James Joyce: The Situation of Women in "Dubliners" in special View of "Eveline"

Approaches to Dubliners

Seminar Paper, 1994

28 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The social and economic conditions of women in the Irish society of Joyce’s time – a brief survey

3. The situation of women in Dubliners
3.1. The unhappy marital life
3.1.1. “Grace” and “A Painful Case”
3.2. The unhappy celibate life in “The Sisters”
3.3. Maternal domination in “A Mother”

4. “Eveline”
4.1. Eveline’s standard of living
4.2. Maternal and paternal domination
4.3. Eveline and religious domination
4.4. The lack of love

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction.

When James Joyce had finally completed Dubliners in 1908, he himself considered his first work of fiction, a collection of fifteen short stories, to be a scrupulously realistic portrait of the Irish middle-class society of his time - a "looking-glass" in which the people of Dublin could see themselves and their paralysis.[1] To introduce the book's major theme of paralysis, Joyce wrote the following critical commentary on Dubliners:

My intention was to write a chapter of moral history of my own country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis. I have tried to present it to the indifferent public under four of its aspects: childhood, adolescence, maturity and public life. The stories are arranged in this order. I have written it for the most part in a style of scrupulous meanness...[2]

All of the characters in Dubliners are embedded in life's chronology, ranging from young to old and everyone is a typical portrayal of the ordinary people caught in everyday situations. They all have to endure the progressive diminution of life and vitality in the morbid and constrictive society of Dublin, in which human relations become distorted and escape seems to be impossible.[3]

In Dubliners, men and women are equally depicted as victims of their social and economic milieu, but the realistic picture Joyce drew of the situation of his female characters shows that women were even more

affected by the narrow confines of a rather male dominant society.

This paper is an attempt to picture Joyce's female Dubliners in their oppressive environment, mainly focusing on Joyce's "Eveline" as an all-encompassing representative of women's suffering in nineteenth-century Dublin.

2. The social and economic conditions of women in

the Irish society of Joyce’s time – a brief survey.

Joyce's depiction of the Irish social and economic situation of his time in Dubliners neither "glosses over" nor "sentimentalizes," as Florence L. Walzl maintains, any of the real historical conditions that aggravated not only the individual's life, but also the living circumstances of whole Irish families.

As a consequence of the great Famine in 1845 and severe economic deprivation, millions of people were driven abroad. Those who remained in Ireland had to cope with widespread poverty. Jobs were few, salaries meagre and opportunities to improve their social living

conditions were rare, especially for young women whose vocational choices were much more limited than men's.[4]

In the mid-nineteenth century, women were largely excluded from participation in Dublin's dominant male society. Instead, the Irish Catholic Church expected them to fulfil the traditional female roles of self-sacrificing wives and mothers, submissive and humble to their husbands. Young women should be virginal, emulating the Virgin Mary and families were to model themselves on the Holy Family. Actually, marriage and housework was their future vocation[5] - a fact, that at first glance seems to allow the assumption that it was common practice for women to marry early.

On the contrary, in the years following the Famine, Ireland had the lowest marriage and birth rates in the world and, consequently, the highest rate of unmarried men and women worldwide. By 1908, the marriage rate had not yet risen to five percent - a figure that also distinguished itself by delaying marriage for both sexes. Men usually did not marry before thirty-five or at least not before forty until they had a secure employment as well as some savings. Women would only marry after thirty, if they did at all; and those of them who already had reached forty-five were, according to statistics, said to remain single all their lives.

Still, the large number of spinsters were far outnumbered by that of bachelors, which was probably due to the fact that men tended to avoid any commitments as they relied heavily on their wage for their own survival. As a consequence, brothels flourished and marriage seemed to be an unromantic and rational means for men and women to attain at least some security in life through exchange of money and property on both sides.

Occupational opportunities for unmarried women were limited as well: either they had to work at home, in family enterprises, or undertake outside jobs - often doubling their work loads with family responsibilities. Family enterprises were numerous in Ireland and often run by widows after their husband's death as most male children used to leave their home to set up shops in other areas.

According to statistics given by Florence L. Walzl, type and range of women's occupations varied from owners or shop assistants of food and dressmaking stores, cookery and domestic positions such as house-keepers to office work, journalism, civil service, nursing, and teaching. Teaching was probably the most promising field, since during this period instruction in newly developed areas such as music, dancing, art, elocution, kindergarten work, and physical education was in high demand. Unfortunately, educational demands in all of those fields were high and salaries low. Also, the demand of qualified female workers was far less than the supply, so that the most extensive preparation did not guarantee women a job[6] - a circumstance that had severe effects upon women in a male dominated society, always forcing them to revert to the traditional female image and role. Women were the victims of Irish patriarchy - a world of pubs and political assemblies.[7]

3. The situation of women in Dubliners

Joyce's female Dubliners are almost always portrayed in relation to men – they are mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, lovers or fiancées. All of them appear to be victims of the patriarchal and paralytical nature of Irish society caught between their desire to lead an independent and prosperous life and the fulfillment of their traditional female role. A woman's married or celibate life in Dubliners is destined to be unhappy, denying any romantic ideas of love and marriage and always leading to a disillusionment of the character.

