Eveline and The Boarding House are stories about women. By looking closely at these stories discuss what Joyce reveals about the role and treatment of women in Dublin society at the turn of the twentieth century.
In your answer you should include:
* Joyce’s presentation of the female characters in these stories.
* Their relationships with their male counterparts and their motives for the decisions they make.
* The presentation of the theme of paralysis.
* The role of women in Joyce’s society.
When we read Eveline and The Boarding House side by side, we see the main characters straight away as radically different women, and how each one deals with having to make their own way in the same patriarchal society. Joyce presents Eveline and Polly Mooney (along with Mrs Mooney) as almost polar opposites when it comes to their personalities, and the decisions they make, but he uses both characters to clearly express his views on the limited options for women at that time. Along with this, in these stories and in fact the whole of Dubliners, Joyce presents his views on Dublin society in general. He centres on his point “Dublin is the centre of moral paralysis”. In these stories along with others he highlights the corruption of Dublin society. Dublin, which was renowned for being a highly religious place, he felt did not practice the Christian values that the church preached. He builds upon this theme of paralysis by presenting it in other ways, some personal to each of the characters, but for a huge part the paralysis of women in general.
Women in Ireland in the late nineteenth century were denied many rights and opportunities, as they were considered second class citizens and their lack of a vote meant they were denied a voice in society. Only a tiny layer of women were offered education past a primary level, and although women were allowed to work in a select few fields deemed “suitable”, the salary they were given would have been half of what a man would earn. A combination of these factors meant that women could rarely survive without financial dependence on a man. This mistreatment was, for the most part, the fault of the Catholic Church for which we can see Joyce’s disdain in Dubliners. We can also see Joyce’s feminist side shine through in these two stories as a mixture of despair at how women were treated and how this affected their lives, and admiration at how some women could push past this mistreatment and work the situation to give them what they need.
In the story Eveline, Eveline is a young woman living alone with her alcoholic, abusive father. She has the affections of a young man, Frank, and is offered the chance to escape with him, but she finds it impossible to break free from her paralysed life. In the story, one noticeable thing is that Eveline is given no direct dialogue, and the whole thing is written in the third person. This could be Joyce reflecting on the fact that in his society women were not given a voice, in the home or in the community. She is never given the chance to speak for herself, and through this we see how women were strongly and rigidly controlled, and how they were treated by the men in their lives.
In the story she is even controlled by Joyce, who is free to look inside her thoughts and speak for her, as she is not allowed to have an opinion of her own. Eveline is not even given a voice in her own house. When her father asks something of her, she feels she has to “rush out as quickly as she could”, despite the fact “she always gave her entire wages” and therefore should have some say in what happens and where this money goes, but her father is the man of the house and must be unquestionably obeyed despite the fact she must suffer his abuse and alcoholism. Through this we can see how women were paralysed by their lack of voice in society, and how society requires them to have support from a man. We can also see this when Eveline thinks about the married life and comes to the conclusion “People would treat her with respect then”. It implies that she has a lack of respect now because she is single and so women cannot have a role without a husband.
Through the whole story Eveline is presented as an extremely passive character. At the very beginning we see her sitting at a window, observing the world outside and not partaking in it. Much later on we hear “Her time was running out but she continued to sit by the window” and it becomes apparent that she has not moved the entire time. The fact she has been physically paralysed throughout the story implies her paralysis inside and her inability to move on from things she has lost. When she sits completely passive at the beginning, she watches the evening “invade” the avenue, which introduces the theme of invasion, and this metaphor could be one for her – she sits completely still and passive as other moving people invade her motionless life. She is invaded by her father, who controls her and will not grant her a voice, and by Frank, with his many emotions so alien to her. Although all women at this time were paralysed to some level by their limited options, Eveline does not make any effort to change this or give herself happiness. She sits completely still until an opportunity for escape comes and finds her, and by that stage she is too paralysed even to take it.
