Realistic and Symbolic in "Eveline" by James Joyce

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14 min read

Published: Jul 17, 2018

Words: 2707|Pages: 6|14 min read

Published: Jul 17, 2018

Eveline as Ireland: a realistic and symbolic approach

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James Joyce has always been widely regarded as a major exponent of ‘the children of a fragmented, pluralistic, sick, weird period’ as Nietzsche called the artists of the time (Bradbury, p. 7). His career as an artist may be considered a ‘journey from realism to symbolism’ (Daitchies, p. 66) for which he chose Dublin as departure as well as destination. As a result of his desire to exhibit the city’s inhabitants’ suffering, he produced Dubliners. Even though this work was originally created by commission as a collection of short stories to be published in a magazine with the purpose of describing rural Irish life for a general audience, Joyce realized that he could give his stories a unified pattern. Therefore, by giving them an overall purpose he bound them around specific themes, symbols, techniques and even characters.

We must bear in mind that Dubliners is the beginning of Joyce’s transition from realism to symbolism, and as such, its structure is partially defined in terms of each technique. The systematic and increasing use of symbols establishes relationships between ‘superficially disparate elements in the stories’, i.e. much of the composition remains invisible until the major symbols in which it defines itself are recognised (Ghiselin p. 101). In so far as Dubliners is a clear example of Joyce’s commencement of the previously mentioned journey, some realistic elements in the stories which intermingle with the symbolic ones are worth mentioning. The characters’ desire to escape and their paralysis weakens their impulse and ability to move forcefully. This inability to act accordingly in response to Dublin-related plights behaves as a realistic as well as a symbolic reference: ‘sheer physical inaction of any kind is a somewhat crude means of indicating moral paralysis’ (Ghiselin pp. 102-103). The seemingly lack of plot is in fact a movement towards an epiphanic revelation of an impasse, ‘a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture’ (Bradbury p. 168) and, unfortunately, the paralysis marking its termination.

It is apparent that the author did not try to masquerade the raw reality of Dublin citizens. On the contrary, ‘he wanted to mediate between Ireland and the world, bust mostly to explain Ireland to itself’ (Kiberd p. 334) during a political period which did not grant any hope or choice to its people. In addition, it is worth saying that in every story there appears a patent message: hard as the characters may try to escape from the routine and inertia of their lives, they never manage to do so despite the epiphanic moments of intensity and revelation they experience. Eveline presents a case in point when she isolates herself from the immediate environment and keeps revolving around memories of her life, instead of taking a step forward and coping with the straining situation.

Brewster Ghiselin concludes that ‘the unity of Dubliners is realised, finally, in terms of religious images and ideas, most of them distinctively Christian’ (Ghiselin p. 105). Needless to say, epiphany is a transcendental revelation which Joyce actually took from religion an applied to art. Nevertheless, making an alternative interpretation of Joyce’s work, it is the intention of this paper to shade some light on the integration of the stories, though devoting special attention to one of them in particular, in terms of political and social images and ideas as we have taken into consideration that Joyce taps not only into religious images and ideas but also into political and social ones.

Consequently, in an ambitious attempt to develop the alternative interpretation introduced above, we have chosen ‘Eveline’ to be analyzed at two distinct levels. On the one hand, we will take the story as the clearest illustration of ‘movements and stases, a system of significant motions, countermotions and arrests’ (Ghiselin p. 103), at a realistic level. On the other hand, at a deeper symbolic level, we will consider the representation of Ireland’s political and social situation in the essence of the protagonist, while alluding to other stories whenever they serve to the purpose.

From a rather realistic point of view, paralysis, as a common theme in Dubliners, finds Eveline facing a dilemma: whether to stay home and keep the family together, thus fulfilling her dead mother’s last wish; or to elope with Frank, her lover, to an unknown destination. John Blades argues that Eveline’s inability to react is as extreme as to prevent her from leaving her house in the first place. Such a theory posits that, in fact, Eveline never leaves for the harbour. Therefore, she posts a double-layered example: at a physical as well as at a mental level. Although she lives with a domineering, unfair and abusive father, she is mentally unable to move away from the few warm memories she has from her childhood. Instead of reacting to the dreadful situation she is immersed in, she is frozen by a sudden feeling of fear to the unfamiliar, hence renouncing the possibility of a new life because as she sees it, it may also be a source of danger ‘…All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart. He was drawing her into them: he would drown her. She gripped with both hands at the iron railing.’ (Joyce, p. 34)

As a first attempt to disclose the symbolic-realistic analogies we assume there arise throughout ‘Eveline’ we would like to introduce our readers to some parallelisms between the characters in the story and what they actually represent according to our analysis. We aim at claiming that Eveline embodies Ireland; her family, Great Britain; her father, King Edward; her mother, Charles Parnell; her house, Dublin; and Frank, James Joyce.

