In the short fiction “Eveline,” the author James Joyce tells the story of a nineteen-year old adolescent faced with a potentially life-changing decision. In nineteenth century Ireland, Eveline meets a young sailor Frank, who offers her the opportunity to travel with him to Buenos Aires, Argentina. At the time of boarding, she remains clutching to the rails at the harbor leaving Frank to go to Argentina on his own. She remains then in Dublin with her abusive father. In discussions of “Eveline,” one controversial issue has been Eveline’s final decision to stay in Dublin instead of leaving with Frank. There are two sides to this: on the one hand, it is believed that Eveline’s promise to her mother “to keep the home together as long as she could (Joyce 6)” inherently holds her to stay in her family home in Dublin. On the other hand, it is argued that her submissive personality imprisons her to the familiar, which is also in Dublin. My own view is that Eveline was feminized by a repressive society which influenced her flagrant decision to stay in Dublin.
According to one critic, Earl G. Ingersoll, “Eveline is the ultimate ‘feminized’ subject” (Ingersoll). In his words, “oppression, servitude, and passivity are associated with the ‘feminine’” (Ingersoll) and all exemplary, “feminized” women of the time evoked these traits. That is, women in Eveline’s time were repressed emotionally, mentally, and physically. Because women were not allowed to behave against the cultural mores of that time, any kind of self-opportunistic behaviors were immoral.
When it comes to why Eveline chooses not to go with Frank, the reason is because it is a selfish decision and she has been preconditioned to think that selfishness is immoral. This is especially apparent after her promise to her dying mother. Although it was unfair for her mother to ask this of her, Eveline would have probably done the same thing without her mother’s request. Her brothers have moved away, so now there is not really a family to keep together, yet she stays anyway. Perhaps she wishes to honor her mother by living in the same house her mother did. Either way, her decision is made for another person and not herself. This proves her unselfish nature, but may also shed light on another possibility that she might just be ignorant. Because of the mores of the time, society was more collective rather than individualistic so no one taught Eveline how to advance herself in society, or even that she could in the first place. Frank’s proposition was probably the first time she even considered a life outside of her family’s home in Dublin.
This possible idea that Eveline may be ignorant of other opportunities along with the idea that selfishness is immoral can be traced back to her feminization, and they also perpetuate her submissive behavior that she has developed. It explains her unquestionable servitude to her family and domesticity. Eveline is nearly Cinderella-like as she is an “imprisoned housekeeper” (Ingersoll). In the Disney version of Cinderella, she finds comfort from the harshness of her step-family in her animal friends. All Eveline has are objects. “She looked around the room, reviewing all its familiar objects which she had dusted once a week for so many years, wondering where on earth all the dust came from” (Joyce 4). In other words, Eveline’s life is one full of objects and the memories of those objects are solely of cleaning them. Although they may be familiar to her, she doesn’t know anything about them. She speaks of a photograph of a priest who is noticeably important to her father, but she herself knows nothing about him. In her home, she is surrounded by material objects with empty memories, which has become important to her since “she has been ‘feminized’ by a concern for details” (Ingersoll). Her submissiveness entraps her in this familiar realm.
Because she is so obsessed with the familiar, anything new may have the potential to be perceived as wrong or immoral. This definitely includes Frank and his offer to travel to Argentina. So far, Eveline has shown repression by being submissive and not being able to live for herself. This can absolutely explain her final decision to not travel with Frank, but there is a much more specific repression that keeps her in Dublin, and that is sexual repression. Frank seduces her by emoting masculinity, which Ingersoll defines as “liberation, movement, and activity” (Ingersoll), which is everything that Eveline is not. She is beginning to discover her sexuality. “She was about to explore another life with Frank” (Joyce 5). Basically, Eveline would be joining a culture in Argentina that is the polar opposite to her own, and in a romantic relationship that is very sexually charged. Joyce describes her attraction to him saying “she always felt pleasantly confused” (Joyce 6), which is a euphemism for sexual arousal (Ingersoll). Eveline will most likely be uncomfortable with these feelings, and for her to go with Frank to Argentina will be a decision to give in to sexual vice. Her father acts as a moral compass in her decision, claiming to “know these sailor chaps” (Joyce 6) and forbids the relationship. In the end, Eveline agrees with her father and stays with him.
In sum, even though it may seem that Eveline had a choice to go with Frank or to stay home, she never had a choice in the first place. She was always predestined to stay home with her father, the familiar and moral choice. Despite beliefs that it was Eveline’s promise to her mother or her submissive behavior alone that hinders her, it is both of these in addition to Eveline’s deep level of repression, particularly her sexual repression, which all lead to abandoning ship and leaving Frank on his own. Although I disagree with her, she cannot be responsible for her decision because it was never really in her control. If Eveline had been raised with the norms of today’s society, her decision would probably have been different. She would have had the self-awareness and the self-confidence to leave her situation at home and to consciously decide to leave Dublin. However, because she was not raised with such modern ideas, but was in fact feminized with constricting norms of the nineteenth century, she made the only decision she knew—to suppress her desire.