Examining Eveline: A Study in the Origins of the Paralysed Subject in Joyce's Dubliners

By Ramy Habib
2017, Vol. 9 No. 01 | pg. 1/1

When James Joyce rewrote “The Sisters,” intending it to serve as an introduction to the whole of Dubliners, he altered the first line of the story with much significance: “There was no hope for him this time” (19)1. As it stands, the series not only begins with a clear statement about the lack of hope but also with an allusion to the inscription on the gates of Hell in Dante’s Inferno: “All hope abandon ye who enter here” (III.9). It is this with attitude, expecting only despair, that we should “enter here” when reading any of the stories in the collection,2 and this desperation emerges all the more obviously when Dubliners is treated as one unit, rather than a random collection of short stories.

We know that Joyce planned the book to be presented “under four of its aspects: childhood, adolescence, maturity, and public life” (Joyce; Letters II, 134). The insistence on this chronological ordering, when looked at considering the unifying themes of Dubliners, gives us the possibility to read the development of the stories as the development–or the decline–of a single consciousness, for we see clearly that “[t]he psychological, spiritual, and emotional ambiances of the collection evolve slowly, along delineated lines paralleling human growth and development” (Fargnoli 46). Each story is the inexorable outcome of preceding ones. This has been touched upon by many critics, exploring the many interpretations to which such a close link between stories would give rise pertaining to the book as a whole. The protagonists in the stories, when seen in this light, become what Hugh Kenner calls “metamorphosing subject” (181). The subject, himself or herself an unwitting victim of what Joyce called “that hemiplegia or paralysis that many consider a city,” is most likely to, and indeed does, face a jarring experience the impact of which is to be evident in the later version of the subject (Joyce; Letters I, 55).

For the intents and purposes of this essay, I examine how the three stories in the ‘childhood’ aspect of the book prepare the readers for and lead them into the first story of the ‘adolescence’ aspect, namely “Eveline.”

The stories of childhood are of certain importance because we see in them the roots and causes of the ills that are spread in the Irish society as depicted by Joyce. Paying attention to the experiences in these stories can help us better understand the forces behind the dilemmas presented in the subsequent sections of the book. As Fargnoli notes, the smothering environment of Dublin’s “religious, political, cultural, and economic forces” and its grip on the lower-middle class prompted Joyce to portray his Dubliners as an “afflicted people” (46). We see the seeds of their affliction in the stories of childhood, in which, time after time, a boy is thwarted by an image of complete failure totally different from a more innocent, buoyant picture that he had imagined. This disillusionment is a harrowing experience because “in childhood, a time of innocence when the world seems better than it is, destruction of a child’s sense of illusion can be a psychologically traumatic blow” (Walzl 222).

The aftermath of these traumas begin to take shape in the “adolescence” section. We start to see the effects of the affliction in the diseased spirits of the successive characters. As we move forward from one story to another, and into the later sections of “maturity” and “public life,” matters only exacerbates and we encounter more glaring cases of the paralysis of the city.

We find the first instance of such paralysis in “Eveline,” a story about a young woman’s failure to take action. The story begins with the eponymous heroine sitting by the window and contemplating her promise to elope with Frank, a young sailor who has been courting her for some time. He has offered her the chance of a better life in Buenos Aires, away from Dublin, where she suffers under the yoke of her drunken, aggressive father and lives confined within a dusty house without even a life of her own, let alone a chance for happiness. Nonetheless, Eveline, towards the end of the story, is paralysed and unable to go on with Frank as planned. Since the causes behind the frustration of her attempted escape can be traced back to the incidents in the previous stories, as said earlier, if we study the particulars of Eveline’s disposition and situation bearing in mind those incidents, we can see that, contrary to her purported consent, Eveline’s ‘decision’ regarding her leaving with Frank had already been made for her, and, long before she sat by the window to contemplate her life and possible future, her elopement was inevitably to be frustrated by her immobility and lack of conscious will (a conclusion towards which I am advancing and which I examine in close textual analysis in the latter part of the essay). Moreover, when the protagonist’s failed action is thus analysed with reference to the previous section, “Eveline” gains more importance in the scheme of the book. It becomes a sort of bridge between the first part of the book, wherein we witness the genesis of the paralysis that is spreading, and the remainder of the stories, in which we continually find characters already paralysed and overcome by past experiences. Therefore, even though “Eveline” is one step in the moral decline that the collection presents, it is rather a pivotal step as it indicates many important shifts in the series.

