30 pages 1 hour read

James Joyce


Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1904

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Eveline”

“Eveline” is the fourth short story in James Joyce’s Dubliners collection, completed in 1907 and published in London in 1914. This story, like the others in Dubliners, reveals Joyce’s view of Ireland, then a British colony, as existing in a state of paralysis. Alongside this broader theme, “Eveline” also explores topics like duty versus freedom, English imperialism, and individual autonomy. Nearly a story of a young woman escaping the confines of her abusive and lonely home, Joyce instead uses Eveline as a stand-in for an Ireland continually frozen and held back by the tendrils of colonialism, both English and Roman Catholic. Joyce builds on these themes and some of the characters introduced in Dubliners in his later works.

This guide refers to the 1991 Dover Thrift edition of Dubliners.

Joyce introduces the reader to Eveline as she leans against her home’s front window, observing passersby and reminiscing about happier days playing with her brothers and the neighborhood children in a field. New brick homes now stand on that field. Thinking of all the people who have left the neighborhood or even Ireland, she observes the room around her and considers the “familiar objects from which she had never dreamed of being divided” (20). Among these family possessions is the photo of a priest who, according to her father, is now in Melbourne.

The memory of this priest brings Eveline back to the present, reminding her of the fact that she, like the priest before her, is now planning to leave home. Focusing now on the question of whether leaving home is wise, she acknowledges that she has shelter, food, and the safety of familiarity in Ireland, although she has had to work hard. Here Joyce explores the conflict within Eveline, who vacillates between choosing duty and freedom throughout the rest of this four-page narrative. She wonders what people at the Stores, her workplace, would say when they found out she left with a man. This memory ends as Eveline recalls her boss, the overbearing Miss Gavan, who treats her poorly.

In comparison to Miss Gavan, the Stores, and elements of her home life, Eveline’s future home—outside Ireland—is appealing. Eveline rehearses her reasons for fleeing Ireland for Argentina as she contemplates her journey. These include the threat of her father’s violence and the difficulty she has as the only daughter and sole caretaker for her siblings. Harry and Ernest, her brothers, can no longer protect her, as Ernest is dead and Harry is in the country more often than not for church decorating business. In their place, Eveline works hard, often fighting her father for control of the family money so she can buy groceries. Keeping the family fed, caring for the two children in her charge, and arguing with her father exhaust her, and she dreams of marrying and being treated with respect in her new home. Despite these reasons for leaving, Eveline thinks to herself, “now that she was about to leave it she did not find it a wholly undesirable life” (21).

Eveline yet again returns to her reasons to go, focusing this time on the man providing this opportunity: Frank, a sailor with a home in Buenos Aires. Frank, Eveline believes, is “very kind, manly, open-hearted” (21). Through Eveline’s memories, her love story with Frank unfolds, including their outing to see the Irish opera The Bohemian Girl and Frank’s singing and teasing. Eveline admits that she began the relationship simply because she was excited by a man’s interest in her, but she eventually grew to like him, especially his exciting tales about sailing around the world. Eveline’s father forbade her from seeing Frank, and the secrecy intensified her relationship with Frank, whom she now calls “her lover” (22).

The deepening evening light recalls Eveline to the present yet again. The letters in her lap—one to Harry and one to her father—make her think of her father. She thinks he will miss her, and she reminisces about the times he had been kind to her.

Eveline notes that the hour of her departure is approaching, but still, she observes the road. She soon hears a street organ playing the very same Italian song that she heard the night her mother died. At this, Eveline recalls her mother’s final, mysterious words: “Derevaun Seraun! Derevaun Seraun!” (23). The memory and the reminder of her mother’s “life of commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness” terrify her (23). Listening to the impulse to run from this terror, Eveline flees to the docks as she clings to the belief that Frank will provide safety and, eventually, love.

The final scene of “Eveline” opens on the dock, where Frank holds Eveline’s hand and explains details about the passage. Eveline observes the dock blankly, only half comprehending. She begins to pray, asking “God to direct her, to show her what was her duty” (23), revealing the beginnings of another possible change of heart. Wondering if she could really go back on her word to Frank, she experiences distress and nausea and continues to pray, clinging to the iron railing.

Frank runs to the boat, calling for Eveline to follow him. Eveline’s final decision comes as she thinks to herself, “All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart. He was drawing her into them: he would drown her” (23). The story closes with Frank on the boat, calling to a passive, frozen Eveline. The final image is of her eyes, blank and offering no feelings of love or regret to her former lover as he sails away and watches her on the dock.