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.
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.”