Let us then pay attention to the fact that the protagonist that gives her name to this story is an adolescent. In contrast with an elder England in terms of importance inside Great Britain, Ireland looks like the juvenile sister of the other countries which belong to the same kingdom (or family). It has been largely proved that the youngsters of any family must struggle to make their own way against the benumbing influence of the older generation. ‘‘Eveline’ makes clear how strong the force exerted by the family can be in Dublin home life’ (Blades p. 10).

Similarly, we have found it possible to compare her father, who makes her work and keeps her wages, to King Edward and the representatives of Parliament who have been exploiting Ireland by refusing to acknowledge their fight for land and for independence. In addition, Terence Brown describes King Edward as a womanizer: has Eveline’s father also abused her sexually? The answer to this question will remain purposefully silenced by Joyce. ‘… the possibility arises that the young author was playing a mischievous joke in using this name [Eveline] and perhaps implying sexual abuse as a subterranean theme’ (Brown, p. 254). In addition, it will eventually connect with Ireland being portrayed as a feminine character, masterfully depicted in the figure of a harp in ‘Two Gallants’.

Not far from the porch of the club a harpist stood in the roadway, playing to a little ring of listeners. He plucked at the wires heedlessly, glancing quickly from time to time at the face of each new-comer and from time to time, wearily also, at the sky. His harp too, heedless that her coverings had fallen about her knees, seemed weary alike of the eyes of strangers and of her master’s hands. (Joyce, p. 48)

Traditionally in poetry and ballad, Ireland has not only been symbolised as a harp, but also as an abused or wronged woman, a legendary figure that the tragic narratives of the country’s history has generated. In agreement with Terence Brown once again, we consider that this choice of imagery in texts where women frequently bear the brunt of male oppression in the sexual sphere, provides an equivalent of imperial domination in the political. (Brown, p. xxiv)

It also helps link Eveline to Ireland the fact that Joyce openly considers Dublin the clearest example of the paralysis that controls the whole country. As it has been described above, Eveline personifies an excellent example of paralysis herself. Correspondingly, it is precisely Dublin the city from which she cannot escape. Besides, we have also commented on the ambiguous aspect that she might not have left her house to follow Frank to the harbour. ‘Joyce has presented an indicting picture of the city as a prison house, plagued both by desire and inertia.’ (Blade, p. 38) The description of Eveline sitting at the window at the very beginning of the story goes hand in hand with an image of enclosure, at a realistic level; and an allegorical image of the restrictions and fixations of life in Dublin at a symbolic one, especially taking Eveline’s house as the representation of the city itself, so much so when the protagonist is a woman. ‘As individuals and types, women are both disenfranchised and impotent, the limits of their existence determined by man. They are repeatedly depicted as powerless, passive and silent.’ (Blades, p. 48) It is our conviction that apart from being women’s only reality at the time, this description also applies to the helpless submission to the Empire that Joyce criticises about Ireland.

An important and influential figure in the story is Eveline’s mother. It is due to her will that the young lady finds it impossible to leave her house. Apparently, it had been her mother’s task to keep the family together until she became insane and died ‘uttering incomprehensible or nonsensical Irish’ (Blades, p. 19) after making her only daughter ‘promise to keep the home together as long as she could’ (Joyce p. 33). By fulfilling her mother’s last wish, Eveline will stay attached to a violent father. At the symbolic level, and taking into consideration another recurrent theme in Dubliners – that of the dead affecting the living – we understand that the dead mother’s wish represents the intention to continue with Charles Parnell’s movement of home rule and religion tolerance. This image reappears in detailed depiction in ‘Ivy Day at the Committee Room’, where Parnell hovers the whole event even after his death. We can also appreciate how the absence of such strong personalities – namely Eveline’s mother and Parnell – exert influence on the behaviour of the ones remaining in this world and at the same time determining their failure at the continuity of their tasks. There is no hope, and those who had created high expectations are now gone, thus reinforcing the stasis of those who have stayed.

