James Joyce places the reader inside the mind of his main character Eveline to allow a complete understanding of her motivations and actions. The reader might argue that Eveline is foolish to stay in Dublin, given that her life is unhappy and her father is verbally abusive (possibly soon to be physically abusive). Eveline is the typical Dubliner who chooses paralysis over risk; Joyce wishes to convey why.
From the beginning of the story, Eveline contemplates what Dublin means to her. This has always been her home, where she grew up, played with the other children, and spent time with her family. Now she considers leaving those memories behind and starting new ones.
She had consented to go away, to leave her home. Was that wise? She tried to weigh each side of the question. 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.
Eveline is concerned about what others will think of her. She rationalizes that she has a roof over her head and food on her plate. She thinks nostalgically about the people she has grown up with and hesitates to leave the comforts of familiarity. Yet, Eveline would be happy to leave Miss Gavan’s uncomfortable snapping at her, although she recognizes that people would talk about her once she left. Eveline also realizes that she is replaceable as an employee. The reader weighs the options along with Eveline, and it seems that she is not happy.
But in her new home, in a distant 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 father’s violence. She knew it was that that had given her the palpitations.
Respect is important to Eveline, and it is something she does not feel she has at work or at home. She is bullied by Miss Gavan at work and by her father at home. In fact, she is feeling physically ill now because she worries that her father will hit her the way he used to hit her mother. She is determined not to end up like her mother, in an abusive life.
The threat of violence should be enough to help Eveline make her decision, but her conscience gets in the way. She worries that her father is getting old and she rationalizes that he sometimes treats her nicely. She remembers when he recently brought her toast and told her a story because she was ill. She recalls a family picnic when she was a child. She thinks back to her mother’s deathbed wish that she keep the family together. Being inside Eveline’s mind allows the reader to weigh these events against each other and make the decision along with her while feeling the same torn feelings she has.
Finally, Eveline’s decision time has run out, as she is supposed to meet Frank.
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.
The reader is there again inside Eveline’s mind to understand the complete terror she feels at being trapped in an unhappy life. She acts on impulse to escape the life she has known and replace it with a possibly happy and loving one. She does not love Frank, but she hopes that they will find love one day, the love she knows she deserves.
However, this new life is not to be, and at the very last moment she freezes, paralyzed at the rail “like a helpless animal.” She chooses to remain trapped in the comforts of the known life rather than take a chance on the unknown. She may, in fact, end up following the same path as her mother. The reader understands her paralysis from having been with Eveline through the steps of her decision.