Eveline by James Joyce, 1904
The magic trick:
Extraordinary use of backstory
Like many of the stories in Dubliners, “Eveline” is a simple premise. A girl must choose whether or not to leave her home for a new life abroad with her husband. It’s in the telling of the story that makes it so appealing.
Here, Joyce very quickly sets up a present tense: Eveline staring out the window at the neighborhood street. From there, nearly the entire story takes place in her mind. We travel her thoughts, getting backstory about her childhood, her life and her conflicted decision. It’s an incredibly efficient way to encourage the reader to imagine and interpret an entire lifetime. And that’s quite a trick on Joyce’s part.
Her time was running out but she continued to sit by the window, leaning her head against the window curtain, inhaling the odour of dusty cretonne. Down far in the avenue she could hear a street organ playing. She knew the air 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. She remembered the last night of her mother’s illness; she was again in the close dark room at the other side of the hall and outside she heard a melancholy air of Italy. The organ-player had been ordered to go away and given sixpence. She remembered her father strutting back into the sickroom saying: ”Damned Italians! coming over here!”