In his early story “Araby,” James Joyce prefigures many, if not all, of the themes which later became the focus of his writing. Joyce, often considered the greatest English-language novelist of the twentieth century, published few books in his lifetime. Chamber Music, a book of poems, appeared in 1907; Dubliners, a collection of short stories from which “Araby” is taken, was published in 1914; and hi first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, came out in the same year. The book for which Joyce is most famous, Ulysses, appeared in 192 and was quickly banned. Finally, in 1939, Joyce published Finnegans Wake. Notwithstanding his small output, Joyce’s work has been highly influential, and many of the themes and details he uses in his work have become common currency in English literature. In “Araby,” a story of a young boy’s disillusionment, Joyce explores questions of nationality, religion, popular culture, art, and relationships between the sexes. None of these themes can be adequately explored in a short essay; however, a brief exposition of the most important themes of “Araby” indicates the marvelous complexity of Joyce’s insight.
“Araby” is narrated by a young boy who is, like most of Joyce’s characters, a native of Dublin, Ireland. Since the conflict in the story occurs primarily within the boy’s consciousness, Joyce’s choice of first-person narration is crucial. The protagonist, as with most of Joyce’s main characters, is a sensitive boy, searching for principles with which to make sense of the chaos and banality of the world. We know immediately that Catholicism has served as one of these principles; he attends a Christian Brothers school and at home is attracted to the library of a former tenant of his family, a priest. His identification with Catholicism is more than casual. On Saturday evenings, when the boy goes “marketing” with his aunt he sees the crowds in the market as a”throng of foes” and himself as a religious hero who “bears his chalice” through the crowd.
The narrator’s dedication to Catholicism, however, does not run as deep as he might believe. In fact, he channels the emotional devotion that his religion requires towards questionable recipients. Readers learn first that the priest’s library contains three books especially important to the protagonist: a romantic novel, a religious tract written by a Protestant, and the memoirs of a French police agent and master of disguise. If this priest does not maintain a sufficiently pious library, how can this boy be expected to properly practice his religion?
More importantly, the boy takes the Catholic idea of devotion to the Virgin Mary and finds a real-world substitute for the Mother of God. We learn that he is especially fascinated by the older sister of one of his schoolmates. In the narrator’s first description of Mangan’s sister she is lit from behind, like a saint. “[H]er figure defined by the light from the half-opened door… . Every morning I lay on the floor in the front parlour watching her door,” the narrator tells us, presenting an image of himself as a prostrate worshipper. Furthermore, he relates that”her image accompanied [him] even in places the most hostile to romance.” Although the boy explains his feelings for Mangan’s sister as romantic, his confusion between her and the Virgin Mary are easily discernible:”Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises of which I myself did not understand.” The boy is as rapturous as if he had seen a vision of the Mother of God herself. And when the girl finally speaks to him, he cannot respond coherently: “When she addressed the first words to me I was so confused that I did not know what to answer.”
Joyce also makes the nonreligious, and even sexual, elements of the boy’s devotion to Mangan’s sister clear throughout the story. Her dress, her hair, and her “brown figure” are “always in [the narrator’s] eye,” and when he finally speaks to her, the same light that once made her glow like a saint now catches “the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease.” The boy melds religious devotion for the Virgin with his own romantic longing, and the combined force is powerful. When Mangan’s sister asks him if he will be attending Araby, a church bazaar to be held soon, he is caught by surprise: “I forgot whether I answered yes or no.” She tells him she must attend a retreat and cannot attend the fair. As his eyes fix upon the silver bracelet she twists on her wrist, he resolves to go and bring her back something that could compare with that bracelet. Here, the narrator ventures dangerously close to idolatry and the pre-Christian tradition of offerings to the gods. In a punning reference to this, he relates that because of his recent distraction in class, his schoolmaster “hoped I was not beginning to idle.”