The choice of whether or not to go with Frank would never have been an easy one but Eveline is almost incapable of making it. Eveline is presented as very emotionally paralysed, as when she resigns to the fact she is incapable of leaving with Frank and must succumb to a life of imprisonment, “her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition”. We see that the concept of love is strange to her due to the abuse and prejudice she has faced as a woman. Through all of this we see Eveline presented as a highly passive, extremely paralysed character with little hope for the future as she cannot break free.
Eveline has, in several ways, been taught paralysis. Primarily from the imprisonment of her gender, and the boundaries society places on women, but also from the relationships she has and has previously had. Her violent, alcoholic father has lost everyone close to him except Eveline, as his wife and son have died and his other son left. As cruel as he may be towards Eveline she is all he has left and because of this he almost imprisons her to keep her to himself, adding to her suffocation – “Her father was becoming old lately, he would miss her.” In this it is clearly stated that her father would miss her, but there is no mention of her missing her father. As Dublin was a very conservative society, her father would never talk about his feelings to Eveline and so instead turned to alcoholism and domestic abuse, which was rife at that time. The psychological impact of this violence and lack of love on Eveline would contribute significantly to her emotional paralysis. The very first mention of her father in the story was “Her father used often to hunt them in out of the field with his blackthorn stick”, which is a very violent reference and could be introducing the theme of domestic abuse. Later on Joyce implies sexual abuse towards Eveline with “he had begun to threaten her and say what he would do to her only for her dead mother’s sake. And now she had nobody to protect her”.
This abusive upbringing would obviously have a startling effect on Eveline. She had watched her mother live a “life of commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness” and her paralysed life causes her in the end to resign to the same fate. When Frank enters her life he is presented as almost a Christ-like figure as he gives her love and the opportunity of liberation, but Eveline is incapable of understanding the concept of love as it makes her “pleasantly confused”. When she talks about leaving she feels sad she is leaving “those she had known all her life” but there is no mention of her leaving those she loved. Frank, to her, was a way to escape, it seems she only learns to like him and sees love only as a possibility. The thought of resigning to a life like her mother’s terrifies her, but responsibility and paralysis hold her back from taking the chance of getting what she wants, even what she needs.
She made a promise to her mother “to keep the home together as long as she could”, and the fact that this responsibility was not passed on to her father just shows us what was expected of women at that time. It was not heard of for women to cater for their own needs before anybody else’s, and so when in desperation she prays to God, she does not ask him to direct her to what would grant her happiness, but instead asks him to “direct her, to show her what was her duty.” Duty always came before love and happiness for women. Eveline’s endless passive routine was another thing paralysing her and preventing her from taking that final leap, for fear that exposing herself to excitement and love and adventure from Frank would “drown her”, and she is not willing to try instead to swim. In the end she was not willing to take that chance even though she “had a right to happiness” because of the paralysis and responsibility that surrounds her trapped in Dublin at this time. The story is left open, with no resolution and through this Joyce is implying that he cannot see a resolution for the mistreatment of women.
On the other hand, in The Boarding House, we see two women in the same paralysing society as Eveline, but instead of sitting passively, they fight and manipulate the society to achieve what they want. This was not very acceptable in Joyce’s society, and so through this story he is making a controversial statement in a subtle way. Polly and Mrs Mooney, as women, are also paralysed in some senses. Their gender causes them to be denied a voice, and as they appear to be lower middle class, career prospects are limited. But instead of accepting this fate like Eveline, Mrs Mooney plans and connives a way to turn the situation around. She knows perfectly well that her father’s business, the butcher’s, will never be passed to her as it was highly uncommon for a woman to run a business.
