When thinking of “Eveline” and the titular heroine’s struggle to leave Dublin, I was reminded of the Ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
In the myth, Eurydice is the dead wife of Orpheus, the world’s greatest musician. In his grief, Orpheus sings his way through the Underworld until he reaches its rulers, Hades and Persephone, who are so moved that they allow him to bring Eurydice back from the dead, on one condition: Orpheus cannot look back to check if she’s following him.
Orpheus agrees to Hades’s terms, but like any good Greek tragedy, he turns back at the last moment–and Eurydice is gone forever.
However, one thing that’s not clear within the myth is why Orpheus turns back. It’s a point of contention among retellings; in Sarah Ruhl’s play Eurydice and Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée, Eurydice calls Orpheus to turn back. She decides her own fate. But in Marcel Camus’s film Black Orpheus, Orpheus’s curiosity and anguish gets the better of him, and his look back becomes damning.
James Joyce’s “Eveline” seems to be playing into Ruhl and Cocteau’s interpretation. It is Eveline’s choice that she stays behind.
The work of art I was reminded of is Edward Poynter’s “Orpheus and Eurydice,” which depicts Orpheus guiding Eurydice out of the Underworld.
In this painting, Eurydice is clinging to Orpheus’s arm, looking to the side instead of at her husband as he surges forward, an unseen but terrible wind raging against them. Eurydice’s stance is somewhat ambiguous–is she fearful and nervous, hoping for Orpheus’s success even as the Underworld fights back? Or is she reluctant to leave, and her hold on his arm is actually an attempt to pull him back?
There’s something already tragic about the image, with Orpheus well-lit in warm tones as Eurydice is drowned out in swathes of white fabric and sickly green. She’s pale compared to Orpheus–almost death-like. She no longer belongs to the land of the living.
In a way, Eveline is to Dublin as Eurydice is to the Underworld. Even as Frank tries to pull her away–to bring her to a new life in Buenos Ayres, where “people would treat her with respect”–something about her life in Dublin, as hellish as it is with “her father’s violence,” has its grip on her.
Frank “[rushes] beyond the barrier and [calls] to her to follow,” an almost Orphic plea. He looks back towards Ireland, away from his newest adventure, to the woman he thinks is the love of his life. But with her “white face,” “passive” and holding “no sign of love or farewell or recognition,” Eveline is almost reminiscent of a corpse, mirroring Poynter’s Eurydice in her death-like state.