The shift from the boy’s initially religious longings to more worldly concerns is accentuated by images of Araby that reverberate in his mind, taking on a very unreligious cast: ‘ “The syllables of the word ‘Araby’ were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me.” This is a very ominous sentence; the boy’s religious leanings are being completely overthrown by the lure of the mysterious, and possibly sensual, bazaar. The sensuality that he wished to obliterate earlier (“All my senses seemed to desire to veil themselves,” he tells us when he is in the priest’s room, thinking of Mangan’s sister) is now the very thing that he wants to indulge. The fact that Araby suggests a nonChristian culture is also significant here, for in his dedication to Mangan’s sister the boy is willing to forsake the safe and familiar world of Catholic Ireland for what he believes to be the exotic and decadent East. As he stands in the upper-story room of his house, he looks upon his old playmates from above as they play in the street, and then looks up on the house across to where Mangan and his sister live. He feels himself chosen, like Sir Galahad (a noble knight from the legend of King Arthur) and prepares himself for his quest.
After withstanding the peril of the drunken uncle and the aunt who hints he might have to “put off [his] bazaar for this night of Our Lord,” the protagonist is finally ready to embark upon his quest. His excitement is palpable as he rushes towards the festival, trying to get there before it closes. As he approaches the darkening hall, his once-clear purpose is now muddy: he “rememberfs] with difficulty why [he] had come.” The futility and purposelessness of his project begins to dawn upon him as he hears an English shop-girl and two young English gentlemen chatting:
“O, I never said such a thing!”
“O, but you did!”
“O, but I didn’t!”
“Didn’t she say that?”
“Yes. I heard her.”
“O, there’s a. ..fib!”
One of the recurring themes in Joyce’s stories is the “epiphany,” a Greek word meaning “revelation.” In one of the drafts of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce’s character Stephen Dedalus is preoccupied by epiphanies: “By epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture of in a memorable phrase or the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.” Joyce, like his fictional counterpart Stephen, saw the epiphany as a crucial building-block of fiction, because it was the moment at which a character understands that the illusions under which he or she has been operating are false and misleading.
At this point in “Araby,” the narrator experiences an epiphany. As the protagonist nears the end of his quest and is about to buy a gift for Mangan’s sister, he changes his mind. As he leaves the hall where the bazaar is closing down, the narrator says: “[glazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” Somehow, the overheard conversation between the English shopgirl and her friends has changed his outlook.
Here at the end of the story, the various symbols Joyce employs converge. The light in which the narrator has always seen Mangan’s sister now meets the darkness of the hall as the bazaar shuts down. Our narrator begins to see Mangan’ s sister not as the image of the Virgin, but as a mundane English shopgirl engaging in idle conversation. His quest, he now realizes, was misconceived in the first place, and he now recognizes the mistake of joining his religious fervor with his romantic passion for Mangan’s sister. Although he does not say, it seems clear that the protagonist will fully reject both.
The story, like much of his work, is taken almost directly from Joyce’s own life. Like the narrator of this story, Joyce lived on North Richmond Street in Dublin and attended the Christian Brothers’ School. The aunt and the uncle of “Araby” bear some resemblance to Joyce’s own parents. Even Araby is factual: advertisements survive that date the bazaar to May, 1894.
In Joyce’s later fiction, characters almost identical to the narrator in “Araby” recur; the most prominent is Stephen Dedalus, the hero of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and one of the main characters in Ulysses. Both wrestle with a similar predicament—they must free themselves from the “nets” of their society, family, and religion in order to be entirely self-determined. Although many of the characters in Dubliners prefigure Joyce’s later characters, the boy in “Araby” seems closest to being a younger version of Stephen Dedalus/James Joyce. He goes through almost the same struggle as Joyce shows Stephen fighting in Portrait. In the words of the critic Harry Stone, in The Antioch Review, “‘Araby’ is a portrait of the artist as a young boy.”
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, James Joyce, Published by Gale, 1997.
Greg Barnhisel, for Short Stones for Students, Gale Research, 1997.