. Frank would take her in his arms, fold her in his arms. He would save her.
And she would not, then, save herself? This passage highlights, more than any other, why Eveline is immobilized. Rather than will to escape, she wills not to have a will. She wills to let someone else make the decisions for her. Her absence of self-determination is the reason that she is likely condemned to the self-negating boredom and insanity that marked her mother’s life.
Through the wide doors of the sheds [Eveline] caught a glimpse of the black mass of the boat, lying in beside the quay wall, with illumined portholes.
Joyce, again, is very good at describing place—particularly, at describing blockages. A less talented writer would have merely pointed to the existence of the boat. A less talented writer would have merely described the boat. Joyce describes the visual impediments, the obstructions that impede the view of the ocean liner. The black mass of the boat is seen through the wide doors of the sheds—an image of blockage, of separation. The sheds are emblematic of the self-imposed barriers that divide Eveline from freedom.
Amid the seas she sent a cry of anguish.
It is difficult to believe, but Joyce—one of the greatest literary artists who ever lived—makes a usage error in this passage. Amid, which means “in the midst of,” should only be placed before singular nouns. Seas is a plural noun and should take among.
[Eveline] set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.
Nothing has changed within Eveline since the opening of the story. She is immobile from the beginning of the story unto its end. The blankness of her eyes—their illegibility, their incomprehensible nothingness—can be interpreted to signify anything. Readers may introject their own meanings into those null eyes.
Dr. Joseph Suglia