Mangan is the same age and in the same class at the Christian Brothers school as the narrator, and so he and the narrator often play together after school. His older sister is the object of the narrator’s confused feelings.
Mangan is one of the narrator’s chums who lives down the street. His older sister becomes the object of the narrator’s schoolboy crush. Mangan’s sister has no idea how the narrator feels about her, however, so when they discuss Araby, the bazaar coming to town, she is only being polite and friendly. She says she would like to go to the bazaar but cannot because she has to attend a school retreat that weekend. The narrator promises to buy her something at the bazaar if he goes, but it is unlikely that she takes this promise seriously. While on the one hand the narrator describes her romantically, he also describes her in reverential terms which call to mind the Virgin Mary. This dual image description of Mangan’ s sister represents the religious and romantic confusion of the narrator.
Mrs. Mercer is the pawnbroker’s widow who waits at the house for the narrator’s uncle, perhaps to collect money that he owes her. Joyce includes her character to show that the uncle is unreliable in the payment of his debts.
The narrator of this story is a young, sensitive boy who confuses a romantic crush and religious enthusiasm. All of the conflict in this story happens inside his mind. It is unlikely that the object of his crush, Mangan’s sister, is aware of his feelings for her, nor is anybody else in this boy’s small world. Because the boy’ s thoughts only reveal a part of the story, a careful reader must put together clues that the author gives. For example, the narrator mentions that the former tenant of the house he shares with his aunt and uncle was a priest, a representative of the Catholic church, who left behind three books which became important to the narrator. One is a romantic adventure by Sir Walter Scott; one is a religious pamphlet written by a Protestant; and the third is the exciting memoirs of a French policeman and master of disguise. These three books are not what a person would expect a Catholic priest to have in his library. So if this priest has non-religious literature in his library, then how devout can an average church-goer be expected to be? This turns out to be the case for the narrator, who confuses religious idealism with romance.
The boy confuses the religious and secular worlds when he describes himself at the market with his aunt. He bears the chalice—the Communion cup—through a “throng of foes.” He also describes Mangan’s sister in terms often associated with the Virgin Mary. For the narrator, then, an ordinary grocery-shopping trip becomes a religious crusade, and a pretty girl down the street becomes a substitute for the Mother of God. The boy fuses together religious devotion for the Virgin Mary with his own romantic longing.
Joyce is famous for creating characters who undergo an epiphany—a sudden moment of insight—and the narrator of “Araby” is one of his best examples. At the end of the story, the boy overhears a trite conversation between an English girl working at the bazaar and two young men, and he suddenly realizes that he has been confusing things. It dawns on him that the bazaar, which he thought would be so exotic and exciting, is really only a commercialized place to buy things. Furthermore, he now realizes that Mangan’s sister is just a girl who will not care whether he fulfills his promise to buy her something at the bazaar. His conversation with Mangan’s sister, during which he promised he would buy her something, was really only small talk—as meaningless as the one between the English girl and her companions. He leaves Araby feeling ashamed and upset. This epiphany signals a change in the narrator—from an innocent, idealistic boy to an adolescent dealing with harsh realities.
The narrator’s aunt, who is a mother figure in the story, takes the narrator with her to do the marketing. When it seems as though the uncle has forgotten his promise to the narrator that he could go to the bazaar, she warns the boy that he may have to “put off’ the bazaar “for this night of Our Lord.” While this statement makes her seem strict in a religious sense, she also exhibits empathy for the boy’s plight. She pleads his case when the uncle forgets about the boy’s plans to go to Araby.
The narrator’s uncle seems self-centered and very unreliable. When the narrator reminds him that he wants to go to the bazaar, he replies,”Yes, boy, I know.” But on the Saturday evening of the bazaar, he has forgotten, which causes the narrator to arrive at the bazaar very late. When the uncle finally shows up, he has been drinking, and as the boy leaves for the bazaar he begins reciting the opening lines of the poem, “The Arab’s Farewell to his Steed.” Joyce’s characterization of the uncle bears resemblance to his own father, who liked to drink and was often in debt. Joyce’s inclusion of Mrs. Mercer, the pawnbroker’s widow who waits for the uncle to return, suggests that the uncle owes money.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, James Joyce, Published by Gale, 1997.