Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 635

If what James Joyce intended to demonstrate in all the stories in Dubliners (1914) was the squalor and spiritual impoverishment of typical Irish lives, then “Eveline” is unquestionably in keeping with this general intent. Although still a young woman, Eveline dwells on the past, on the debilitating nostalgia of how things were when her mother was still alive and when her father was “not so bad.” She takes solace in childhood memories, dwelling on playmates and siblings who are now either dead or gone. She cannot fully imagine a future away from her family, her neighborhood, or her nation, and when it comes time for her to take her life into her own hands, she is paralyzed and unable to act.

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The theme of escape will be a familiar one for those who have read Joyce’s semiautobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) or its earlier and even more personalized version, Stephen Hero (1944), written between 1904 and 1906 and ultimately published as a fragment after Joyce’s death. “Eveline,” also written in 1904, was inspired by one of the writer’s neighbors when the Joyce family lived at 17 North Richmond Street in Dublin. Eveline Thornton, the daughter of Ned Thornton, fell in love with a sailor, whom she married and with whom she ultimately set up housekeeping in Dublin, according to Richard Ellmann, Joyce’s biographer. Not only did the prototypical Eveline marry her sailor, but also her mother outlived her. Joyce was writing fiction, however, not biography, and the principal difference seems to be that the husband and wife who served as Joyce’s models both ended up being trapped in Dublin.

Joyce turns the sailor into a romantic exile, one who has seen the world and has chosen to live far from Dublin. In other words, Frank in the story becomes a reflection of the young Joyce himself. For Joyce, any young Irishman had to choose between living a life of limited opportunity in Ireland and having to scale down one’s expectations, adjusting to the dismal realities and traditions of Irish life, or going out into the world beyond Ireland, which Joyce saw as a world of opportunity and promise.

Buenos Aires, then, represents the ideal of escaping Ireland, of making a clean break with one’s nation and family ties, the sort of break that Joyce’s own wife, Nora, would make in 1904 when she left her family to go with the writer to Paris. Just as Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man romanticizes, with ironic embellishment, the escape of a young man from Ireland, so “Eveline” extends the theme of escape to the case of a young woman who is not nearly so sophisticated as the protagonist of Joyce’s novel and who might understandably fear the unknown world that awaits her.

The plight that is described in this story, that of a young woman, overworked and harried by her attempts to hold her family together, Joyce could have observed at home by watching his own long-suffering and tolerant mother, and by also observing the families of his friends and acquaintances. In the story, Eveline is relatively young but is “tired,” worn down, old before her time, and very much a captive of routine, conditioned by her father’s tyrannical ways. She is offered a means of escape and self-fulfillment, but it is not in her nature, finally, to accept it. She is given a choice between life and a sort of metaphoric death: a new life abroad, or a living death in Ireland, tending after a dying family that, presumably, no longer needs her (even though her father, who is “becoming old,” depends on her and for that reason “would miss her”), and working in a demeaning and subordinate position at “the Stores.”

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1190

Paralysis
Among the most obvious themes in Dubliners is that of paralysis. In fact Joyce emphasizes this theme from the very first paragraph of the first tale in the collection, “The Sisters.”

Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely to my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent being.

The theme and word “paralysis” hang over many of the tales; the stories, according to Anthony Burgess, are, “studies in paralysis or frustration. . .” An overwhelming sense of fatalism imbues the tales. The protagonists are in situations they cannot alter. The Irish-Catholic milieu and the social conditions thwart each character’s attempt to better his or her fate. The environment is stagnant, and each character is ultimately incapable of any change. The realization of one’s paralytic plight and the frustration that ensues can cause a protagonist to lash out with violence, like Farrington in “Counterparts.”

This sense of stagnation or paralysis is emphasized with the very words Joyce uses. The story “Eveline” presents an excellent example. The protagonist barely moves throughout the tale. The verbs which describe her are often verbs of inaction, for example “sat” in the first paragraph. Verbs are also deliberately presented in the passive form: “Her head was leaned.” This stress on inaction or paralysis culminates with the visual description of Eveline frozen, “passive, like a helpless animal.”

