James Joyce introduces Eveline’s life as extremely mundane, excited only by the arrival of a man from Buenos Ayres: her lover Frank. Thus, Joyce creates an extreme situation, contrasting harshly between a life of painful domesticity or near serv
itude and one of utmost risk. The extremity of her circumstances allows for fear, the prominent emotion studied in this short story, to largely guide Eveline’s choices and actions. Ultimately, James Joyce’s Eveline is a representation of how a person’s fear of the unknown can keep them trapped in their own unhappiness, reduced to their bare instincts and stripped of the ability to seize what they truly desire.
Throughout the entire short story, Joyce provides a multitude of evidence that displays how Eveline is unhappy in her current life. She feels hopeless and trapped, yearning to escape the ties of living life as she always has. Some events that contribute to her unhappiness are her mother’s illness and eventual death, leaving her to exist alone with her controlling father. She begins to resent him in some ways, as he takes her wages and requires her to clean the constantly dusty house. In fact, the house that seems to constantly be dirtying itself, leaving Eveline to wonder “where on earth all the dust came from”
(Joyce 1), can be seen as a motif for Eveline’s life story: she is stuck in a cycle of cleaning, scrubbing at the house, working a job she hates, but no matter how hard she works nothing will ever change while she stays at home. In this comparison, her house can be said to represent the entire city of Dublin. In a compounding isolating event, Joyce makes it known that her brothers have sought out opportunities to make lives for themselves, moving away from Dublin and seeking out careers. Thus, Eveline is again left at home to live the wishes of other people, namely her late mother, by taking care of her father. This situation can be further connected to the gender roles of the time, allowing men to have more freedom to create their own lives.
Throughout the general description of Eveline’s life it becomes obvious she is living for others: her boss unfairly critiques her and pushes her around, and she is largely influenced by nearly every aspect of her father’s character. Interestingly enough, some may argue that Eveline eventually refusing to follow Frank’s wishes and leave with him overseas is one of the first times she has directly defied another person in her life. However, by refusing to leave with him she is complying with the assumed wishes of nearly every othe
r influence in her life (her father, namely), and it can be assumed that she is not defying Frank’s demands to be her own person, but rather because she is scared to act on her own accord for the first time ever.
A large part of the climax and action of the story comes when Eveline realizes the fact that she has been existing rather than truly living the entire time she has been alive. Through many of Joyce’s works, this is a common theme: characters are set in a kind of “living death” that consumes them until they finally come to a moment of realization that can be identified as an epiphany. Eveline’s epiphany comes as follows: “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” (Joyce 5). She is physically affected as a realization shoots through her, causing her to experience a mass wave of emotion unusual for her normally mundane existence. In this moment, she sees Frank as nothing more than an escape. Her thoughts prove that she does not truly love him, meaning the only reason she would leave with him is to seek out a different life for herself. In this moment, Eveline is able to temporarily overcome her fears, using language such as “must” and even claiming she has “a right to happiness”. However, this strong wave of emotion is temporary, as she is quickly overcome by fear when the time to act actually arrives.
Interestingly enough, much of the language of the final mo
ments of the story does not deal with human emotion. Rather, Eveline evolves into a creature of base instinct: desperate to survive, rather than passionate about seizing back her own life as she was during her recent epiphany. Common language throughout the last moments of the story can be summed up by the line: “All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart. He was drawing her into them: he would drown her. She gripped with both hands at the iron railing” (Joyce 6). The motifs of the seas and hands are repeated throughout the scene, demonstrating the raw desperation Eveline is experiencing. She has to choose between taking a chance across the actual seas, risking the actual possibility of drowning, and staying in Dublin where she is theoretically safe, but drowning amidst the seas of her own heart. The imagery of Evelin
e visibly gripping the railing is a very literal translation for how she is gripping to her life in Dublin. At one point, Frank grips her hand, intending to draw her with him onto the ship. Eveline takes this as a sign he is bringing her to her doom of drowning with him, and instead reverts back to gripping the railing, securing her to her homeland and what she knows is safe. In this moment, all traces of the vibrant Eveline from her previous epiphany have vanished, and she is left with only her fear and the actions that result from it.
At the end of the passage, Joyce writes that “She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition” (Joyce 6). In this moment, Eveline is not experiencing any emotions and is seemingly animalistic in her actions, or lack thereof. She finds herself incapable of taking a lea
p of faith with Frank, despite the absurd hopelessness she feels in her current life in Dublin. Like a deer in the headlights, she is paralyzed by fear, unable to force herself to move, but at the same time doomed if she does not. By using this reference, Joyce compares human emotion to basic animal instinct, identifying fear as the factor that reduces the usual complexity humans hold in their emotions. In this scenario, Eveline doesn’t face almost certain death if she stays at home, but she does face an almost worse fate: existing without living, with her passions and soul dying before her physical form does.
James Joyce’s Eveline is an incredibly complex short story that examines the nature of human fear and how the emotion can prevent an individual from acting on their true desires. By contrasting the incredible mundanity of Eveline’s normal life with the fantasy of escaping her oppressive lifestyle with her lover, Joyce creates an all or nothing type situation that places his character at a massive turning point in her life. The climax of the story reveals that fear of the unknown is able to prevent Eveline from seizing a chance at true happiness, as she is reduced to a very base emotional state by the actual event of leaving everything she has ever known. The story cuts off at Eveline’s passiveness, leaving t
he reader to assume she lived the rest of her life the way she lived her one opportunity for escape: paralyzed by fear and unable to act when it was most necessary. Thus, Joyce warns his audience of the dangers of allowing fear to limit one’s life, demonstrating how the emotion can strip one of opportunities to achieve their true desires.
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