Symbols are objects, situations, words, places, names and so forth, which an author uses to signify (symbolize) ideas and qualities which are different from their literal meaning. These symbols, therefore, acquire a specific connotation which is defined by the context in which they are used. The colour red, for example, may have different connotations in different contexts. In one it may symbolize danger, whilst in another it could signify passion.
Joyce uses a variety of symbols in Eveline. One which is used early in the story is the window. Eveline looks through her window to the outside world. The window symbolizes her perception and tells the reader what she thinks and believes the world outside of her home and her community represents. We learn through the story that she sees the world as an unknown entity, something that she actually fears and that she is not prepared to face since it is, for her, better to be surrounded by what is familiar than that which is not.
The second symbol is dust. Dust symbolizes what is familiar to Eveline. It always returns, no matter how many times it is removed. To Eveline the dust further symbolizes the memory that she has of her home and her environment--trying to get rid of the dust has become a pattern in her life. It gives her a sense of regularity and sameness and these are the things she is not keen to sacrifice.
In addition, one may also see the dust as a symbol of the stifling conditions in which she finds herself. She does not enjoy much freedom and is burdened with responsibility but, ironically, it is the routine (as already mentioned) that she is not willing to give up.
In contrast to the dust, Joyce also mentions a field that Eveline remembers, one that has brought her much pleasure. The field symbolizes the freedom Eveline experienced as a child. They used to play there but it has been sold and filled with 'bright brick houses.' On a deeper level, the buildings symbolize the restrictions which Eveline now faces. Her father's attitude towards her has changed and she has greater responsibilities. She has to look after two younger children and has to run errands and do household chores. When she was young, her freedom was not curtailed as much.
The broken harmonium is a symbol for the loss of harmony and balance in Eveline's life. She has lost her mother and a brother and these events brought discord. The yellowing photograph of a priest is a further symbol of loss, especially to her father, who lost a friend when the priest moved to Melbourne, but it is part of the familiar in Eveline's life.
The evening is a symbol for time. Eveline's father is literally running out of time since he is getting older, and she is also losing time since the occasion for her to leave with Frank, her lover, is getting closer. Eventually, when the time comes for her actual departure, Eveline clings to the iron railing with both hands.
The railing symbolizes a fixture in her life, a permanent aspect of her existence. It is this that Eveline fears to leave and she does not want to face the sea, which is a symbol of uncertainty and distance because it would take her to a new world, a new life. The prospect of doing this becomes too daunting for her and she decides not to leave in spite of all the promise leaving with Frank brings.
One symbol that appears at the conclusion of the story "Eveline" is the iron rail that Eveline clutches so tightly in her dazed confusion. Since while in her confused state she continues to muse over the same questions and mouth the same unvoiced prayers to understand what her duty is, it might be said that the rail she clutches is the symbol of her act of clutching steadfastly to her confusion. It is her confusion--that she resolves but pursues yet again--that leads to her frozen immobility and inability to decide. At the moment during which she is clutching the rail her eyes show no sign of cognition, feeling, recognition; they only have a blank frenzied animal stare to them. The cold rigid rail is a good symbol of this death of her humanity and human reason.
Another symbol is Buenos Ayres which is translated to English as "good air." Joyce surrounds Eveline with stifling air; even the curtains framing the window through which she listens to the organ grinder smell of dust, meaning she has long neglected them and their cleaning. In Buenos Aires is the promise of life sustaining air to breath and the hope of a healthy life of happiness. It is this promise that conflicts with the oppressive ideas of duty that bind Eveline to a life that is choking the breath and life out of her.