Before moving on to the discussion of these shifts, let us go back to look at some elements in the childhood stories that are most relevant to the makeup of Eveline.

In “The Sisters,” the first short story in Dubliners, the little boy had some faith in and looked up to the old priest, but, indirectly through the priest’s spiritual and physical paralysis and ultimately death, the boy is exposed to corruption and decay rather than knowledge and ambition; religion proves helpless, if not detrimental, and knowledge rotten. In the paralysis of the old priest, the boy encounters the ineffectiveness of the church to grant a healthy life. In the euphemistic language of Old Cotter and the evasions of the two sisters, the boy “learns at least that in this society some things must not be spoken” (Johnson xxx). What adds to the shock of the little boy is the nature of that elliptical language itself; Marilyn French says: “it is the opacity and elliptical quality more than anything that create the impression of something shocking or insidious. But if we, the readers, are bewildered and fascinated, how much so is the boy, who is young and living through this” (446). The mysterious darkness of the gaps that the boy falls prey to mars him and confuses his concepts of faith, religion, and sin, and as French suggests, we move on to the following stories bearing in mind this injury and confusion just as the boy will move on in his life bearing them too (448).

The boy in the second short story, “An Encounter,” meets yet further frustration and hurt. He has acquired the harmed consciousness of the previous boy, and his experience builds on the former one. Starting with hopeful desire for meaningful adventure, the boy seeks “to break out the weariness of school-life for one day at least.” The boy believes that real adventure “must be sought abroad,” and so he plans to go to the Pigeon House (D 31). However, the boy not only fails to reach his desired destination, but also encounters the “queer old josser” (D 37). The religious undertones add to the issues of the earlier story. Anderson tells us that “even in ‘An Encounter’ the ‘josser’ is pidgin English for God, as the Pigeon House is Biblical and traditional English for the Holy Ghost” (8). This time, the boy is already suspicious of the old man partly because his greenish-black suit links him with the priest of the first story (French 449). The boy even refuses to look at what the man does when his friend Murphy calls to him, as if in knowing recognition of the damage that such a look would induce. Resignation pervades as the boy realises that freedom of the mundane and the corrupt is not an option. The boy’s pilgrimage is abhorrently adulterated, and he learns the sterility of hope. Defeated, he turns back to what he “despised” leaving his futile search for meaningful experience (D 38). The impossibility of escape imbued in his young mind is sure to have crippling effects in the future.

Finally, the boy in “Araby,” who believes himself to be in love with his friend’s sister, is slightly more aware that his surroundings are “hostile to romance,” but he still wishes to protect his love and bear it like “a chalice safely through a throng of foes” (D 40, 41). Little did he know that his clichéd outbursts of young love were to be stifled, never amounting to anything more than vanity, anguish, and anger. Only when faced with the hollow silence of the bazaar did he realise the futility of his expedition and the vanity of his ‘love’. Taking into account the erotic insinuations hinting at the girl’s petticoat, her fingers that played on his body like a harp, etc., we begin to suspect that the boy might have mistaken erotic fantasies for love, which may explain his idealisation and maudlin romanticism as over-compensation to ease his guilt, thus leading to a repression of natural desires and utter ignorance of what love is. The boy’s imagination, moreover, may have taken a blow when his orientalist fancies about the bazaar are ousted by the dreariness and the lifelessness that he felt in the hall, which reminded him of a church, thus contaminating even the possibility of the exotic or the new with the failures of religion that he learnt earlier.

In each of these stories, a little boy, armed with ambitious merits in the beginning, is traumatised and stripped of all his aspirations. Such childhood can only lead to the wasted adolescence exhibited in “Eveline. Brewster Ghiselin notes:

In the first three stories, in which the protagonists are presumably innocent, the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, in the conventional order, are successively displayed in abeyance and finally in defeat.

