Refusing the Call? A James Joyce Cautionary Tale

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The opening story in James Joyce’s short story anthology Dubliners is a tale not actually about Departure–though it appears to be on the surface–but rather it is about a Refusal of the Call to Depart on a potentially liberating heroic adventure. The protagonist, Eveline, lives with her widowed father and brothers in Dublin. She tends to their needs as a housewife ‘should,’ standing in for her departed mother.  She meets a sailor, Frank, who would whisk her away to Buenos Aires (“Good Air”); far away from  family, from her nation of Ireland, from her Church community. Throughout the story Eveline muses about Frank’s offer to leave, but as the ten page story unfolds we realize that Eveline cannot possibly leave. Joyce describes Eveline at the end point, refusing to step forward as her lover holds their tickets at the boat, “passive, like a helpless animal.”

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The opening lines of Eveline set up the pathos:

“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 odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired.”

Joyce portrays Eveline as trapped. She is trapped in her role as daughter and homekeeper for her family. She is trapped in her Irish identity (how could she run away to Buenos Aires, such an exotic, foreign place?) She is trapped in her identity as a good Irish Catholic woman who must sacrifice her personal passions or dreams to serve her family.

Joyce’s brilliant final passages say it all:

“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? She had a right to happiness. Frank would take her in his arms, fold her in his arms. He would save her.

She stood among the swaying crowd in the station at the North Wall. He held her hand and she knew that he was speaking to her, saying something about the passage over and over again. The station was full of soldiers with brown baggages. Through the wide doors of the sheds she caught a glimpse of the black mass of the boat, lying in beside the quay wall, with illumined portholes. She answered nothing. She felt her cheek pale and cold and, out of a maze of distress, she prayed to God to direct her, to show her what was her duty. The boat blew a long mournful whistle into the mist. If she went, tomorrow she would be on the sea with Frank, steaming towards Buenos Ayres. Their passage had been booked. Could she still draw back after all he had done for her? Her distress awoke a nausea in her body and she kept moving her lips in silent fervent prayer.

A bell clanged upon her heart. She felt him seize her hand:

“Come!”

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.

“Come!”

No! No! No! It was impossible. Her hands clutched the iron in frenzy. Amid the seas she sent a cry of anguish.

“Eveline! Evvy!”

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.”

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“Eveline” depicts a Refusal of the Call to Depart upon a Hero’s Adventure. But the story does not have to end with Eveline’s surrender to her essentially paralyzed life condition. I propose  below a “Better Ending” version of Eveline. 

My re-vision of “Eveline” transpires in contemporary Ireland, where 62% of the population is urbanized and globalization offers many options to the youth for emigration and jobs.

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“Eveline” Revisited

(by Linda Watts)

Eve stood at the railing of the Odyssey’s prow; straining to find Frank in the harbor crowd as the boat’s powerful engines pulled it away from the shore. Why had he not come? She felt deeply into the pocket of her windbreaker, palming the passage stub, a misty rain in the morning air obscuring her view of all that she was leaving: her father, the rocky countryside, even the steeple of the church she had attended since baptism. Her woven wallet was secure in her pocket, with all the money she had saved from weekly allowances over the last thirteen years. She covered her head with the windbreaker’s hood and tied it so only her eyes were exposed. She turned away from the rail and climbed down from the bow into the passenger deck. Ten or twelve tourists peered out the windows, happy enough to be safe and dry. Eveline, drenched from her watch above, gazed out an open window from her wooden pew seat. East was her direction now. Her very life was about to begin.

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images are from pixabay.com

 

3 thoughts on “Refusing the Call? A James Joyce Cautionary Tale

  1. As a mother of two married children I have learned that the way I would do things is not always the way that they should be doing things.
    Yes, Eve is trapped, probably clinically depressed, and has refused the call to adventure.
    You or I (who are not clinically depressed and live in the 21st century) are yelling “Get on the damn boat!”

    But what if she had accepted the call to adventure and gotten on the boat?
    There is a chance that the “Good Air” and Frank’s love would heal her and make her into a self-realizing, joyous woman.

    There is also a chance that pigs could fly.

    Lets play out what would have happened, minus the divine intervention, if she had accepted the call: Eve is hoping that FRANK will save her. The only person that can save Eve is Eve. To succeed in this new life, she must understand this. Also, with the two of them in a strange country, Frank struggling to make ends meet and Eve clingy and depressed, I give their relationship maybe a year, if that. Eve will be stranded in a foreign land where no one speaks her language, with no family, no job and still depressed, You don’t need a crystal ball to foretell a life of prostitution and/or drudgery.

    But, yes, she gave up a chance to change. But it was a very slim chance.

    Being the optimist, I hope that she finds another, more reasonable, call to adventure, and hopefully begins her own inner change before it comes.

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    • Thanks Clavielle for a thoughtful reflection. Of course in the Better Ending scenario I present, Eve is a contemporary Irish woman with more opportunities possible for her, and she emigrates without Frank.
      Culture and social structures do impose limitations and constraints.I remain in general an optimist about pathways that we can forge if we are willing to make possible changes. Now what about a severely depressed person in stultifying circumstances? Are Better Endings not appropriate for such a one to even consider? Is the paradigm Campbell sets out only available to people of privilege? That is a common critique.
      As someone who studies and believes in reincarnation, I still see opportunities where many may only see fate.In fact for myself I think of reincarnation as possible and often evident within a single lifetime of choices and shifts of direction, conscious or not. Linda

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      • Yes, I agree.
        We are all capable of positive change, maybe not the mythic, dramatic changes we read about in fiction, but still significant change. In the case of a severely depressed person in stultifying circumstances, the changes they make in their present life may not be spectacular or even noticeable to the casual observer, but they will improve their mental and spiritual outlook, paving the way for the possibility physical healing and possibly a more productive and joyous life in their next incarnation.

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