…and if there are gone beyond recall let us hope, at least, that in gatherings such as this we shall still speak of them with pride and affection, still cherish in our hearts the memory of those dead and gone great ones whose fame the world will not willingly let die. (Gabriel’s speech in ‘The Dead’, Joyce p. 204)

Eveline has stayed and she has been left with a dismal legacy: her bleak environment and her weak personality. The fact that Joyce describes an ‘Ireland frozen in servitude’ (Kiberd, p. 334) is clearly mirrored in the hollowness of Eveline’s identity. This uncertainty about her identity corresponds to the quest for national identity that Ireland underwent after Charles Parnell’s death. While Irish citizens struggled to define what it meant to be Irish by trying to reinvigorate the Irish language and culture, we find Eveline babbling in the midst of a decision between abandoning her land and following her desires.

The young protagonist of the story is presented with a choice. However, can such a situation be considered an option? In fact, the dilemma she faces is but a choice between two lives of male exploitation, as it is not clear in the story how frank is Frank. ‘The truth is that she needs someone else, now Frank, who could redefine her persona’. (Blades, p. 21) Therefore, we come to our last parallelism, this being Joyce’s presence in the story through Frank. We believe Frank embodies some of Joyce’s ideas since what he does is to encourage Eveline to make a step forward. He takes a risk, he seeks a change of air (suggested by the name of the city he has chosen to depart to) and he is willing to take his lady along with him. It is widely known that Joyce left Ireland together with Nora Barnacle, who was to become his wife later on. This episode in his life can be related to the realistic aspect of his stories since ‘the entangled innocents whom he uses for his heroes are all aspects of his conception of himself’ (Ellmann, p. 176). What is more, Joyce exiled himself from Ireland to seek a change of air as well as Frank. Nevertheless, the fact that Joyce enhanced his life by abandoning his homeland could be equalled to the moment the narrator describes Frank’s departure: ‘He rushed beyond the barrier and called to her to follow. He was shouted at to go on but he still called to her’ (Joyce, p. 34) Nothing else is said about Frank. We do not know what became of him, so is the case with James Joyce. To what extend did Joyce actually part with Ireland? Why did he constantly come back to Dublin in his works? Did he ever succeed in making himself a real exile, rather than just a physical one?

All these questions lead us to a final analysis worth mentioning as it is closely connected with the topics developed above. With regards to the intention of this paper, we have explored the characters in the story in relation to their allegorical meaning. The author of Dubliners purportedly selected the characters’ features and their environment, showing no innocence in his choice. Eveline is a perfect depiction of Ireland and all her relationships harmonically fit this country’s relations, except for one character that appears in the last story of the collection. It has been asserted that Joyce added ‘The Dead’ at a later date as an apology for having been so harsh towards Dublin, ‘although he never altered his conviction about the traps and paralysis of Dublin’. (Blades, p. 53)

It is in ‘The Dead’ that Eveline's counterpart appears in order to redeem Ireland. Such a character is Miss Ivors, who represents the Irish Ireland – the independent and self-sufficient nation. Her name could be related to ivy, which leads us directly to ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ – ivy being a symbol of Parnell’s memory. What is more, she does not seem doomed to fall as Eveline is since ‘She signifies a new type of woman. With an independence of mind […] She refuses to be pinned down and eventually escapes from the world of the dead with a sardonic flourish’ (Blades, p. 49). At a symbolic level, Miss Ivors carries a subtle promise for Ireland.

As a conclusion, it could be said that a simplistic parallel symbolism cannot be pursued. Therefore, in an attempt to reveal the symbolic meaning behind Joyce's characters we chose to do so through political and social aspects. Bearing in mind that Dubliners was the author’s transition from realism to symbolism, we consider to have achieved the purpose of exposing the selected characters' roles as well as their representations.


• Joyce, J. (1914). Dubliners. UK: Penguin Books

• Brown, T. (1992). In Joyce, J. Dubliners. UK: Penguin Books

• Blades, John. How to Study James Joyce. UK: Macmillan

• Daitchies, D. ‘Dubliners’. In The Novel and The Modern World. Chicago Press

• Ghiselin, Brewster. (1956). ‘The Unity of Dubliners’. In Beja, M. (ed) (1973) James Joyce and a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. UK: Macmillan

• Ellmann, Richard. (1959). ‘The Background of ‘The Dead’’. In Beja, M. (ed) (1973) James Joyce and a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. UK: Macmillan

• Kiberd, D. (1996). Inventing Ireland. The Literature of the Modern Nation. UK: Vintage.

• Bradbury, M. (1989).The Modern World. UK Penguin Books.

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• Woody, T. W. & F. X. Martin (eds) (1984) The Course of Irish History. Cork: The Mercier Press

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Realistic and Symbolic in “Eveline” by James Joyce. (2018, May 19). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 21, 2024, from
“Realistic and Symbolic in “Eveline” by James Joyce.” GradesFixer, 19 May 2018,
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