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Sworn and Forlorn: Chateaubriand’s Atala and Joyce’s “Eveline”

From: Joyce Studies Annual
Volume 2008
pp. 249-254

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In the Dubliners story “Eveline,” Joyce invites a comparison between his protagonist and the seventeenth-century French saint Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647–1690) through a reference to a “coloured print” observed on Eveline Hill’s wall of the redemptive “promises” made to followers of the liturgical devotions prescribed in the nun’s visions (D 37). Against Alacoque’s spiritual life of voluntary chastity and self-sacrifice (ecclesiastically sanctified by her beatification [1864] and canonization [1920]), Eveline’s discomfiting self-denial for her family appears a sad waste, less virtuously chosen on her part than imposed by paternal intimidation and manipulation.1 Scholars have proposed additional influences upon the composition of this story, but there may be one, as yet overlooked, to be found in a book listed in Joyce’s library, François René de Chateaubriand’s novelette Atala (1801).2

Chateaubriand, the Gallic writer most influential in the nineteenthcentury romanticization of Catholicism, first gained his literary notoriety with the publication of Atala, a tragic tale of love and Christian faith among the American Indians during colonial times. The story was later included in the author’s highly popular apologia for Christian faith, Génie du Christianisme (1802), which made him the most prominent French writer of his day.3

In the story, a Natchez brave, Chactas, is captured by an enemy tribe in Florida. About to be tortured, he escapes through the assistance of a princess of that tribe, Atala, who is a Christian. The two flee through the forest, get caught in a storm, and are rescued by a Christian missionary, Father Aubry. Atala and Chactas are in love, but his heathen faith and the hint of some painful “secret” she harbors obstruct their happiness. When Chactas agrees to accept Christianity, their problem seems resolvable, but then he and Father Aubry find Atala has fatally poisoned herself because of her secret, which she reveals before she dies. Atala’s birth was a difficult one and her mother, also a Christian, offered in her prayers her daughter’s lifelong virginity in exchange for the child’s survival. Atala also tells how when she was sixteen, her mother died in great despondency, making Atala swear at her deathbed to abide by her mother’s vow of chastity for her.4 Atala, caught between her desire for connubial happiness with Chactas and the burden of her vow of chastity to her dying mother, despairingly escapes her torment with poison.

Several parallels between “Eveline” and Atala are clear. Central to both stories are pledges made in the past to dying mothers that subsequently thwart or help thwart their daughters’ conjugal aspirations. Eveline promised to “keep the home together as long as she could” (40), which turns into bullied servitude to her alcoholic father. Both mothers are remembered by their daughters as dying very unhappily, one “prey to grief and disappointment” in Atala, (53), and the other a “pitiful vision . . . of commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness” in “Eveline” (40). And both stories climax with daughters either dying (Atala) or hysterically paralyzed (Eveline) as a result of their parentally imposed obligations by which they feel hopelessly trapped.

I suggest, as well, that the judgment Joyce would have us make upon Eveline’s predicament is not so very different from that which Chateaubriand intended his readers to make upon Atala’s. When Father Aubry hears the dying Atala’s secret, he informs her (albeit too late) that he can get the Bishop of Quebec to release her from her “indiscreet vow” to her mother, and that her suffering is the result of “ignorance” and “a dreadful example of the danger of enthusiasm and the want of light in matters of religion” (77). Therefore, both Atala’s tragic death and Eveline’s psychological paralysis, rather than embodying the ineluctable and ennobling Via Dolorosas of true martyrs, instead reflect pitiable misfortunes of abused naïveté and distorted filial obligations.

If Joyce read Atala, as it seems he did, it is certainly possible that elements of the tale of this Indian maiden’s psychological anguish and thwarted marriage resulting from vows made to a deeply unhappy dying mother contributed to his conception of “Eveline.” Given Joyce’s...



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