Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 959
Eveline Hill: young woman, 18–20 years old
Eveline’s Father: an alcoholic
Eveline’s Mother: who died and Eveline loved
Frank: Eveline’s betrothed
Nearly all the events in this story take place in Eveline Hill’s mind as she prepares to run away from her father’s home and elope with a sailor. About 18–20 years old, Eveline has supported and cared for her alcoholic father for an unspecified number of years after her mother’s death. Although her existence is described in her thoughts as extremely empty, she has profound misgivings about leaving: her duty to her father, her promise to her dying mother that she would look after the home, and the fear of making such a significant change in her life all appear to immobilize her.
Finally, when Eveline reaches the port where her fiance is waiting and where their ship will depart, she’s overcome by inertia and can’t leave with him, although he begs her.
The protagonist and namesake of this story is not named by the author until the last few lines of the story. This should indicate to the reader that Eveline Hill does not possess a fully-developed sense of self; she exists for other people, and this is the crux of her dilemma.
Eveline sits at the window, tired, inert, and considering the “rather happy” times of her youth, although she is still only a young woman. Many of the most important or uplifting people in her life are dead: her brother, her friends, and most significantly her mother, whose spirit and memory keep Eveline where she is. Having promised her mother that she would “keep the home together as long as she could,” Eveline is torn between enduring the misery of her father’s alcoholism and escaping to a life with her betrothed. Regardless of the fact that she has tried as hard as she could, Eveline still feels indebted to her mother’s memory and cannot move herself out of the paralysis that keeps her tied to this pathetic existence.
Looking around the room at familiar objects, she cannot conceive “where on earth all the dust came from.” This allusion is Biblical, reminding us that we begin from and return to dust after our deaths. The image of death—spiritual and physical—pervades Eveline’s consciousness as the dust pervades her household.
The parlour of their house is dreary, decorated by a few meaningless objects and the print of Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque. This seventeenth-century saint epitomized suffering for the love of Christ, inflicting wounds upon herself and taking it upon herself to endure great trials, for she believed that the holy father wished her to assume the burden of others’ misery. That Eveline looks and prays to Saint Margaret Mary indicates the degree of suffering which she feels she must endure in order to be a good Christian and dutiful daughter. Joyce obviously does not condone her feelings, since Eveline suffers abuse from her father and degradation at work—both with little rewards.
The parallels and contrasts between Eveline’s father and her intended warn the reader that no route Eveline takes is a guarantee to happiness. She considers her father, though abusive, to be nice “sometimes,” having to reach far back in her memory to an event at which he behaved even remotely lovingly. While Frank obviously feels more tender about her, Eveline’s feelings are not as clear: when he sings to her, she feels “pleasantly confused,” and this feeling she confuses with affection. Indeed, love between them never crosses her mind, for the relationship evolved first as “an excitement for her to have a fellow and then she had begun to like him.” Her inability to respond to Frank’s kindness indicates that her sacrifices have robbed her of life-giving emotions, and that—without change—her existence will be devoid of any meaning whatsoever.
The only love Eveline can clearly recognize is that for her dead mother, but this is suffused with guilt, which Eveline assuages by sacrificing her own happiness. Although the mother is no longer alive, she ironically exhibits the greatest force in the story; her daughter is so passive that she seems on the point of (spiritual) death. Indeed, as the time draws near for her to meet Frank, she recognizes that “[h]er time was running out.” Significantly, Eveline can identify the futility of her mother’s life as “commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness,” but is unable to see the sacrifices that this life is currently causing for her.
When Eveline goes to the quay with Frank, the ship’s portholes are illuminated as if to cast a bright light on her escape route. Nevertheless, Eveline feels numb, in “a maze of distress” over her departure from this life, and prays to God for direction. Under¬standing that she worships Saint Margaret Mary, the reader knows that Eveline believes all sacrifice is holy; her mother martyred herself for the family as the saint sacrificed herself for her religion. Therefore, Eveline determines that her own salvation and happiness mean nothing in light of her mother’s dreadful pull upon her and her obligation toward suffering. Significantly and for the first time, Frank calls out Eveline’s name in the story, since he is the only one in her life to value her for herself, but she cannot respond. Terrified at the prospect of actually deciding her own destiny, Eveline stands “passive, like a helpless animal” and does not return his affection or even his appeals. Importantly, when Frank is drawn into the crowd, Eveline looks at him with neither affection, farewell, nor even recognition, since she is—in effect—spiritually dead and completely unable to generate emotion.
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