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I take the theme of 'Eveline' to be one of Joyce's key preoccupations, the idea of paralysis, our inability to break out of situations that have become home for us, even when those situations are unpleasant or worse. Most of the story is taken up with Eveline's reflections and her attempts to balance her decision: 'She tried to weigh each side of the question.' But it is fairly clear from the sheer volume of people and things that she reflects on that she is desperately attached to them, however perverse it may seem. Her father is a deeply unattractive figure who controls her life and yet she finds a few pathetic good memories of him, telling her a story and making toast for her when she was ill and putting on her mother's bonnet for a laugh. The fact that she notes his ageing is also a clue that she will not follow through on her emigration from Ireland.
So I take the story to stand for any such situation in which the familiar, however oppressive or enslaving it might be, is always preferable to the adventurous or romantic or exotic. It is a strange but true fact of life that women often remain with abusive partners, for example, or that bullied people court the approval and company of those who bully them. Eveline can see the emptiness of her life and knows she must escape - the word is emphasized twice with exclamation marks - but her paralysis at the end of the story confirms what we the readers have picked up already from the way her mind is working: she will never have the courage to do it.
Some interpretations go much further and see Eveline as a symbol of Ireland under British rule and basically more comfortable that way than trying to become an independent nation, but then Joyce has been interpreted in so many different ways that you'll have to make up your own mind about that! Good luck in your reading.
The main themes in Eveline are Paralysis, Epiphany, Stream of Consciousness and Irish Social Conditions and Emigration.
Paralysis This sense of stagnation or paralysis is emphasized with the very words Joyce uses. The story “Eveline” presents an excellent example. The protagonist barely moves throughout the tale. The verbs which describe her are often verbs of inaction, for example “sat” in the first paragraph. Verbs are also deliberately presented in the passive form: “Her head was leaned.” This stress on inaction or paralysis culminates with the visual description of Eveline frozen, “passive, like a helpless animal.”
Epiphany The first epiphany, most certainly secular, occurs when Eveline is jolted to action at the remembrance of her mother repeating the nonsensical phrase, “Derevaun Seraun.” As Eveline prepares to depart, she experiences another epiphany. “A bell clanged upon her heart.” The vision is of drowning.
Stream of Consciousness Joyce’s “Eveline” presents an early, less-experimental use of a stream of consciousness–while not an actual stream of consciousness, the description of Eveline’s thoughts and emotions dominate the text; most of the “action” (there is virtually none) takes place within Eveline. The prose conveys her thoughts, emotions and memories rather than describing a temporal series of events.
Irish Social Conditions and Emigration Ireland has endured waves of emigration, particularly after the Potato Famine of 1848. Many left their native land to seek a better life elsewhere. The Irish were second-class citizens within their own nation; Ireland was a British colony and the Northern Protestants controlled the economy of the country. Catholic families often faced hardship. Alcoholism and abuse, as portrayed in “Eveline” were rampant. As a result, many of the Irish sought to escape.
There are several themes present. Enotes refers to four in particular: paralysis, epiphany, stream of consciousness, and the state of Irish social and economic environments ("Eveline"). Paralysis means many things in the story. First, Eve barely moves in the story; also, she is destined to stay and do what she has been doing. She isn't destined to be with Frank; therefore, she is paralyzed by her obligations to her dying father. She cannot escape this paralysis or break free from it, though she longs to. Eve also has an epiphany when she hears her mothers voice utter “Derevaun Seraun" (Enotes). The second epiphany is when Eve hears the clanging bell as she gets ready to depart for Buenos Aires with Frank. She realizes she cannot leave. She is totally paralyzed and she cannot ignore her fate or fight her fate. Finally, stream of consciousness is a device used by Joyce frequently. This is when a reader is given a procession of a character's thoughts as they are thinking of them. Finally is the state of Ireland's social and economic life. Alcoholism was rampant during the time period of this story due to the Potato Famine in the late 1890's (Enotes). Many people turned to alcohol to drown their sorrows and/or left the country for a better life, as Eve had planned to.
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