Eve and Shakti


When I first read the story, I cried.  Because?  Because in its own quiet way it reflected back to me a long-lived dread, from which I could not flinch.  Those paintings too, seemed to collude and conspire against me and my kind.  ‘That is all you are,’ came the whisper, to be seen in a particular way, a stranger to yourself; there for others.  As for those statues, surely there was something deeply wrong in their graphic depiction.  I could not look.  Abashed, I lowered my lids and looked away.

What was it, in a different time and a different place, that struck such horror in me?

The story was ‘Eveline’ in James Joyce’s Dubliners.  It portrays a woman at an important junction in her life when she has an opportunity to travel and make a new life with the man who loves her.  Yet, so stultifying has her life been, that it has drained her of the ability to take a chance at life.  ‘She wanted to live’, but her pathetic desire was not enough to shock her out of her passivity.  We raise our hopes as she makes her way, incognito, to the dock, to join Frank.  But even as he pulls her onward to board the ship, she clings to the iron railings.  She wanted to live, but her manacled-mind kept the shackles firmly locked.


Edouard Manet The Luncheon on the Grass,     Public domain
 And to the paintings – of women, beautiful women, but whose beauty is paraded for others; it is not their own.  John Berger speaks about the difference between nakedness and nudes.  Nakedness is about our natural, unclothed self – we might almost say, our unself-conscious embodiment, such as when one takes off the daytime clothes to put on the nightwear.  Or when drying oneself, having got out of the shower.  I think a picture that portrays this idea well is Degas’ After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself

Edward Degas After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself, National Gallery, London, Public Domain
Here she is, just out of the bath, drying herself.  It is an everyday scene.  Her nakedness is hers.  Contrasted to this, and I think Berger is right in this, is the female nude, such as in the painting by Manet.  Here, the woman’s physical form is put on show for others to see.  While Degas’ woman is a snapshot of the private, Manet’s is a depiction for the public, and for the male viewing public in particular.  The audience is placed, intentionally, in the role of voyeur.  These such pieces were painted to be looked at.  The women are painted seated or lounging, laying back, completely exposed.  Little or no modesty has been afforded them – that virtue which is at the heart of what it is to be a woman who knows herself beautiful; a woman who is not seeking validation from others – which would be as changing and impermanent as the passing crowd – but who knows herself beautiful at her very core.  That beauty is modest and in a sense, private, to be revealed to her one and only, privately.  Manet’s woman and other such painted women, however, are waiting… They are passive.  Waiting to be a recipient. Stultified.

Shiva and Shakti sculpture.   Image from Pinterest.com
This statue of Shiva and Shakti comes from the Hindu tradition.  There is nothing passive or stultifying about the depiction of the female!  She is active; she is responsive; she is wonderfully embodied in the embrace of union.  The two are one, lost in each other.  These statues are representations of different aspects of the Hindu Supreme Spirit, manifested in so many forms of male and female, of power and gentleness, of protection and nurturing.  The dynamic surge of life cannot be depicted in static form.

In the Hebrew tradition we are told that when God wanted to express himself, he did so by making humans, and making them male and female.  Both carry the image and likeness of God – different aspects of God’s nature conveyed differently in each form.  In the second Hebrew creation account, Eve is created as an expression of God in the world, of action, of beauty and of tenderness.

That is why the story of Eveline, in Dubliners is so tragic.  By birth she is a daughter of Eve, yet she is not guardian of her own beauty or her own nature.  The image she carries has been squashed and constrained by others.  Because of this, her life, but also theirs, is so much to poorer.



James Joyce Dubliners, Penguin Modern Classics                                                                                      John Berger in a 4 part BBC documentary Ways of Seeing, 1972                                                          Stone sculpture from the Citragupta Temple at Khajuraho, in The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, by Fritjof Capra




8 thoughts on “Eve and Shakti

  1. I guess for men, passivity equals impotence. Might it be that for some men, projecting their own feared passivity (impotence) into women includes an envy, a sort of fantasy about shedding responsibility? I don’t know Joyce’s story, but setting out into a new creative future would have had a different significance for men and women. To over simplify, men would have an identity that included individual achievement and outward exploration whilst for women identity would be more communal with other women? (Makes the achievements of such as Freya Stark doubly remarkable!) I suppose Joyce shows a modernity in seeing Eveline’s story as tragic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your considered comment. I’d like to think for a bit about what you say. I couldn’t speak for men; I’m only just beginning to be able to articulate what it is for me, as a woman. And even in that I wouldn’t want to generalise too much! But thinking and reflecting is good for ourselves, so we can grow into our best selves. It’s a journey of discovery, and I really value other people’s perspectives. Thank again 🙂


  2. Thanks for posting such a thoughtful essay. Your citings and image supplement work seamlessly.

    I remember Kurt Vonnegut quoting “She was tired.” from “Eveline” and saying that no words could break the reader’s heart more effectively than those. Your tying of Eveline to Eve would have delighted Mr Vonnegut, I am sure, were he here to share.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your comments. I think your teacher was right. When I re -read the story it struck me how young Eveline was : ‘over nineteen ‘, but clearly still young. And for one so young to have given up her dreams seemed so full of pathos. Excellent writing that captures so much and continues to provoke much thought. Thanks again


  3. I have this book by J.Joyce in Polish translation, but I’ve not read it, lack of time, sadly… These naked women on Manet’s painting are not similar to the Degas woman. This woman is beautiful, but those from Manet’s painting for me are looking like sexual slaves from men’s dark fantasy. I don’t like this painting, although is famous and obviously is great artwork, and I much prefere this by Degas.

    Liked by 1 person

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