"All must suffer destruction of the psyche and character through denial of basic needs and rights, social and familial restrictions, personal frustrations and deprivations... [in a morbid society that] is all-encompassing and progressive and that ... embraces all segments of society," Walzl claims. Only in a few cases, protagonists will realize the failure in their attempt to break free from conventional limits that society has imposed upon them.

Although some of the female protagonists are depicted as rather dominant women, strongly contrasting the larger number of those that tend to be more weak and pitiable, none of them is offered the possibility of escaping her wearisome and frustated life shaped by the cultural pressures of nineteenth-century Ireland.

In illustrating the extent of female deprivation in Dubliners, Joyce draws heavily on the underprivileged situation of women in Dublin around 1900. The unhappy marital and celibate lives of Joyce's female Dubliners are very much determined by family restrictions and the influence of the Catholic Church on the individual.[8]

Unhappiness and domination in women's lives are recurring themes in Dubliners. As both combine in Joyce's story "Eveline", it is the interest of the following to introduce aspects of women's situation in Dubliners by means of chosen short stories, which subsequently correspond to "Eveline" and her failure to escape Dublin's oppressive environment.

3.1. The unhappy marital life in Dubliners

In Dubliners, none of the fifteen stories presents harmony in marriage and none of the married women was able to preserve romantic ideas of a happy family life or could escape from their dull existence.

The picture that Joyce drew of those pitiful characters as in "Grace" and "A Painful Case," reflects women's way of coping with their unhappy marital existences - an attempt that always ends in frustration for the character.

3.1.1. "Grace" and "A Painful Case"

In "Grace", Mrs. Kernan had married a commercial traveller because he "had seemed to her not an ungallant figure," convinced that "there were worse husbands." Although she sometimes recalls "the vivid pleasure" she had on her wedding day, Mrs. Kernan admits that "after three weeks she had found a wife's life irksome and, later on, when she was beginning to find it unbearable, she had become a mother" to give some new impetus to her life. Mrs. Kernan's romantic illusions of marriage could not be satisfied through her children nor through her husband. In realizing that "after a quarter of a century of married life she had very few illusions left," she gave in to her "irksome" role of a conscientious housewife and "accepted his frequent intemperance" (p. 155).[9]

Mrs. Sinico's marital life in "A Painful Case" is equally an unhappy one, extremely marked by the woman's loneliness. Her husband, a Captain of a merchant vessel, often left her alone and used to be rather ignorant of his wife's concerns.

"He had dismissed [her] so sincerely from his gallery of pleasures that he did not suspect that anyone else would take interest in her" (p. 106).

Courageously, Mrs. Sinico tried to break free from her boring existence, confessing her love for Mr. Duffy. She "caught up his hand and pressed it passionately to her cheek" - a "hand" that rejected her love in defence of Mr. Duffy's own isolation he so much had become accustomed to (p. 107).

Thus, her lonely marital life was transformed into a double loneliness: in turning to another man, she discovered that this relationship was actually even more distant to her than her marriage with Mr. Sinico.[10]

The state of coming to awareness is followed by the woman's resignation and her "habit of going out at night to buy spirits"- a habit that in the end will cause her death (p. 111).


[1] Florence L. Walzl, "Dubliners: Women in Irish Society," Women in Joyce,

ed. Suzette Henke, Elaine Unkeless ( Brighton, Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1982)


[2] Florence L. Walzl, "Dubliners," "A Companion to Joyce Studies", ed. Zack Bowen,

James F. Carsen ( Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1984) 170.

[3] Walzl, A Companion to Joyce Studies, 155.

[4] Walzl, Women in Joyce, 33.

[5] Bonnie Kime Scott, Joyce and Feminism (Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1984) 14.

[6] Walzl, Women in Joyce, 32-35, 37-41.

[7] Walzl, Women in Joyce, XVI.

[8] Walzl, Women in Joyce, XV, 52-53.

[9] Walzl, Women in Joyce, 50.

[10] Warren Beck, Joyce's Dubliners : Substance, Vision, and Art (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1969) 230-231.

Excerpt out of 28 pages


James Joyce: The Situation of Women in "Dubliners" in special View of "Eveline"
Approaches to Dubliners
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Englische Philologie)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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513 KB
"Good - excellent hold of English language!"
Joyce, James, Dubliners, Irish Literature
Quote paper
Kirsten Vera van Rhee (Author), 1994, James Joyce: The Situation of Women in "Dubliners" in special View of "Eveline", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/174842


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