In the fourth story, the main character, Eveline, lacking the strength of faith, hope, and love, wavers in an effort to find a new life and, failing in the cardinal virtue of fortitude, remains in Dublin short of her goal and weakened in her spiritual powers and defences against evil. (81)

She falls short of her goal indeed, but, as I mentioned earlier, she had no chance of ever achieving her goal. The characters of adolescence “are already so injured by their experience with society that voluntary choice is almost impossible for them” (Walzl 224). The accumulation of past experience paralyses Eveline and leads her into self-delusion.

This last point ties in well with the aforementioned shifts that we begin to exhibit in “Eveline” and, to a lesser extent, in the other stories of adolescence. First of all, while all three stories of childhood share an unnamed protagonist (who is the little boy himself), Eveline is identified by a name. The anonymity of the little boy in each of the childhood stories seems to be implicating the idea that the child has yet to develop an identity of his own. He is still impressionable and too young to have his identity crystallised. What he is or may be is still susceptible to all that is around him. On the other hand, Eveline, whose spirit had been permeated by the shattering impressions she went through in her childhood, is now old enough to be recognized as having a separate identity, one which is no longer susceptible to anything but the paralysis of past injury, which will determine her fate.

This brings us to the second shift. “The Sisters” is named after the two women whose conversation will reveal to the boy the decay of what he held with admiration; their conversation was the last moment of his discovery and therefore disillusionment. “An Encounter” is named after the incident which will destroy the boy’s sense of hope; in his encounter with the old man, his attempted escape is overthrown. “Araby” is named after the prosaic bazaar where the boy will suffer the painful emptiness of his feelings and escapades. The title of each story refers to the paralysing force that will trounce the boy. “Eveline” is named after Eveline herself. Does this imply that, as we leave childhood, the problem is no longer only the environment but also the individual? What stops Eveline from leaving with Frank is not a blunt incident as was the case with the boys’ frustration. What stops her is her internal fears, inherent paralysis, and marred spirit.

The third shift is in the narrative point of view; “Eveline” is the first story in the series that uses a third-person narrator, which will stay until the end of the volume. The first three stories shared a first-person narrator, who was the little boy himself, which provided some form, however slight, of identification with the protagonist. The reader follows the boy on his expeditions, getting shocked when he is shocked, feeling the incomprehensibility he feels, and experiencing the painful epiphany he experiences. In “Eveline,” our identification begins to fade. The narrator shows us Eveline conquered by her passivity and deluded by her clichés and illusions, and we are no more shocked by the outcome. What Fargnoli says of Joyce’s technique in this regard seems to be fitting here: “the reader has exposure to both a detached and a highly subjective sense of events. The effect of this bifurcated technique is to play off any sympathy one might feel for the main character’s growing dissatisfaction against an awareness of the banal, conventional nature of his life” (61). Even though this is true of all the stories in the collection, it starts to be accentuated here. “At the same time that she [Eveline] tells us about the trials of her life, the narrative pulls back to show the flaws that inhibit her observations” (Fargnoli 53). This gives us the chance to see more than what Eveline sees, and with our earlier insight into the episodes that led to the makeup of her consciousness, we can “read in the annals of frustration” with fair certainty that she will be “arrested in mid-air” (Levin 38).

This can be observed, textually, from the very first line in the story and all throughout Eveline’s thoughts and actions, or lack thereof.

The story opens at dusk, signalling the perished light. Actually, “the evening invade[s] the avenue” (D 46) (emphasis added): Eveline is already defeated by the invasion of the creeping darkness, and “she was tired.” She is looking out the dim window, smelling the “dusty cretonne,” and hearing the “clacking” and “crunching” of footsteps; most of her senses are engaged unpleasantly in distraction. Although she is supposed to be thinking about her decision for the future, she falls into passive reminiscence about her past, wherein we learn many significant things. Her playfield was robbed from her by the man from Belfast, thus inhibiting her childish play; her father was of an aggressive nature that she had to run away from his violence, and here we see again the harm done to children by the older and the corrupted; and her brother Ernest was “too grown up” to play anymore, with the possible implication that he had underwent the blows of despair and now was beyond salvation, and therefore projecting Eveline’s own destiny. “They seemed to have been rather happy then” (emphasis added): this statement cannot be more lacking in confidence, speaking volumes of self-delusive justification. It is an early anticipation of the fiasco of her escape. As soon as she remembers that she is going to leave, she recoils in panic, “Home!” and turns back again to the past. She thinks about the “familiar objects” in the room and contemplates the most mundane of activities that have occupied her time week after week, dusting and “wondering where on earth all the dust came from.” (D 47) Is she deliberately, though maybe unconsciously, distracting herself with these nostalgic trifles?

