Gender Norms In James Joyce’s Eveline

Gender norms are the certain ideas about how women and men should live their lives. Traditional societies tend to think that women and men should behave in a specific way to be respected by others and blend in. This way of thinking has passed on for centuries and is still in our daily lives. For example, even to this day there are people that think of women as a breeding machine rather than an actual human being, that they are not worthy to have a education, that they are only here to fulfill their husband’s, father’s or brother’s needs regardless of the century that we live in. Even though opportunities for women to be independent have visibly increased, the mindset is still present. The examples that we can give about this are nearly infinite. That alone shows us how far back this issue goes and most likely be continuous. Along with playing a huge role in our daily lives, gender norms are often adressed in literature as well. By the middle of the 20th century feminist works started to emerge and become a voice for women all over the world. Among them we can see Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1972) which affected people’s view on feminism and gender norms. Other than these important works, James Joyce’s short story “Eveline” (1914) gives us a great insight about the gender norms at that time and how powerful opression can be. In the story Eveline is a girl who goes under an immense amount of pressure after her mother’s death and lives a vain life, just takin care of her brothers and her abusive father. However, her boyfriend who is a soldier in the navy, wants to run away with her. Even though Eveline wants to leave everything behind and go with her boyfriend, she simply cannot do it. And in this essay, I am going to discuss as to why Eveline cannot go and how gender norms affects her life.

In the early 20th century gender norms were not so diffferent in terms of women and the struggles they went through. Even though we have more means to live independentely, patriarchy was and still is present. And James Joyce’s short story “Eveline” depicts these social norms and how it effects women’s actions starkly. The character Eveline, cannot do what she wants with her life, which is running away with her boyfriend and starting a new chapter, because of the pressure that society puts her upon. The narrator states this fact directly in this phrase: “What would they say of her in the Stores when they found out that she had run away with a fellow?”. She is under pressure of the society’s judgement, and this fear of getting a bad name is more effective for her than the idea of being happy when it comes to her departure. It shows that even though most women are not happy with their lives, because they are afraid of what people might think of them they choose to surrender to fate. Like in this phrase: “She would not cry so many tears leaving Stores”. Eveline is not happy living her miserable and boring everyday life. She cannot go outside, be social or do something in her life to excite her. Her days goes by the window wishing she was outside and living life but the situation she is in does not give her that chance. Eveline is living her mother’s life before her death. Devoting her life to the house and forgetting about herself in the mean time. So, the idea of leaving Stores is not something that cannot deal with for Eveline because she loses her identity day by day.

As Simone de Bevoir states in her book The Second Sex (1949): “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman. One is not born genius, but rather becomes a genius. Change your life today. Don’t gamble on the future, act now, without delay”. The concept of gender and the meaning we put in it are completely society’s production. There is no handbook to look and see who should act how, so essentially nobody should have a say in anyone’s life. But unfortunately this is not the case in our world, patriarchy is still there living and breathing, it got old but it is still alive. Maybe men claimed their position in the world as the powerful and superior ones because they had more muscle power or maybe women wanted to feel protected and chose men to have an impact on them. We can not know how this norm has shaped but one thing is clear that neither men or women are not entitled to claim anything special but they have the right to experience special things equally. And in the story, this concept of men’s superiority is quite present. Eveline is in fear of her father and feels the need to be protected by a male figure. She does not feel complete without a man in her life, even if she were to go with her boyfriend she would depend on him. Women feel that this is the only option to live, Eveline does not even think to be independent because it is something so far fetched for the women at that time. They could not get a proper job to support themselves, so there are not much options for them besides marrying a man or depending on their fathers. The dependency about the money is stated in this phrase: “He said she used to squander the money, that she had no head, that he wasn’t going to give her his hard-earned money to throw about the streets, and much more...”. Because Eveline is dependent to her father and cannot do much about it thanks to people’s view on working women, her father has power over her. Since Eveline cannot support herself in any way, there is not much she can do in order to be an individual person. This is the case for most of the women at that time.