The passive surrender to duty is of paramount importance in “Eveline.” The protagonist is “like a helpless animal” precisely because she is unable to alter her fate or destiny. While the description of Eveline clutching the railing emphasizes an exact moment in time, it also serves as an allegory for the fate which awaits her and from which she cannot extricate herself, as a domestic drudge who suffers the abuse of her father. In the end, Eveline surrenders to the sense of duty which dooms her to the promise made to her dying mother and the duty implicit in the promises to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque which hang on the wall. She is incapable of altering her fate, either for better or worse, for Joyce leaves many questions as to whether Eveline would be better off with Frank. Ultimately, she is incapable of starting anew and surrenders to her destiny as spinster and drudge in a patriarchal society in which it is “a hard life.” Her brief attempt to act, after recollecting her mother reciting “Derevaun Seraun” is eclipsed by stasis and the panic of abandoning god and duty.

Epiphany
As a young man, Joyce was obsessed with the concept of religious epiphany. He goes into great detail on the subject in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The autobiographical Stephan Dedalus defines the term for his friend Cranly:

. . .finally, when the relation of the parts is exquisite, when the parts are adjusted to a special point, we recognize that it is that thing which it is. Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object, the structure of what is so adjusted, seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany-

Moments of epiphany are present throughout the tales in Dubliners. “Epiphany” is derived from the Greek word “manifestation,” and, in the Catholic sense, refers to moments of religious clarity in which the power of god is manifest. The epiphanies that Joyce chronicles as an adolescent in Jesuit school are primarily religious. However, the epiphanies in Dubliners, written after Joyce had had doubts about Catholicism, are often of a more secular nature and lead to a sense of doom; they are brief moments in which the character truly realizes his or her fate. These brief blasts of consciousness are fleeting and, yet, of paramount importance in the characters’ lives. Two such instances occur in “Eveline.”

The first epiphany, most certainly secular, occurs when Eveline is jolted to action at the remembrance of her mother repeating the nonsensical phrase, “Derevaun Seraun.” Much in tune with the Dedalus definition above, the meaning behind the words (which are still debated among scholars) are not what prods Eveline to decision. Rather it the “whatness” of the words, the sound of her mother’s voice and the memory of the horror of the fate which Eveline wishes to escape which lead to a vision of clarity and a decision, albeit one which is reversed by a later epiphany of religious nature.

As Eveline prepares to depart, she experiences another epiphany. “A bell clanged upon her heart.” The vision is of drowning. Eveline cannot move. Joyce’s language is ambiguous. Who is “he,” God or Frank? This final, religious epiphany counteracts the first and causes paralysis to override action.

Stream of Consciousness
Although Joyce was not the first to employ a stream of consciousness or interior monolog in his works, no one had ever employed the technique in such a dominating fashion before. Vast sections and entire chapters of Joyce’s Ulysses take place within the mind of a protagonist. Joyce, borrowing on the theories of Freud, was to revolutionize the importance of the interior monologue in fiction.

Joyce’s “Eveline” presents an early, less-experimental use of a stream of consciousness–while not an actual stream of consciousness, the description of Eveline’s thoughts and emotions dominate the text; most of the “action” (there is virtually none) takes place within Eveline. The prose conveys her thoughts, emotions and memories rather than describing a temporal series of events. With each work after Dubliners, the boundaries between objective and subjective reality becomes more and more blurred. “Eveline” can be viewed as the point of departure for Joyce’s experimental prose. The final pages of “The Dead,” the last story in the collection, foreshadow the disintegration of boundaries of interior emotions and external reality which would symbolize Joyce’s later works.

Irish Social Conditions and Emigration
Ireland has endured waves of emigration, particularly after the Potato Famine of 1848. Many left their native land to seek a better life elsewhere. The Irish were second-class citizens within their own nation; Ireland was a British colony and the Northern Protestants controlled the economy of the country. Catholic families often faced hardship. Alcoholism and abuse, as portrayed in “Eveline” were rampant. As a result, many of the Irish sought to escape.

Many of the tales in Dubliners deal with a journey. The early tales, in which youth is central, deal with thwarted goals (“Araby”) and the dangers of a simple day trip (“An Encounter”). Later, the scope of the trip increases. In “A Little Cloud,” Joyce presents a character, Ignatius Gallaher, who does escape. Emigration is, of course, a central theme in “Eveline.” Consistent with Joyce’s adherence to ambiguity, the reader can never truly determine whether Eveline is likely to better her situation by leaving for Buenos Aires. Would her life actually be better or would her trust in Frank lead to the Fall, in the biblical sense, of Eveline (Little Eve)?

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