Even though she “had never dreamed of being divided” from the objects in the room, she does not know, nor cares to know, the name of the priest in the photo. Just as the little boy refused to look at the deed of the old man because of his association with the decayed priest of “The Sisters,” she, too, has learned that lesson well and hence shuns any recognition of this priest, whose “yellowing photograph” links him with the yellow rotten teeth of the former priest. Next to the photograph, beside the harmonium which is “broken,” there is the “coloured print of the promises made to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque.” The irony here is abundant, and this print becomes little more than an ornament. The hope in the memory and the story of this saint is relegated to another failure. The promises have all failed to be delivered: Eveline does not have graces necessary for life, does not enjoy any peace at home, has no consolation in her ordeal, is bereft of any assured refuge, etc3. Understandably, Eveline does not agonise over this irony, because it is taken for granted now that this saintly figure, indeed any saintly figure, is useless in confronting the drabness all around; religion proved useless, perhaps perilous, long ago, and her faith has been crushed.

While she “weigh[s] each side of the question,” we notice the absence of the three virtues– faith, hope, and love–in her reasoning, and begin to see that the instigator for her desired escape is rather material gain. We also see that she appreciates the “shelter and food” that she has at home, which is important to note for two reasons. First, her life at home is deficient in everything other than providing her with a shelter and hard-earned food, yet she feels content with those as if she is indeed a “helpless animal” that only needs a place to live and some food to keep itself alive. Second, on another level, the lesson of the boy in “An Encounter,” who sought more than he had but was met with danger and harm, is now so ingrained in her psyche that the threat of losing even these very basic necessities for life forces her to view them as an advantage to be treasured. Johnson asks whether we should “understand it [Evelin’s paralysis] as resulting from her having learned too well this society’s imprecations, its restrictions on even expressing, let alone acting one, desire?” (xxv).

Then we are given a glimpse into her trials at her dull job with the unpleasant Miss Gavan and at home with her father, who not only takes all her wages but also has her beg to get back just enough to buy food for the house. She is constantly met with sarcastic, insulting remarks. She has to “elbow[] her way through the crowds” and carry the “loads of provision” and has to take care of the children. As we can see, she is a non-entity suffering under “the paralytic subservience . . . to family . . .” (Anderson 52). Yet, despite all that, “now that she was about to leave” this life, “she did not find it a wholly undesirable life” (D 47) (emphasis added); what is not undesirable, to say the least, about it? It seems that the prospect of “explor[ing] another life with Frank” petrifies her because she knows that escape is fraught with terrors and that to hope is to put oneself at peril. This becomes clearer later when, as Frank calls to her to “Come!,” she feels that “[a]ll the seas of the world tumbled about her heart. He was drawing her into them: he would drown her.” (D 51)

In her reveries about Frank, she mentions nothing related to love probably because she knows little about love and is certain of the vanity and condemnation of genuine feelings in the paralytic Dublin after the painful episode of “Araby.” However, she makes up for that in her descriptions of Frank which are “saturated with the well-worn clichés of romance fiction,” reminding us of the idealised clichés we saw in “Araby” (Johnson xxv). Frank appears in her musings to be an idealised, romanticised image of a man; “kind,” “manly,” and “open-hearted,” he stood with “his peaked cap pushed back on his head and his hair tumbled forward over a face of bronze.” (D 49) Like a modern Othello, Frank “woos” Eveline and tells her tales of “past experience,” “geographical wonders,” and “the strange people” he met (Taube 152-3). However, Frank’s tales differ from those of Othello in their possible, if not probable, falsehood, in that they “come straight away from the pages of such [romance] fiction, the Sailor who loves this lass will sweep her away from dreary Dublin and brutal father to exotic Buenos Aires where they will be married” (Johnson xxv).

