‘Eveline’ by James Joyce: Short Story Analysis
‘Eveline’ is a story about a nineteen-year-old girl unsure whether she wants to break away from her family or her past. She is in love with a young South American who wants to take her to Buenos Ayres. Her lover’s name is Frank and he is offering her a life of freedom, a life devoid of conventions, as well as freedom from loyalty to the past. But as the story unfolds, we realize that the past is too dear to Eveline and so at the end of the story, we are left wondering whether she took up the offer of her lover Frank and went on board the boat going to South America or stayed behind in her home in Ireland. This ‘tussle’ with loyalty to the past and a yearning to live life on one’s terms sans the conventions of one’s family and race, is the main theme of this story penned by James Joyce.
James Joyce was one of the most influential writers of the early twentieth century. This is one of his finest stories where he speaks about various aspects of the young Eveline’s life:
- Her attachment to her family, home, old friends, and the place where she spent her whole life, which was Ireland.
- Her comfort with her family and her workplace. She was even content with the hard work she had to put in to look after her home and the store run by Miss Gavan, so long as it was something familiar.
- Her being in danger of physical or sexual abuse by her father. There is a hint that Eveline sometimes felt herself ‘in danger of her father’s violence’ now that she was older and her two brothers were not around to protect her.
- Her sticking to the protocol of a young poor girl in poverty-ridden Ireland.
- Her loyalty and fond memories of her old childhood friends and how she remembered the field where they used to play even at the age of nineteen.
- Her fondness for her abusive father. She was in danger of his abuse but saw good points in him. She remembers the time he read a ghost story to her and gave her toast when she was sick. She also remembers a time when at a picnic he donned her mother’s bonnet to make her laugh.
- Her vow to her dying mother who ordered her to take care of the home and the family.
Notice that the points I’ve focused on are the reasons why she can’t let go of the past and has a fondness for all that it contains. Some individuals do not forget their past so easily. Eveline Hill was one such person. However, it is one’s connection to the past that sometimes limits us, making us unable to enjoy life to the fullest. Eveline’s loyalty to her past is so strong that even though a good life awaits her in South America, she still clings to her past that can give her nothing but add to her already painful existence.
Eveline Hill loves a man called Frank. He suddenly drops into her life and tries in various ways to make Eveline connect with a more freethinking and independent part of her life.
- Frank takes her to see the opera ‘The Bohemian Girl’ which is all about free-spiritedness and freedom.
- He sings songs to her about her being a sailor’s girl indicative that he wants her to be his lover and to be as free as he is.
- He wants to take her to Buenos Ayres which is the capital of Argentina which translates as ‘Fair Winds’. This is indicative that they would have a wonderful life together.
- He called her ‘Poppens’ which is a word indicative of courting and having sex in an atmosphere of freedom.
- It is he who convinces her that she should leave with him to South America.
- He tells her tales of distant countries. He tells her about how he passed through the Strait of Magellan and how he saw the Patagonians there which is a term to indicate the South Africans, etc.
She marveled at his tales and his affection for her. He wanted her to gain freedom from her father, but Eveline was in two minds and she could not give up her past so easily. The two most painful times in Eveline’s life was the day her favorite elder brother Ernest died and the day her mother died on her sickbed. Her mother died saying the famous James Joyce phrase – ‘Derevaun Seraun – Derevaun Seraun’. The words mentioned previously were odious. It most probably was coined by Joyce himself to mean ‘at the end of pleasure there is pain’. This is the most Irish-Gaelic term in this short story and it hits the mark. May be Eveline’s mother was warning her in two ways:
- If she doesn’t look after the home or her family after her death and leads a life of pleasure, the pain will follow soon after that.
- If she stays with her abusive father in the old home living her old life, she is surely in for pain.
I think the former point is more plausible but it is left to conjecture. I would like to draw your attention to the friends who played on the field with Eveline. They were an inclusive group and very close-knit. They had even a cripple boy in their group showing their inclusiveness. However, they had all gone away in one way or another. Most left the place due to death and Eveline wonders whether her going away with Frank to South America is like a ‘death’ in itself. If it indeed is death, it is a death that she doesn’t want to happen to her, because she cannot let go of her memories, neither the good nor the bad.
Yet, despite all this fixation with memories and the past, Eveline, even at such a late stage in her life is still unaware of the name or history of a yellowing photograph of a Catholic priest hung in her room. She has never asked her father in her nineteen years of life who he was and has only learned when he spoke to a guest that he was now in Melbourne, Australia. So, you witness the tension between father and daughter, and yet there is that attachment which is so paradoxical.
At the end of the story, Eveline seems unwilling to board the boat. She holds on to the iron railing while Frank calls her to follow him. We are left on a cliff hanger; does she go or does she stay back. There are hints in the story indicating that most likely she stayed back because:
- Her father was against the relationship.
- He felt ‘sailor chaps’ did not make good or loyal husbands.
- She felt Miss Gavan as well as the whole neighborhood would look down upon her running off with a ‘fellow’.
- Her promise to her dying mother that she would never leave her home or family.
- The emotive last line of the story.
There is a beautiful line in the short story which speaks about the seas of the world tumbling about her heart and Eveline’s fear of being drowned in the ‘vastness’ of Frank’s freedom and free life. She seems unwilling to drown her past in him. But we are left wondering: Did she go or didn’t she? The last line says that her eyes:
- Gave him no sign of love, which could mean that her little love affair and infatuation for him had come to an end.
- Gave him no sign of a farewell, which indicates she has no emotions regarding his departure; she was not happy nor pained about it.
- Gave him no sign of recognition, which indicates that now he was a stranger to her and has been removed from her life.
I loved analyzing this short story. It’s a very emotive one, brimming with so much inner turmoil. I hope to read more of James Joyce’s short stories soon and will analyze them on my blog.
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