This much-anthologized short story by James Joyce was first published in The Irish Homestead on September 10, 1904, and later became part of his famous collection Dubliners (1917). In contrast to the three stories of childhood that precede it, “Eveline” opens with the 19-year-old young woman of the title reminiscing about her childhood. She watches with her face pressed against the window as people pass by outside, and she recalls the field in which she used to play with other children before her father would hunt them down with his blackthorn stick. Even with this image of brutality, Eveline thinks that her father “was not so bad then,” when her mother was still alive. Now her siblings have grown up, and their childhood friends have left Ireland or died, and Eveline muses that she will soon leave home as well. The knowledge that she will leave soon causes her to examine her surroundings critically. She notes the yellowed picture of an unknown priest and the familiar objects covered in dust. She wonders if leaving home is wise. At home at least she has food, shelter, and the people she has always known. She wonders what will be said about her when it is discovered that she ran away with a man. She imagines what life will be like in her new home in a distant country when she is married. When she is married, she thinks, people will treat her with respect, not like her mother was treated. She feels threatened by her father’s violence, which has given her heart palpitations. Only lately has he begun to threaten her, saying what he would do to her if not for her dead mother’s sake, whereas when she was younger he never went after her because she was a girl. Now she is left alone in the house with him, and the weekly struggles to get money from him for the keeping of the house are beginning to wear on her. She keeps his house in addition to working as a nanny for two children, and while recognizing that it is a hard life, she wonders if she should leave it to journey with Frank to Buenos Aires, where she will become his wife. She met Frank as he was standing outside his lodging house, and she finds herself enraptured by his tales of faraway places and adventures on ships. Her father forbade the affair upon learning that Frank was a sailor. Eveline thinks of her father’s kindness when she was sick and of her happy times with him when her mother was alive. From outside the window comes the song from a street organ, and it recalls to her the promise she made to her mother to keep the home together. Her mother’s pitiful life and death terrify Eveline as she thinks of her mother’s last cry, “Derevaun Seraun! Derevaun Seraun!” This cry has been read as a Gaelic phrase meaning either “the end of pleasure is pain” or “the end of song is raving madness.” Resolving that she must escape and that she has a right to happiness, she decides that she will leave with Frank.
Eveline holds Frank’s hand at the station, feeling the crowd about her and catching sight of the great dark mass of the boat. She prays for guidance and wonders if she can back out after all that Frank has done for her. The boat’s whistle startles her, and she feels Frank pulling her, urging her to come with him. Silently, Eveline grabs the railing and refuses to let go. Frank is carried along by the crowd, and Eveline, “passive, like a helpless animal,” refuses him any sign of recognition or farewell.
As in “A Little Cloud,” the protagonist feels that freedom can be achieved only through exile, a belief also adopted by Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914). Freedom for Eveline appears even more complicated because she is a woman and must choose not whether to be a solitary exile but whether to remain in her father’s house or travel abroad with Frank. She is caught between the possible husband and the probable abusive father.
A strong Catholic sensibility and the maternal voice are among the forces that pull Eveline from the waiting ship. The face of the unknown priest that hangs on the wall of her home as well as the deathbed promise to her mother form twin nets with which Joyce himself was all too familiar. Eveline’s decision to stay may also be read as a choice for community, however ruptured, over isolation in a strange country. Eveline’s home, although certainly not idealized, stands in stark contrast to Frank’s lodging house, a temporary abode. Her promise to her mother to hold the home together suggests the hope of unity and stability. Her mother’s dying words haunt the text, and Eveline ultimately turns against pleasure and song, which her mother warns lead to pain and madness.
Eveline has traditionally been read as a character who fails to take advantage of her chance to escape. Given the opportunity to leave an abusive father and limited economic potential, Eveline is unable to leave Ireland’s shores. Bound by her promise to her mother, she cannot leave even when a sailor has a home waiting for her in Buenos Aires. However, critics such as Hugh Kenner and Katherine Mullin have argued that Eveline is wise to let Frank leave without her. Kenner points out the undercurrent of sexual danger that runs throughout the story and argues that if Eveline left with Frank, she would most likely be seduced and abandoned in England. Mullin points out that 1889 saw a boom in migration to Argentina, but that trend had completely died out by 1904, largely because of Argentina’s reputation as a land of betrayal, exploitation, and disappointment. Purity tracts of the 1880s told stories of girls lured from Ireland by the promise of marriage and sold into the white slave trade, and such stories captivated the public imagination. Joyce may have had such stories in mind as he was composing “Eveline,” especially since at the same time he was trying to convince Nora to leave Ireland with him. The story underscores the particularly vexed and sexually precarious position of women leaving Ireland.
Joyce, James. Dubliners: Text, Criticism, and Notes. Edited by Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz. New York: Penguin USA, 1996.
Kenner, Hugh. Joyce’s Voices. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.
Mullin, Katherine. “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina: ‘Eveline’ and the Seductions of Emigration Propaganda.” In Semicolonial Joyce, edited and with an introduction by Derek Attridge and Marjorie Howes, 193–208. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Torchiana, Donald T. Backgrounds for Joyce’s Dubliners. Boston: Allen & Unwin. 1986.