What is the significance of the street organ in "Eveline"?

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Payal Khullar | College Teacher | (Level 2) Associate Educator

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The street organ and its sound (or music) have a special place in James Joyce’s Eveline (Dubliners)As we know, Eveline Hill, the central character of the story, is in a state of dilemma. She wants to start a new life with his lover Frank, but her family ties and duties stop her from doing so. She is unable to make the decision to leave her family and sail with Frank. In her family, she has an abusive father and younger siblings to take care of. Her mother is no longer alive.

Down far in the avenue she could hear a street organ playing. She knew the air Strange that it should come that very night to remind her of the promise to her mother, her promise to keep the home together as long as she could. She remembered the last night of her mother's illness; she was again in the close dark room at the other side of the hall and outside she heard a melancholy air of Italy. 

The Organ Grinder plays an Italian melody on the street organ, which acts as a connecting link between Eveline’s present and her past memories. Eveline had heard the Organ Grinder playing a similar tune on his street organ a night before her mother’s death. When Eveline hears the sound of the street organ again, she immediately recollects her dead mother as well as a promise she made to her mother when she was alive. Eveline had promised her mother that she would take good care of the home and family in her absence.

She stood up in a sudden impulse of terror. Escape! She must escape! Frank would save her.

The musical air of the street organ brings about an epiphany and the need for a change. The street organ makes her remember how tragic and painful her mother’s life had been. Eveline dreads living a life like her mother and thinks that fleeing with Frank can save her from such a life. But as we see in the end, this decision is not very simple for her. She is at a crossroads. She feels bound to fulfill a daughter’s duty.

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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As a work representative of the Irish experience, James Joyce's Dubliners presents certain aspects of the residents of the capital city. One of these aspects is the failure of Dublin business to manufacture and distribute goods, a failure that reduced the economic situation for its residents as well as the spiritual stagnation from the Catholic Church. It is in this economically and spiritually depressed condition that Eveline resides and works as a meager clerk in a shop. At work Eveline feels herself victimized by Miss Gavan, who frequently chides her; at home Eveline suffers equally from religious servility that represses her as a dutiful daughter. For, Eveline suffers from the "violence" of her father, and she feels obliged to her mother's memory.

As the inert Eveline sits watching the sunset on the avenue where she lives, she inhales the "odour of "dusty cretonne," an odor reminiscent of her mother's funeral. She looks around the room and sees the "yellowing photograph" of a priest, a photograph that hangs above the colored print  "of the promises made to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque." These promises of Eveline have been to care for her little brother in her mother's absence. So, as Eveline sits in the window looking down the brown street, she ponders the time for her that is running out. Down this street, too, Eveline hears a street organ being played by an Italian. This organ and the Italian language, so like the Latin of the Mass at church, recall to Eveline the death of her mother as well as the death of her dream because of a stultifying religious obligation. For, this music reminds Eveline of her vows to her mother to keep the "home together as long as she could," as well as the funeral of her mother that has now become a dirge for her in the Italian's song.

Her distress awoke a nausea in her body and she kept moving her lips in silent fervent prayer....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.

Indeed, the street organ and the Italian's song foreshadow symbolically the paralysis of Eveline as she so desperately grips the iron railing and refuses to join Frank on the ship for Buenos Ayres.  Ironically, too, Eveline's father's invective against the organ grinder who played as her mother lay ill--"Damned Italians! coming over here!"--has been misdirected as most of the Italians at that time emigrated to Argentina, the place to which Frank wants her to join him. 

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