Eveline, a nineteen-year-old woman in Dublin, is sitting with her head against the curtains, watching dusk fall on her street. She notices that it smells like “dusty cretonne” (heavy fabric used for upholstery) and that she is tired. There is hardly anyone outside, but she notices a man who lives in the last house walking home. She hears his footsteps change from the concrete to the cinder path as he enters the newer part of the street that is filled with red houses, instead of brown ones like hers. She remembers that there used to be a field here where she would play with the neighborhood children and her siblings, except for Ernest, because he was already too old. Keogh the cripple used to warn them when Eveline’s father—who was carrying a blackthorn stick, most likely as a threat—came out to call them inside.
Joyce begins by bringing in the symbol of dust almost immediately. The odor of “dusty cretonne” is familiar to Eveline, and she finds it somewhat comforting, but it also represents death, and reflects the fact that Eveline is not really living fully. As she watches her neighbor enter the newer part of the neighborhood, she becomes nostalgic and remembers her childhood, when there used to be a field instead of new red houses. This overwhelming feeling of nostalgia and glorification of the past eventually contributes to her paralysis and inability to make a decision at the story’s end.
Eveline reflects back on her childhood, realizing that she was happier back then when her father was less violent and her mother was still alive. But now she and her siblings are all grown up, and her mother is dead along with her neighbor Tizzie Dunn. The Waters have moved back to England. Eveline sums it up by saying simply “Everything changes” and now it is finally Eveline’s turn to leave home.
Eveline continues to think nostalgically back on her past, and now she brings up literal death, as she lists off those who have died. Her lack of emotion when talking about death emphasizes the fact that Eveline herself is not really living, and so death is not only familiar, but signifies less of a loss.
Eveline is suddenly overcome with nostalgia as she looks around at the objects that she has dusted over the years. She wonders where the dust comes from, and then realizes she may never see these objects again. She realizes she still does not even know the name of the priest whose photo is hanging on the wall, along with a broken harmonium and a colored print of promises made to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque (a French Catholic saint). The priest is an old friend of her Eveline’s father, and he used to tell visitors that the priest is in Melbourne now.
The symbol of dust comes back and continues to inspire nostalgia in Eveline, since she has spent much of her life dusting. The photo of her father’s friend, the priest, as well as the print of promises to Margaret Mary Alacoque serve to illustrate the importance of religion in Eveline’s life. The priest represents Eveline’s option to leave Dublin and essentially become “dead” to everyone from her childhood, while the promises to Margaret Mary Alacoque represent her option to stay in Dublin and keep her promise to her mother.
Eveline is starting to question her decision to leave more and more. In Dublin she has shelter and food, and she is surrounded by the same familiar people she has known her whole life. She imagines that her coworkers at the Stores, the shop where she works, will say she is a fool when they learn she has run away with a man. Eveline imagines Miss Gavan, the owner, will be glad that she is gone, since she always seemed to be especially critical of Eveline. She decides she is not sad to leave work, and that once she is married and living in her new home in an unknown land she will have the respect of her peers.
Eveline’s sudden doubt of her choice to escape Dublin is inspired by her previous nostalgia. She is concerned about leaving these familiar people, but it seems all of the important people in Eveline’s life, such as her mother and brothers, have died or left. Eveline allows her nostalgia to distract her from the harsh reality of her present life in Dublin, and her escape suddenly loses its appeal. Since she is a woman, however, she knows she must find a husband if she wants to gain respect or have any real agency in society.
Now that Eveline is over nineteen and none of her siblings are there to protect her, her father has begun to threaten her more. As a result, she has begun to suffer from heart palpitations. Ernest is dead and Harry (another brother) is usually away for business. Eveline is beginning to grow tired of fighting about money with her father as well. She gives him all of her wages, but he never gives her any money to spend because he thinks she will waste it. In addition to keeping the house together, she also cares for two children who have been left in her charge. The life she lives is hard, but now that she is about to leave, she realizes that it is not “a wholly undesirable life.”