If we dive deeper into the story we can see that Eveline is not only pressured by everyone she is around, but even her dead mother plays an important role in her life. She does not want to dissapoint her legacy by leaving the family without a mother role. This idea of devotion to their family can be willing but in this case it is almost like her mother’s emotional inheritence to Eveline to have the same path as her. As it can be seen in this phrase; “Strange that it should come that very night to remind her of the promise to her mother, her promise to keep the home together as long as she could”. Eveline reassures her mother before she is dead and takes full responsibility of the house. “She had hard work to keep the house together and to see that the two young children who had been left to her charge went to school regularly and got their meals regularly”. She is a mother role for her brothers; she does everything in her power to take care of them and make sure they do not feel their mother’s absence. And this is a lot for a girl of her age, whose mother just died. Eveline should not be the only one taking care of the house. Her father, who is clearly affected by his wife’s death as the story unfolds, is still with them but he is just not involved in it as much as he should. The gender norm element takes its place here too, the idea is that because she is a woman she should be taking care of everything regardless of her age or experience.

It is obvious that Eveline’s father has been abusive towards their children especially Eveline. It is stated clearly in this phrase: “Even now, though she was over nineteen, she sometimes felt herself in danger of her father’s violence”. Eveline is technically an adult considering her age but her father does not respect that and still has the power to scare her daughter. This fear causes her to feel on the edge, taking her every step carefully so her father would not get upset. You can imagine how even just this fear causes Eveline distress in her life. On top of that it is stated that his behaviours has gotten worse: “...but latterly 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”. Eveline’s mother’s death opened the ways for her father to act freely in his abusive manner. Before her death, their mother is like a shield that protects them. And other than that the death of a wife is a devastating tragedy for a man, so he starts to get worse for this reason too. As it can be seen here: “Still they seemed to have been rather happy then. Her father was not so bad then; and besides, her mother was alive”. Eveline reminisces the days when her family is happy. She longs for moments likes this. It makes us realize that if her mother was alive and they remained happy, she would not have to consider running away from her home. But even though they have some happy moments, in the bigger picture her mother has not lived a joyful life according to the story. Eveline thinks that that since her mother and most of the women shares the same fate with a abusive husband, father or a male figure. Eveline tends to think that this is what life is so, she stops fighting against it like many women do. It is almost a normal way of life for them.

Eveline always wants to be protected by someone whether it is her brothers or her boyfriend. This idea is still present today; women want to be protected by a male figure in their life to protect them from the dangers of the outside world, even though they get abused inside their house. Women who does not have the means to be independent, are more prone to get abused. They become so dependant that the male figures in their life feel more powerful than ever. And besides all that Eveline feels that if she gets married to her boyfriend everyone would really “see” her, she would be safe and finally be a part of the society that put her into emotional chains in the first place. The psychology that she is in is clearly demonstrated here: “...Then she would be married - she, Eveline. People would treat her with respect then”. Women are not respected as long as they “belonged” to somebody and eventually have children. Society tends to view women as “useless” if they will not do these things, as if they are only here to reproduce and run a household. Eveline is under that influence too: “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 considers her boyfriend Frank as a saviour who would free her from the chains. Some may call this romance but I would like to call it dependency. If you need someone because you want to be free of the pressure, then you are not going to want the same person and be able to feel fulfilled when there is no pressure.

When the time comes to leave the town that has imprisoned her in a way, Eveline gets into an anxiety attack: “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… Her distress awoke a nausea in her body and she kept moving her lips in silent fervent prayer”. It is almost like the war between Eveline and everything that sorrounds and has an impact on her. She cannot move or say anything, when Frank gives her his hand she cannot even hold it. She is completely shut down. The narrator portrays the attack beautifully in these phrases: “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”. This represents women’s struggles and how the gender norms are so powerful that it keeps her away from the only thing she wants, to leave the Stores. In the end she is not able to go or even breathe at this point. It chokes women from the inside and this part of the story depicts that beautifully. Even if they want to leave the situation they sometimes just cannot do it as we see in this story. Society’s emotional chains are far more heavy than actual steel.

When one considers the elements of gender norms in this story, it is seen that how women cannot be themselves and live fully as they wish. Because there will be always someone that drags them down and make them feel worthless. It shows us how inhumane this stigma is and the people who support this way of thinking have a long way to finish their evolution. James Joyce gives us a great insight as to what women like Eveline go through back then and possibly now. Even though women and men are born equal, they do not get to grow up as one thanks to the gender norms that we made up.

Works Cited

  • Joyce, James. “Eveline”, The Dubliners (1914).
  • Brinlee, Morgan. “5 Woman Writers Who Shaped The Feminist Movement That You're Probably Not Familiar With”, Bustle (2016).
  • Marcus, Rachel and Harper, Carolina. “Gender justice and social norms-processes of change for adolescent girls”, ODI (2014).
  • De Bevoir, Simone. The Second Sex (1949), Penguin (1972).
16 December 2021
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