A comparison of the literary and narrative devices used to present character and create meaning in Eveline and The Waltz

There are a variety of literary and narrative devices used by authors to present their characters and to influence the meaning that readers may glean from a text. In particular, the characters in a text may be placed in a discourse using different focalisation and characterisation techniques. The short stories Eveline (Joyce) and The Waltz (Parker) utilise similar methods overall, placing the focus inward to the thoughts and feelings of their female protagonists, yet there are also differences in both the form and the amount of detail provided, which are essential to shaping the reader’s interpretation.

Focalisation refers to the perspective from which events are seen, felt, understood and assessed (Onega and Landa, 60) and it is clear that both texts use internal focalisation to bring the reader into the thoughts of the main character. Although the primary setting for The Waltz is ostensibly the short moment of time between a woman being asked to dance and the duration of the dance itself, the use of internal focalisation grants the reader access into her thoughts and particularly the humorous internal monologue that conflicts with her external façade. In a similar way, Eveline largely occurs with Eveline sitting at a window, looking outside and thinking, yet the narrative goes much deeper by entering her thoughts as she contemplates her situation. According to Stasi, with “one action, two scenes, with the bulk of the plot occurring in Eveline’s head; this text is all about interiority” (Stasi, 41). It is through this use of internal focalisation that the reader is given a deep understanding of Eveline’s dilemma and develops a sympathy for her situation. Both Eveline and The Waltz take what is externally a small amount of time and open this up via an internal focus on their protagonist and her thoughts.

Despite the similarity between the use of time and internal focalisation in these texts, there is also an important difference. The focus in The Waltz barely shifts from the internal monologue, whereas in Eveline the reader is given insights into Eveline’s family life and to her prospective partner Frank, through the use of analepsis. The background and circumstances of Eveline’s situation are portrayed quite clearly and the reader is driven only to question the reasons behind her indecision and eventual choice of family and duty. In The Waltz however, there is very little description of the male character apart from his poor dancing skills. Instead the focus is entirely on the female character and the duplicity of her thoughts as compared to her actions. Andrea Ivanov-Craig writes that The Waltz takes the form of a stylized representation of a dialogue, alternating between the italicised spoken language and the interior monologue of the speaker and that this duality symbolises the donning of a mask by women to satisfy society (Ivanov-Craig, 238). This choice of form is a device that helps readers to interpret the text and to derive this particular meaning.

Characters are often the source of the most challenging gaps in a narrative and it is how a reader fills these gaps that can drive a given interpretation (Porter: 132). This is certainly the case in both Eveline and The Waltz. The protagonists in each story are conflicted, and while the internal focus provides a deep insight into their thoughts, there is enough gap in the discourse to allow for different interpretations of the text. For example, it is left to the reader to decide whether Eveline stays behind because of duty to her family, because she is too timid to chase an unknown future with Frank, or for some other reason. Her repeated thoughts of family and her prayer to God to “show her what was her duty” (Joyce, 42) point to the former, but there is no direct access given to Eveline’s exact thought process in the closing scene, so a level of ambiguity remains.

The humorous and even violent internal monologue of The Waltz provides a different and much more specific kind of insight into the character’s thoughts than those of Eveline. Despite this, there are still gaps in characterisation that provide the reader with choices in how to interpret the text. One interpretation could be that this is simply a story taking place at a dance, and that it provides both a critique of society’s expectations of women and an opportunity for women to speak out and verbalise their inner thoughts. Another interpretation is that this is an allegory for marriage, whereby the protagonist has made the opposite choice to Eveline some thirty-five years previously and now reflects on and resents the consequences from her death-bed. According to Rhonda Pettit, “we should not be surprised by the multiple readings ‘The Waltz’ invites because the story itself, in both form and content, is characterized by imbalance and ambivalance”. In both Eveline and The Waltz, providing access to the character’s thoughts is a large part of the narrative, but it is in limiting such access that the reader is given opportunity to make their own interpretation.

The short stories Eveline and The Waltz both concern female characters that are faced with external pressures to act in a certain way, and they are highly comparable for this reason. Internal focalisation is used as a device to take the narrative into their thoughts, and in the case ofEveline there is a strong use of analepsis to provide the bulk of the story. Another similarity between the texts is the framing of the narrative into a narrow space of time, although again analepsis is used in both texts to pull back from this into a broader time-scale and to provide background. The texts differ both in their form and in the amount of narrative gap left for the reader to interpret the meaning of the character’s actions. The devices used by these texts in presenting their characters illustrate how meaning is created and how the reader’s experience of a text can be shaped, while still leaving room for multiple interpretations.

Works Cited

Abbott, H. Porter. The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative: Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2008. Print.

Ivanov-Craig, Andrea. “Being and Dying as a Woman”. Ed. Rhonda Pettit. The Critical Waltz: Essays on the Work of Dorothy Parker. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005. 230-245. Print.

Joyce, James. Dubliners. Boston: Longman/Pearson Education. 2011. Print.

Onega, S, and Landa, J. Narratology: An Introduction. London: Longman. 1996. Print.

Parker, Dorothy. “The Waltz”. Ed. Rottenberg, A.T. The Elements of Argument: A Text and Reader. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2000. 256-259. Print.

Pettit, Rhonda. “On Parker’s ‘The Waltz’”. Modern American Poetry. Web. 24th March 2012 <http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/parker/waltz.htm>.

Stasi, Paul. “Joycean Constellations: ‘Eveline’ and the Critique of Naturalist Totality”. James Joyce Quarterly, Volume 46, Number 1 (2008): 39-53. Print.

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