The role of women in her society has greatly influenced Eveline, and led her to justify risking her health in order to fulfill her duties. Eveline knows that the children and her father are relying on her to care for them, and she sees her duty to them as possibly more important than her own safety and happiness. It seems that everyone has left her behind to care for the house and family, and since she is a woman, this is expected to be her role, even if it means she is sacrificing herself. This flawed logic and normalization of her father’s violence contributes to her paralysis and her inability to actively live.
Eveline reflects on her relationship with her lover, Frank. She is planning to take the night boat with him to Buenos Ayres, Argentina, where he lives. Eveline feels like she only met him a few weeks ago, when he was visiting Dublin on a break from his job as a sailor. At first walked her home from the Stores, and then he took her to see “The Bohemian Girl” at the theatre, where they sat in a section Eveline was “unaccustomed to.” At first Eveline likes the attention, and she begins to grow fond of Frank and his stories about “distant countries.” However, after Eveline’s father finds out about their relationship and quarrels with Frank, they can only see each other in secret.
Eveline is enamored with Frank largely because he represents the “exotic,” and introduces her to these foreign lands he has visited, and also because Frank makes her feel like she has a choice in her life. Even though she ends up staying in Dublin, up until that point Eveline feels a bit freer knowing she has the choice to leave with Frank. In the end, it is this feeling of power, however temporary, that is more satisfying than the actual escape.
Eveline looks down at the two letters she has been holding in her lap: one for Harry, and one for her father. Eveline remembers the good memories with her father, like when he made her toast when she was sick, and entertained the children on a family picnic. Eveline notices the smell of dusty cretonne again and hears a street organ playing outside. She knows the tune, and it reminds her of the street organ that was playing on her mother’s last night before she died (of an unspecified illness). Eveline also remembers the promise she made to her mother, that she would keep the home together “as long as she could.”
As much as Eveline fears following in her mother’s footsteps and sacrificing herself for her father, she also places a great importance on keeping promises, perhaps a result of her Catholic values. The fact that she is a woman also means she feels it is her social duty to sacrifice herself. She again reflects nostalgically on the past, remembering the nice things her father has done. However Eveline seems to be preventing herself from seeing the full picture as she only remembers her father’s (small and infrequent) acts of kindness.
Eveline feels pity for her mother, who seems to have spent her life making sacrifices for Eveline’s father and family, only to be driven to insanity. Eveline is suddenly struck with terror and is desperate to escape. She reasons that she has a right to happiness. She hopes Frank will save her and resolves to go meet him.
Eveline’s desperate call for an escape is triggered by her fear of becoming her mother, just as her later paralysis is caused by a different kind of fear. Eveline knows her only way to escape is through Frank, or God. As a woman she feels she must rely on male figures for an escape.
Eveline meets Frank at the station, but cannot seem to focus on what he is saying as they head toward the boat, holding hands. Eveline prays to God for direction “out of a maze of distress.” She wonders if it is wrong to change her mind after all that Frank has done for her. She is becoming nauseated from her distress, and continues silently praying.
In the final moments before her decision, Eveline is relying on God and Frank to help with her distress. She is worrying about whether she will be letting Frank down, and not about whether she will be making the right decision for herself. She has already become inactive, seeking an escape from the “maze of distress” through God, and not through herself.
At last Eveline feels “a bell clang upon her heart” and Frank grabs her hand to board the ship. She feels the pressure from Frank, as if he is leading her into the sea, and she suddenly feels he will “drown her.” She clutches the iron railing, and cries out toward the sea in distress, unable to move. She watches Frank being pushed onto the boat as he calls out to her, but she looks at him expressionlessly, with “no sign of love or farewell or recognition.”
Eveline finally realizes that leaving Dublin does not necessarily ensure that she will finally be able to actively live. In fact, her fear of the unknown, which is represented by the sea, could be just as harmful as her fear of staying. Eveline is paralyzed by her emotions of fear and nostalgia, and she realizes that she will remain in her state of lifeless living whether or not she stays or goes.