The story, a psychological study in frustration, is about a young woman who longs to escape from the tyranny of her father and from the responsibilities of surrogate motherhood, thrust on her after the death of her own mother. When she is offered an avenue of escape, she discovers that she lacks the spirit, the courage, and the strength of character to take it.
Although only nineteen years old, Eveline Hill lives in the past, her mind occupied with the way things “used to be” as she sits by the window of her father’s house. The world around her has changed, just as the neighborhood has changed. A land developer from Belfast has constructed brick houses on the field where “other people’s children” used to play. One of the children who used to play there is now dead, and others have left the area; some have even left the country. Eveline remains. Her brother Ernest, who was “too grown up” to play, is now dead, as is her mother. Her father has turned to drink and is given to violence, particularly on Saturday nights.
Eveline works as a shopgirl at “the Stores,” earning a miserable seven shillings a week, which are then given over to her father. She promised her dying mother that she would “keep the house together,” rearing the two younger children and contending with her father’s bad temper and the drinking that has worsened since her mother’s death. She dreams of escaping the dull, routine existence that circumstances have forced on her.
Eveline meets a young man named Frank, who has sailed around the world and represents a means of escape for her. He wants to marry her and take her with him to Buenos Aires, halfway around the world from Ireland. Although she has accepted his offer of marriage and he has arranged her passage by ship, she has second thoughts on the day of her scheduled departure. At first her misgivings at home are centered on a remembrance of her past, as she sits by the window, clutching the letters that she has prepared for her father and brother in order to explain her departure. At the end of the story, she discovers that she is in fact unwilling and unable to leave Ireland. She is a captive of the past; she has no future; finally, she cannot leave.