So she sought out a small, weak husband who she knew would “go to the devil” that she could bully and intimidate, and would eventually have the grounds to leave. We see that she has cleverly planned this so that it is all legal as her divorce is sanctioned by the priest, as she seems to place a lot by rules and regulations and appearances, but still seems to be able to manipulate these to her benefit. She, a “big imposing woman”, was assuming the role of a man. She is obviously an extremely intelligent woman, who I feel on some level Joyce has a lot of respect for., and through her and Polly Mooney’s scheming we see his feelings on how women who wanted to achieve anything had to stoop to such morally questionable activities. When Mrs Mooney left her husband and ran a business on her own, which was extremely uncommon, a boarding house was one of the few options. Women were expected to look after everybody and when running a boarding house she is still catering for the needs of men.
When it came to her daughter, Polly, Mrs Mooney knew that a woman could get nowhere in society without a husband. Throughout the story we see Mrs Mooney remain the dominant subject even though it focuses on Polly’s relationships. She is almost the mastermind behind Polly and Mr Doran’s affair. “As Polly was very lively the intention was to give her the run of the young men” – Mrs Mooney deliberately planned for Polly to have the attention of all the men in the boarding house in case a suitable candidate comes along. By choosing Mr Doran to manipulate, they are beating the system as Mr Doran appears to be higher class than Polly “She was a little vulgar; sometimes she said I seen and If I had’ve known”, but they were also clever in choosing Mr Doran as he seems weak, not excessively intelligent, and easy to manipulate.
Polly Mooney is presented, much like her mother, as a dominant person. She seems to be outspoken, vulgar, and “very lively”. She is described as a “perverse Madonna” – Women at this time were expected to aspire to have the qualities of the Madonna, which were to be fair, naturally beautiful, chaste, maternal, pure and innocent. Polly Mooney is obviously very beautiful and Madonna-like in appearance, but in her behaviour, dialogue and sexuality she becomes “perverse”. She is in no way an innocent person, in fact she is very promiscuous, but she feigns innocence by “glancing upwards when she spoke with anyone” giving her the air of an innocent child. We can see already that she is determined and manipulative, as she is very aware of her sexuality and is keen to use that to get where she wants to be.
When she seduces Mr Doran she enters a man’s room late at night, which at this time would be a very improper and forward thing for a woman to do. Not only that, but she came in on her bath night wearing only a “loose combing-jacket” so she makes no attempt at all to cover herself up, and as she has just had a bath she would be presenting herself to him glowing and fragrant in a very sensual way. When she does this promiscuous thing she knocks on the door “timidly”, again touching on the perverse Madonna metaphor from earlier in the story. Polly is also presented as very melodramatic and self-centred. When Mr Doran is ‘cornered’ by Mrs Mooney, Polly is the one who breaks down and says she will “put an end to herself” and wonders “What am I to do?”, without giving any thought to Mr Doran, whose problem it really is, when really her tears are superficial and as soon as he leaves the room she waits “almost cheerfully”.
Despite the fact that Polly and Mrs Mooney are not nearly as paralysed as Eveline, and were able to make things happen that would ultimately benefit them, they were still paralysed as all women were. The only way for Polly Mooney, or any woman, to get what she wanted was to use her sexuality, and still then she did not have a voice, socially or politically. Polly would be paralysed by a loveless marriage that only exists on the foundation of manipulation and pregnancy. The memories she has of Mr Doran are only “amiable” and nothing more, which constitutes emotional paralysis. All married women at this time were paralysed by the absence of love. They were institutionalised and had to succumb to the needs of their spouse, practically stripped of all rights. They are also stripped of their identity when they are forced to take their husband’s name and are sworn to servitude towards him.
As we can see, the characters from these two stories are very different people, and the situations also different. But the conclusion we can draw from both of them is how women were treated in Dublin at this time, and how paralysed this made them. Joyce realises how unjust and immoral this society was, and with these stories he may have been trying to reach out to other people, but these were very controversial statements to be making. He seems to feel sorrow for Eveline, for whom all hope has been lost, and in some ways respectful towards the Mooneys, but perhaps is not behind their lack of morality. In the end this is what women must do at this time to gain anything resembling a fair life, and I personally commend the women like Mrs Mooney who were ready and willing to do what they had to do.