Refusing the Call? A James Joyce Cautionary Tale

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The opening story in James Joyce’s short story anthology Dubliners is a tale not actually about Departure–though it appears to be on the surface–but rather it is about a Refusal of the Call to Depart on a potentially liberating heroic adventure. The protagonist, Eveline, lives with her widowed father and brothers in Dublin. She tends to their needs as a housewife ‘should,’ standing in for her departed mother.  She meets a sailor, Frank, who would whisk her away to Buenos Aires (“Good Air”); far away from  family, from her nation of Ireland, from her Church community. Throughout the story Eveline muses about Frank’s offer to leave, but as the ten page story unfolds we realize that Eveline cannot possibly leave. Joyce describes Eveline at the end point, refusing to step forward as her lover holds their tickets at the boat, “passive, like a helpless animal.”

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The opening lines of Eveline set up the pathos:

“She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue. Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired.”

Joyce portrays Eveline as trapped. She is trapped in her role as daughter and homekeeper for her family. She is trapped in her Irish identity (how could she run away to Buenos Aires, such an exotic, foreign place?) She is trapped in her identity as a good Irish Catholic woman who must sacrifice her personal passions or dreams to serve her family.

Joyce’s brilliant final passages say it all:

“She stood up in a sudden impulse of terror. Escape! She must escape! Frank would save her. 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 stood among the swaying crowd in the station at the North Wall. He held her hand and she knew that he was speaking to her, saying something about the passage over and over again. The station was full of soldiers with brown baggages. Through the wide doors of the sheds she caught a glimpse of the black mass of the boat, lying in beside the quay wall, with illumined portholes. 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. The boat blew a long mournful whistle into the mist. If she went, tomorrow she would be on the sea with Frank, steaming towards Buenos Ayres. Their passage had been booked. Could she still draw back after all he had done for her? Her distress awoke a nausea in her body and she kept moving her lips in silent fervent prayer.

A bell clanged upon her heart. She felt him seize her hand:

“Come!”

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.

“Come!”

No! No! No! It was impossible. Her hands clutched the iron in frenzy. Amid the seas she sent a cry of anguish.

“Eveline! Evvy!”

He rushed beyond the barrier and called to her to follow. He was shouted at to go on but he still called to her. She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.”

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“Eveline” depicts a Refusal of the Call to Depart upon a Hero’s Adventure. But the story does not have to end with Eveline’s surrender to her essentially paralyzed life condition. I propose  below a “Better Ending” version of Eveline. 

My re-vision of “Eveline” transpires in contemporary Ireland, where 62% of the population is urbanized and globalization offers many options to the youth for emigration and jobs.

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“Eveline” Revisited

(by Linda Watts)

Eve stood at the railing of the Odyssey’s prow; straining to find Frank in the harbor crowd as the boat’s powerful engines pulled it away from the shore. Why had he not come? She felt deeply into the pocket of her windbreaker, palming the passage stub, a misty rain in the morning air obscuring her view of all that she was leaving: her father, the rocky countryside, even the steeple of the church she had attended since baptism. Her woven wallet was secure in her pocket, with all the money she had saved from weekly allowances over the last thirteen years. She covered her head with the windbreaker’s hood and tied it so only her eyes were exposed. She turned away from the rail and climbed down from the bow into the passenger deck. Ten or twelve tourists peered out the windows, happy enough to be safe and dry. Eveline, drenched from her watch above, gazed out an open window from her wooden pew seat. East was her direction now. Her very life was about to begin.

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images are from pixabay.com

 

Better Stories

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Have you read (and/or seen the Ang Lee film based on) The Life of Pi by Yann Martel? While the film version’s treatment of the dual story-line ending presents the final twist, the novel version goes into greater depth and is more layered so as to highlight the meaning behind the message. This dual-story ending exposes differences in the psychological construction and interpretation of reality itself.

Since character drives fictional outcomes–again with thanks to Rebekah’s writerly Guest Blog last week–but perhaps also since the reader’s own character drives their perceptions of these outcomes, I prefer the version of Pi’s story–about how he survived the sinking of an ocean liner–wherein Pi must cope with a fierce Bengal tiger and benefits from divine intervention whenever he surrenders to and accepts his human limitations and his mortality. I love the scene where Pi throws up his arms in utter despair, awaiting his immanent death, and thanks God and the vast expanse of the universe itself for all the experience he has been privileged to endure in this earthly life, only to be answered with a school of flying fish dropping sustenance onto the raft he shares by that point only with Richard Parker, the tiger. By my readerly view, it is a more pragmatic, less believing sort who prefers that Pi’s tale of surviving with animals is but a metaphorical account of a more gruesome expression of human animality. Is Pi compensating with his ‘better story’ through psychological denial of his observations of the brutal murder of his mother by the Cook? Is his very faith a coping device for self-delusion about the atrocities he witnessed?

