I've been reading Eveline by J. Joyce (It's about a young girl who wants to run away from home and town with her boyfriend Frank to Buenos Aires; he's a sailor and they would travel by ship -- she finally decides not to leave which is seen in the following part) and in this paragraph:

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!...

the verb + prepositional phrase, tumble about, is explained on the margin with "tumbled about - fell upon".

I'm not quite sure I understand this explanation. Tumble about means to either roll around, like sea would capture her heart and waves would roll around it, metaphorically, somehow... (?) If I took the explanation as true, it would be explained as the sea has accidentaly, unexpectedly, found her heart and therefore the feelings (of the sea towards her that cause her feelings towards the sea)...

Am I even close to explanation?

I need a further clarification. Thanks.

  • I'm not sure that 'tumble about' should here be considered as a MWV, although it's not clear. A verb + prepositional phrase explanation seems more likely. Apr 11, 2014 at 8:27
  • That marginal note is awful because (a) it doesn't mean fell upon and (b) fell upon has a secondary meaning (of which you're obviously aware) of finding something by chance. It just means what you think: metaphorically a mass of water rushed round her heart. In other words, she was subject to very strong emotional forces.
    – user24964
    Apr 11, 2014 at 11:27

2 Answers 2


Tumble about means to either roll around, like sea would capture her heart and waves would roll around it, metaphorically

You are exactly right.

"tumble" here just means "to roll over and over, to and fro, or end over end", and "about" is used in the sense of "all around".

Think of waves in the ocean moving all around her heart, in all directions, crashing together (and of course figuratively!). Water is often a symbol of emotion. Here, Eveline is feeling overwhelmed and thus, at this very moment, is conflicted about whether she should go or not.

There is a word in English, "aflutter" (which means "nervously excited") that could describe Eveline's current state.

Note that a "flutter" (think of the movement of butterflies) is something we can feel in our heart:

Heart palpitations are a feeling that your heart is beating too hard or too fast, skipping a beat, or fluttering. [...] Most of the time, they're related to stress and anxiety.

I think it is this sensation that Joyce is alluding to.

(Note also that "A bell clanged upon her heart" is like the feeling of her heart jumping, or "skipping a beat", as Ronan points out).

"fell upon" is one way to interpret "tumble about", but really it's too simplistic. It doesn't capture the chaotic movement of the water, rather suggesting that it comes down in one action - which is not synonymous with "tumbling".


'Fell upon' is an acceptable description of this, but probably not clear enough for you.

In the example,

A bell clanged upon her heart.

means that her heart jumped when she felt him seize her hand.

and then

All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart.

means that her heart was excited after he propositions her to go with him. It uses a sea/water metaphor due to the fact he's a sailor - and is extended in the next line "he would drown her".

  • What's the meaning of "tumble about"? I understand that metaphor - sea is "grabbing" her and, he is metaphorically drowning her. But what exactly does tumble about mean in this context.
    – Guest
    Apr 11, 2014 at 11:25
  • 1
    The water tumbled. Where did it tumble? About her heart. Stop focusing on "tumble about". As @Edwin Ashworth already said, it's a verb plus a preposition, not some multi-word verb.
    – user24964
    Apr 11, 2014 at 11:29
  • I understood that, I guess I expressed myself in the wrong way. In that comment I didn't describe the sentence itself, but my opinion, my understanding of it. I again wanted to know exact metaphor, and not the fragments that are written in this answer.
    – Guest
    Apr 11, 2014 at 11:48

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