In "Eveline," why did Joyce dedicate all these lines to talk about the unknown priest?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Early in James Joyce's short story "Eveline," the weary protagonist looks around the room,

reviewing all its familiar objects which she had dusted once a week for so many years,.... from which we had never dreamed of being divided.  And yet during all those years she had never found out the name of the priest who yellowing photograph hung on the wall above the broken harmonium...

Like much of Eveline's life, the photograph of the nameless priest is just there, without meaning.  Here her plight as an Irish woman is portrayed by Joyce:  trapped into a meaningless life, Eveline turns over her paycheck and is subjugated to her father, who is also abusive.  The priest was, at one time, a friend of her father's, but he has now gone to Australia and is never mentioned.  Only a "casual word" is given by the father when he "showed the photograph to a visitor."

The photograph of the priest which is near the "coloured print of the promises made to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque," also hints at the Catholic obligations that Eveline may feel.  Certainly, she contemplates the promise that she has made to her mother to keep the family together after the mother dies, and she cannot help being reminded of the commandment of "Honor thy father and thy mother" with both the religious print and the photo of the priest hovering over her. In fact, Eveline's subservience is suggested in the next paragraph as she thinks of her boss, Miss Gavan, who would be glad if she left:

She had always had an edge on her, especially whenever there were people listening.

The plot of Joyce's story is developed through the inner reality of Eveline, whose name means "little Eve."  As Eveline has misgivings about leaving her home to join Frank and travel to Argentina, she must wonder if she, too, will become a yellowing photograph that her father will point to with a "casual word," saying, "She went to Buenos Aires."

dymatsuoka eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The unknown priest appears to be significant for his absence.  As a representative of the Catholic Church, a powerful influence in Eveline's Ireland, he is remembered only from a "yellowing photograph".  Eveline's religion is not a beacon or comfort to her at this point in her life; it is not a living institution of community and human contact, but a set of rules to live by, deeply instilled but, in thinking about it, vaguely recalled.  Eveline is left with obligations and duties, "promises made to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque", but does not have support from a thriving church to help her carry them out.  The church is exemplified by the nameless priest, who, like most everyone else, has emigrated to a place far away.