When her attention is drawn once more to the letters in her hand, reminding her of her ‘decision’, the pattern repeats, and she falls back again into thinking about the past, only kindlier this time. She searches for the two moments when her father “could be very nice,” when he read “ghost stories” to her while she was sick, and when they went to a picnic long ago. The fact that she remembered the two incidents proves the scarcity of such moments, but they seem to be enough for her. So far, besides her illusions, we have seen nothing that would suggest her determination to go with Frank; all that we have seen indicate the opposite, strengthening our conviction in her want of conscious will.

After she remembers her promise to her mother “to keep the home together,” strangely, the memory of her dying mother lays “its spell on the very quick of her being.” (D 50) For the first time she seems to be thinking seriously about “Escape!” from that “life of commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness.” (D 50) But this momentary excitement is not to last long because the Frank who “would save her” will soon turn into the Frank who “would drown her.” At the last moment, when she is to board the boat but still is hesitating on the deck, she prays to God for direction, but her “silent fervent prayer” is as hollow yet as constraining in effect as the “bell” that “clanged upon her heart.” Her mind screams: “No! No! No! It was impossible.” She finally, in a moment of wretched honesty, recognises her affliction and admits her loss. She remembers all her past wounds and conceives of the impossibility of any mobility.

The disease of the city and its inhabitants has finished its workings on the consciousness of the Dubliner; now the soul is nothing but an epithet of passivity, defeat, and paralysis. This establishes the temperament of the following stories, which will only persist in decline, for we have long entered the gates of Hell, and, recalling the inscription, there is no turning back.


Alighieri, Dante. The Inferno. Trans. John Ciardi. New York: New American Library, 1954. Print.

Anderson, Chester G. James Joyce. London: Thames and Hudson, 1986. Print.

Fargnoli, A. Nicholas, and Michael Patrick Gillespie. Critical Companion to James Joyce: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2006. Print.

French, Marilyn. “Missing Pieces in Joyce’s Dubliners.” Twentieth Century Literature 24.4 (1978): 443-72. JSTOR. Web 17 Feb. 2015

Ghiselin, Brewster. “The Unity of Dubliners.” Accent 16 (Spring and Summer, 1956) 75-88, 196-213. Print.

Johnson, Jeri. Introduction. Dubliners. By James Joyce. Oxford: Oxford University P, 2000. vii-xl. Print.

Joyce, James. The Portable James Joyce. ed. Harry Levin. New York: Viking Press, 1947. Print.

---. Letters of James Joyce, 3 vols.: vol. i ed. Stuart Gilbert; vols. ii and iii ed. Richard Ellmann. New York: Viking, 1957, 1966. Print.

Kenner, Hugh. “The Cubist Portrait.” Approaches to Joyce’s ‘Portrait’: Ten Essays. Eds. Thomas Staley and Bernard Benstock. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh P, 1976. 171-84. Print.

Levin, Harry. James Joyce: A Critical Introduction. Rev. ed. New York: New Directions Publishing, 1960. PDF.

Taube, Myron. “Joyce and Shakespeare: ‘Eveline’ and ‘Othello’.” James Joyce Quarterly 4.2 (1967): 152-154. JSTOR. Web. 17 Feb. 2015

Walzl, Florence L. “Pattern of Paralysis in Joyce’s Dubliners: A Study of the Original Framework.” College English 22.4 (1961): 221-28. JSTOR. Web. 17 Feb. 2015.


1.) Quotations are from The Portable James Joyce (Viking, 1947) referred to hereafter only with the letter ‘D’ and page number.

2.) Perhaps with an exception of “The Dead,” which was added to the book later.

3.) Jesus made twelve promises to the Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque for those who honour His Sacred Heart. The first four of these promises are the most striking in relation to Eveline’s situation, and they are: I will give them all the graces necessary for their state of life. I will establish peace in their family. I will console them in all their troubles. They shall find in My Heart an assured refuge during life and especially at the hour of their death.

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