Having just finished Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, I was pleasantly surprised by the stories in his first published work The Dubliners. In hindsight (the best kind of sight, obviously) I wish I had started with The Dubliners, since many, if not most, of the themes found in Ulysses can be found in these stories, and, unlike Ulysses, the stories are crystal clear, their starkness reminding me of Hemingway’s stories like “A Clean, Well Lighted Place” which appeared a few years later or even some of the poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson, like the famous “Richard Cory.”
The poetic, four-and-a half-page “Eveline” focuses on the kind of destructive home life that Joyce and his siblings apparently suffered. In this case, though, the story focuses on a daughter’s decision on whether or not to flee the family and save herself while leaving her younger siblings behind.
Most readers would quickly agree Eveline has every justification for leaving.
But in her new home, in a distant unknown country, it would not be like that. Then she would be married—she, Eveline. People would treat her with respect then. She would not be treated as her mother had been. Even now, though she was over nineteen, she sometimes felt herself in danger of her father's violence. She knew it was that that had given her the palpitations. When they were growing up he had never gone for her like he used to go for Harry and Ernest, because she was a girl; but latterly he had begun to threaten her and say what he would do to her only for her dead mother's sake. And now she had nobody to protect her. Ernest was dead and Harry, who was in the church decorating business, was nearly always down somewhere in the country. Besides, the invariable squabble for money on Saturday nights had begun to weary her unspeakably. She always gave her entire wages—seven shillings —and Harry always sent up what he could but the trouble was to get any money from her father. He said she used to squander the money, that she had no head, that he wasn't going to give her his hard-earned money to throw about the streets, and much more, for he was usually fairly bad of a Saturday night. In the end he would give her the money and ask her had she any intention of buying Sunday's dinner. Then she had to rush out as quickly as she could and do her marketing, holding her black leather purse tightly in her hand as she elbowed her way through the crowds and returning home late under her load of provisions.
As an ex-caseworker and teacher this kind of abusive father is all too familiar. In the first few pages, Joyce has the reader convinced Eveline is going to run away to save herself, and justifiably so though there’s a small hint she is having second thoughts.
She had hard work to keep the house together and to see that the two young children who had been left to her charge went to school regularly and got their meals regularly. It was hard work—a hard life—but now that she was about to leave it she did not find it a wholly undesirable life.
Second thoughts are understandably a part of making such a drastic decision, but the reader wonders in what way is the life she has just described not a “wholly undesirable life”. It’s one thing to sacrifice your happiness for the sake of children left in your care; it’s something quite different to see that decision as anything but the self-sacrifice it is.
This moment of self-doubt is quickly followed by the realization that if she stays her life will be sacrificed, just as her mother’s life was:
As she mused the pitiful vision of her mother's life laid its spell on the very quick of her being—that life of commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness.
She stood up in a sudden impulse of terror. Escape! She must escape! Frank would save her. He would give her life, perhaps love, too. But she wanted to live. Why should she be unhappy?
Even in this moment of clarity, though, there’s the suggestion of doubt in the phrase “perhaps love, too.”? Could you really justify running away to a foreign country with a man you didn’t love?
None of these doubts, though, quite prepare the reader for the ending of the story. At the station as the two are about to elope, Eveline suddenly pulls away as her lover is pushed ahead with the rush of he crowd:
No! No! No! It was impossible. Her hands clutched the iron in frenzy. Amid the seas she sent a cry of anguish!
He rushed beyond the barrier and called to her to follow. He was shouted at to go on but he still called to her. She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.
Haunting eyes. Not the eyes of someone who has consciously decided to save her younger brothers and sisters. The eyes of someone totally defeated, unable to love or even to regret the sacrifices we sometimes demand of ourselves.
Considering most of Joyce’s works are considered biographical, it’s hard not to wonder if he didn’t feel guilty at times for leaving his younger brothers and sisters behind when he fled to Europe with his wife, knowing at the same time that failing to leave would have made his life unbearable.