More essays and articles on related literary topics can be found in the Literature Archives here at Article Myriad including Narrative Structure and the Concept of Time in Ulysses by James Joyce •
One of the most fascinating elements of “Eveline” in Dubliners, by James Joyce is the way the whole of a life is summarized through small images and the act of witness—both on the part of the reader as well as the character as this character offers a summary of important life events that culminate into one moment. While certainly the story of “Eveline” in “The Dubliners” by James Joyce culminates in her final decision not to leave that which is familiar, one could easily argue that this is not the emphasis of the story. The main point of this story in “Dubliners” by James Joyce rather seems to illustrate, through a short series of images and sensory details, the life of a common Dubliner. Joyce obviously set out to achieve this throughout the collection, and this paper will argue that “Eveline” is the best example of this, not necessarily in terms of plot, but in description. Smells, sights, and sounds are pushed upon the reader by James Joyce and his style, achieving the effect of a sort of transportation for the reader—a brief foray into the rich world of Dublin—if only for a fleeting moment. He story itself is pushed into the background until the very end, leaving the reader free to engage with the senses experienced by and through the perceptions of both Eveline and the narrator.
The first several paragraphs that introduce the character of Eveline are filled with vague, short, but somehow highly descriptive sensory details. The first paragraph, our first venture in Eveline’s world begins, “She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue. Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the dusty odor of cretonne. She was tired.” In this first paragraph, most of the reader’s senses are immediately engaged. First of all, we are watching Eveline as she is watching the coming of evening and can see her head, almost the exact position of it, as it rests against the curtains. The idea of watching characters watch items of other people in their environment is a recurrent theme throughout Dubliners, and this is one of the many examples in which both the character and the reader are having a sort of simultaneous sensory experience.
As we are watching Eveline as her head is resting and she watches evening, it becomes immediately clear that the process of “watching” here is more complex than it seems. While the main focus for the character is the evening, our main focus is the character. In other words, her line of vision is directed at the evening sky, while for the reader, the approaching evening is merely the backdrop. Out attentions are placed on the character, rather than that which the character is seeing, which brings up an interesting question: Why do we place our focus immediately on the character when they are noticing something else? Shouldn’t the reader be somehow naturally directed the night sky as well? The only answer I can offer is that it is because of the way Joyce “beats us over the head” with senses. We don’t have time to “see” the sky as Eveline does, since the entire panorama of sensory experience is further complicated by the invasion of a simply described, but impressively complex odor. The “dusty odor of cretonne” follows so close to the description of this dual-sight (character and reader) that there is no time to stop and share this prolonged, if not vacant gaze with Eveline. This smell, along with a very simply described “invading” evening creates a stifling sense of one’s senses being taken over by the undesirable. Unfortunately, we get no reaction from Eveline on this combination of sights and smells; she is simply “tired”. Is it because of the oppressive and “invading” evening or the “dusty” smell? There is no telling, but the reader, by the end of this first paragraph (and whether they like it or not) is caught in this world, breathing the dirty air and feeling crammed into what “feels” like a tight window area close to this evening that seems unwelcome. This short, clipped, and seemingly simply described paragraph has already made a sensitive reader tired and much like Eveline, prone to taking a long, distracted moment to stare wistfully at this evening sky. Part of what is so striking about this last statement, “she was tired” is that it is so clipped, yet so full of weariness, in part, due to its brevity within the structure of the paragraph. This very brevity almost seems to make it like an understatement or even an expression of weariness so infinite, it can only be described simply.
In the first small paragraph where we are confronted with this dual-vision and the smell (which, as a side note, I have never smelled cretonne, but I seem to instinctively associate it with a gray and oppressive odor nonetheless) which leads to the second paragraph, a longer one, this time involving another sense—hearing. Eveline and the reader observe, “Few people passed. The man out of the last house passed on his way home; she heard his footsteps clacking along the concrete pavement and afterwards crunching on the cinder path before the new red houses.” Again, there is the brief and simply worded sentence of the last paragraph, “She was tired”, which leads right into a new paragraph with an equally austere and brief sentence, “Few people passed”. It almost seems as though all that surrounds her is tired and weary, and the simply statement that no one was walking about, despite the evening hour, leads to a feeling of further isolation for the reader.
The sounds that confront us when the man’s footsteps went “clacking” and then “crunching” is again, contributing to the sense of loneliness and isolation. This man’s footsteps can be heard so clearly that she (and the narrator) can hear his exact movements and know what he is walking by. Through this very simple but highly descriptive paragraph, the reader has, almost without realizing it, experienced the whole of Eveline’s street. We now know the smell, the fact that there are “new red houses”, that is must be in town (due to the emphasis on the words for building materials like “cinder path” and concrete pavement”) and how many people are likely out and about on business. Still, even though the reader is aware that Eveline isn’t isolated geographically or physically, the way we “see” Eveline and her world leads the reader to feel this way because of Joyce’s use of language in the process of transportation through description.
We are taken out of the world outside of Eveline’s window (now that Joyce has given us a satisfactory “tour” of the sights, sounds, and smells of the larger world of Eveline) and are ushered into her home in a less than “slick” way by the exclamation, “Home!” This unexpected outcry is almost audible after the quiet of the evening where only footsteps on pavement could be heard. This exclamation snaps the reader out of this introduction and plants us within the more inner-focused world of Eveline as the narrator states in one of the important quotes from “Eveline” in “The Dubliners” “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.” Oddly, here we have one on the longest sentences thus far into the story, and even more strangely, this sentence, although dealing with the sense of sight (and integrating the dual-vision theme I was discussing earlier) does not reflect the same sensory depth of the prior, more clipped sentences. This is because Joyce has finally allowed us to “meet” Eveline for the first time. We have stepped into her world through a sort of inner-dialogue (even if it isn’t clearly marked as such). We know this is inner dialogue not because of any grammatical markers, but because of the difference between the lonely separation of dry sentences like “She was tired” to this almost rambling “sound” of Eveline’s voice as she says, “where on earth all the dust came from”. This clear break with the tone and separation of the previous paragraphs indicates that the story of Eveline is beginning, and that the clipped descriptions were giving the reader a sense of place through senses.
The story is more about the world she is leaving than the world she is going to and Frank is barely mentioned. It seems to be more about the world of Dubliners and the ordinary lives they experience through their senses more so than their experiences. While on first sight, Joyce’s descriptions may not seem to warrant the sort of sensory depth and understanding of place through sight, sound, and hearing, further examination reveals that even these short and seemingly uncomplicated sentences that take up less than a page are more revealing about Joyce’s Dublin than anywhere else, perhaps in the whole of the collection. While Eveline is just a lone figure, her place within the cacophony, sights, and odors of the city at once seems to integrate her into the whole of all the stories, especially in terms of her feelings of stagnation, but also sets her apart, since the reader has become, almost by proxy, intimately aware of her inner dialogue.