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Growing up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, James Joyce experienced the hardships plaguing Irish society first-hand. Born just forty years after the Great Famine, he frequently heard about the mass suffering that killed over a million of the Irish people. This suffering continued even decades later as his family lived in dire poverty and constant struggle. To escape such harsh and stifling conditions, Joyce spent much of his youth wandering the streets of Dublin. As a result, many of his struggles and realizations mirror the struggles and realizations of the characters in his short stories. In “Eveline” and “A Little Cloud,” Joyce emphasizes the futility he found in the quest for adventure in order to escape reality.
In his short story “Eveline,” Joyce illustrates the impossibility of escaping from the harsh realities of a difficult home situation and an abusive father. Joyce describes how even though Eveline was nineteen, she “sometimes felt herself in danger of her father’s violence”(33). However, not only is she physically in danger but she is also emotionally suffocated by her difficult and restricted life. For example, she has to give all of her wages to her father, keep the house together, and watch over her two younger siblings.
This suffocation exists throughout the story, through the image of the dusty cretonne. Joyce describes how Eveline would [lean] her head against the window curtain, inhaling the odor of the dusty cretonne”(35). Symbolically, Eveline is suffocated by her feelings of nostalgia and obligation to stay home and fulfill her domestic duties. She thinks about running off with her lover Frank to Buenos Ayres to escape this stifled environment and make her happier and more fulfilled.
At the same time, however, she constantly struggles with the idea of leaving home. Joyce emphasizes the impossibility of escape throughout the story as Eveline “[weighs] each side of the questions”(32). She notes that on one hand, leaving home would mean she would leave the people she had known her whole life and would also prevent her fulfilling the promise she had made to her dead mother to stay. She also worried about what people would say if she ran away with Frank. However, only a few sentences later, she expresses her desire to travel to a “distant unknown country” where she would be married and where “people would treat her with respect”(33).
Eveline’s conflict climaxes at the end of the story when she can’t bring herself to board the ship to Buenos Ayres with Frank. Joyce describes how “all the seas of the world tumbled about her heart” and how Frank “would drown her”(36). Just as the dusty cretonne of her home situation is suffocating, Eveline’s quest for adventure and escape from that situation make her feel as if she is drowning. In both cases she emblematically cannot breathe. In the end, her nostalgia, promise to her mother, and her fear of the unknown that prevent her from fulfilling her quest for adventure and relieving her from her everyday struggles.
Little Chandler in Joyce’s short story “A Little Cloud” has a similar epiphany. He too is lured to the quest for adventure but eventually realizes the futility in his pursuit. His desire to escape from the ordinariness of his life is first seen when he meets with his old friend Ignatius Gallaher who has traveled the world and become a successful journalist. As Gallaher talks about his experiences, Little Chandler reflects on what stood in his way of becoming what he wanted to be in life-a poet. He comments that “he was sure that he could do something better than his friend had ever done, or could ever do” yet he questions what stood in his way. After he returns home he thinks more about Galleher’s adventures and compares them to what he sees as his dull existence.
For example, as he looks at a picture of his wife he notes that “the composure of [her] eyes irritated” and “repelled” him. He also notices that they had no passion, especially when compared to the rich Jewesses that Gallaher had described so vividly. Little Chandler noted how their “dark, oriental eyes” were so full of passion and asked himself “why had he married the eyes in the photograph?”(81). At this point, Little Chandler’s desire for adventure is seen most clearly.
He asks himself “could he not escape from his little house? Was it too late for him to try to live bravely like Gallaher?”(81). As he holds his child in his arms his question is answered; he realizes that his quest is hopeless. As the child cries, the poems that Little Chandler had been reading become less and less auditable. The poems, written by a romantic Irish poet, seem to represent the possibility for Little Chandler to escape. As the child’s cries take over the poetry, reality also takes over the possibility of adventure and escape for Little Chandler. He now realizes that he is in fact “a prisoner for life”(82).