Which Life of Pi story version do you prefer, and more importantly, why?  If you haven’t read the book, go watch the movie (or, read; it is beautiful writing!), and journal, talk about or contemplate your own response to the ideas and emotions represented. How does this story relate to your personal narrative?

I invite you to send in your Comments or submit your personal story about ‘fictional endings’ this week. Imagine a Better Ending, or a better story about ‘what really happened’ from one of the characters’ viewpoints or from your own retelling of the story according to your own life experiences.

Also for a Guest Blog this week, please answer and send in your answer of ANY LENGTH or format to the question: What is an example of a Better Ending from your own life?

 

Guest Blog: Better Endings or… Better Character? by Rebekah Shardy

 

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I do not believe it is fruitful to play ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda’ about past choices in the pursuit of hindsight identification of a better ending. I believe that every person does the best they can, based upon who they are at that specific time and within that set of circumstances, which will never exist in that precise combination again.

Of course, we would make different choices now – – the ‘bad endings’ of our past have made us into the wiser person we are today.

So what is the key to creating a life of better endings?

If you have studied creative fiction, you understand “action always follows character.” In other words, the choices and outcomes of a story are not laid out artificially: they organically flow from a character’s set of fears, passions, insecurities, personality and history.

You don’t find apples on a peach tree. Who you are determines what you do and what follows.

Our character is a stew of ideas and reactions steeped in conditioning from childhood, ethnicity and culture and personal aversions and preferences, wrapped in the ego or persona we have chosen to build and present to the world around us. It changes with time, but we can make conscious changes so it does not hinder future choices and actions.

When I meditate, I become aware of some of the internal, automatic themes of my thinking that color my choices and behavior. Unfortunately, they are not all positive; many are defensive (the role of the ego). But once I am conscious of them, I can choose to not act out of them. Over time, they may weaken from disuse; I may even succeed at replacing them with more positive ones.

The truth is I will always have an ego whining about the world, and it can lead me down a less happy path. But I am not powerless before it. I can work consciously to build a kinder, more aware and honest character. Will I still make poor choices? Yes, since I am not perfect and life appears to be a school of learning in which we can learn from our unhappy endings. With sincere effort to become wiser and more compassionate, I will make wiser and more compassionate choices.

Gandhi said it best: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Create a better character within you and better endings from your reactions and choices will follow outside of you, as day follows night . . . naturally.

Rebekah Shardy is a geriatric social worker, hospice manager, author of “98 Things a Woman Should Do in Her Lifetime,” (Andrews McMeel, 2003) and recipient of three short fiction awards.

Better Movie Endings

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The Great Gatsby is an example of a storyline with a grim conclusion.  In the most recent film installment, again Jay dies, scapegoat to his gold-digging romantic obsession’s deceit.  Well yes, I know, it is F. Scott Fitzgerald and a wonderfully twisted plot, and we should fully honor and respect good writing.  Still, no ‘ends’ are sacrosanct here.  How might you have liked to see the story end differently, just once?  What lesson might the Great Gatsby have learned that could cause a transformational  turning point in our flawed hero’s trajectory?  Let’s just think on that one; journal about it or write out an alternative ending and, if you do, please submit it!  It would be fun to compare a range of different scenarios.

This week’s topic is Better Movie Endings.  Here’s your chance to finally experience satisfaction with that film you have always loved, except for the ending.  The whole idea of Better Endings came to me when I walked out of the most recent King Kong movie.  I simply could not bear to watch the Great Kong plummet one more time from the Empire State building to his demise as the result of human ignorance.  Tomorrow I will share my own better ending for that story.

So make a list.  What movies would you love to write Better Endings for?

And so, just write!  I would love for you to send in your results, but what matters most is that you do the practice, even just by journaling or on a restaurant napkin.  This blog is not about how “well” you write. It is about putting the principle of Better Endings into practice in your life.

P.S. Feel free to Comment below, and you may use your Gravatar image, if you like.