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Araby (short story)

Araby is a short story by James Joyce published in his 1914 collection Dubliners.

The story

The unnamed protagonist in "Araby" is a boy who is just beginning to come into his sexual identity. Through his first-person narration, we are immersed at the start of the story in the drab life that people live on North Richmond Street, which seems to be illuminated only by the verve and imagination of the children who, despite the growing darkness that comes during the winter months, insist on playing "until [their] bodies glowed." Even though the conditions of this neighborhood leave much to be desired, the children’s play is infused with their almost magical way of perceiving the world, which the narrator dutifully conveys to the reader:

Our shouts echoed in the silent street. The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odours arose from the ashpits, to the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness.|cquote


But though these boys "career" around the neighborhood in a very childlike way, they are also aware of and interested in the adult world, as represented by their spying on the narrator’s uncle as he come home from work and, more importantly, on Mangan’s sister, whose dress “swung as she moved” and whose “soft rope of hair tossed from side to side.” These boys are on the brink of sexual awareness and, awed by the mystery of the opposite sex, are hungry for knowledge.

On one rainy evening, he secludes himself in a soundless, dark drawing-room and gives his feelings for her full release: "I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled, murmuring: O love! O love! many times." This scene is the culmination of the narrator’s increasingly romantic idealization of Mangan’s sister. By the time he actually speaks to her, he has built up such an unrealistic idea of her that he can barely put sentences together: “When she addressed the first words to me I was so confused that I did not know what to answer. She asked me if I was going to Araby. I forget whether I answered yes or no.” But the narrator recovers splendidly: when Mangan’s sister dolefully states that she will not be able to go to Araby, he gallantly offers to bring something back for her.

The narrator now cannot wait to go to the Araby bazaar and procure for his beloved some grand gift that will endear him to her. And though his aunt frets, hoping that it is not “some Freemason affair,” and though his uncle, perhaps intoxicated, perhaps stingy, arrives so late from work and equivocates so much that he almost keeps the narrator from being able to go, the intrepid narrator heads out of the house, tightly clenching a florin and, in spite of the late hour, toward the bazaar. But the Araby market turns out not to be the most fantastic place he had hoped it would be. It is late; most of the stalls are closed. The only sound is "the fall of coins" as men count their money. Worst of all, however, is the vision of sexuality -- of his future -- that he receives when he stops at one of the few remaining open stalls. The young woman minding the stall is engaged in a conversation with two young men. Though he is potentially a customer, she only grudgingly and briefly waits on him before returning to her frivolous conversation. His idealized vision of Araby is destroyed, along with his idealized vision of Mangan’s sister: and of love. With shame and anger rising within him, he exits the bazaar.

Characters

As this story uses a first person limited narration, the most complex and developed character in the story is the narrator. The narrator faces two distinct challenges in "Araby": the challenge of growing into manhood and the challenge of growing intellectually and emotionally in an environment so poisonous to the imagination that it all but guarantees a life of drudgery. The one informs the other; the destruction of the narrator’s dreams at the end of Araby come precisely from the disillusionment he experiences when he goes to the bazaar. And what are the narrator’s dreams? They are heroic ones, romantic ones; he goes on a quest, one not so different from those knights embarked upon in the name of Ideal Love, to procure a gift worthy of his Beloved. When he fails in his quest, he sees the world for what it is, and thus takes his first steps into adulthood. Ironically, it is at this moment when he enters the adult world that we can expect his growth in many ways to cease. Before, when he was simply a boy playing with other boys, he was able to tease magic from the mundane actions of others and the monochrome environs of North Richmond Street; now that he has seen the Araby market for what it really is, the magic he once perceived is gone.

Other characters in the story serve mostly as catalysts, foils, and filters for the narrator’s feelings and observations. The ironically-presented priest, dead before the start of the story, is dead for a reason: religion is portrayed not only as moribund, but as life-draining and hypocritical. The narrator’s aunt and uncle act as his surrogate parents, and their presence in the story raises the ominous question “What happened to his parents?” Furthermore, they are representatives of the adult world, and it is fair to say that, though they work hard and perhaps mean well, they provide little for the narrator to look forward to as he grows into a man. Certainly the female shopkeep and her two male companions, by bringing the narrator to his unwelcome realization, play an important, if small, part in the drama of the story.

But by far the most important minor character in the story is that of Mangan’s sister, as she gives rise to all of the major action in the story. Alhough she inspires the story’s action, the reader learns almost nothing about her. Her hair is like soft rope and that her dress moves when she walks, she owns a silver bracelet and that she cannot go to Araby because her convent has a retreat that conflicts with it. And that is almost everything. If we can be reasonably sure that, by and large, we know what the narrator knows, we can conclude that it is not so much Mangan’s sister as an actual person that captivates the narrator, but his idea of her, and by extension of Love. As Sheila Conboy writes in her article "Exhibition and Inhibition: The Body Scene in Dubliners," "While the boy narrates the process of his sexual awakening, the girl remains anonymous, merely the petticoated object of his desire, never given a voice to express a desire of her own." Because the narrator treats Mangan’s sister as only an object of desire -- as opposed to a person capable of desires -- reality is destined to disappoint him. Through Mangan’s sister, we come to understand that the narrator at the end of the story is not only distraught because his idea of love has been dashed, but ashamed that he could have been so foolish and childish to believe in them in the first place. Interestingly, his view of the world may henceforth be less romantic, but it might be fairer to women from now on. Taken that way, the “quest” is not fruitless, because it helps the narrator come to self-knowledge. To use the words of Jerome Mandel in his essay "The Structure of 'Araby',": “the quest is successful because it leads to vision and epiphany: coming to some understanding of oneself."

Setting

It would be virtually impossible to overstate the importance of the setting of “Araby”; dreary, dark Dublin is the living, symbolic backdrop for the story. At the beginning of the story, Joyce sets the lifeless scene for us so that we have something to compare to Araby later. The first sentence of the story lets us know that North Richmond street is "blind," and that the Christian Brothers’ School did not so much dismiss students for the day as "set them free." A quick scan of the important adjectives in the first paragraph -- "blind," "quiet," "uninhabited," "detached," "square," "decent," "brown," "imperturbable" -- quickly presents a world that is practical, simple, and unmitigatedly stultifying. As mentioned before, the boys who play in the neighborhood are able, somehow, to discover some beauty and wonder even from these simple surroundings, but to do so they must become connoisseurs of darkness: the lanterns on North Richmond are "feeble," the lanes are "dark" and "muddy," the houses “sombre” in the winter twilight, the "dark dripping gardens" redolent with the smell coming from their “ashpits.” This description of the street and the lives the boys live on it serve as the backdrop that we will use to understand how much more imaginative the Araby market will be: or will not be.

Of course, the story’s greatest irony is just how misnamed the Araby market is. It is certainly not a wondrous evocation of the West’s idealized and romanticized notions of the Middle East. Rather, it is exactly the sort of disappointing market you would expect to appear in the Dublin Joyce describes. It is dark, and mostly empty, and hushed, and more about money than anything else. The market at the end of the story, by more resembling the rest of his life than the image of it he had conjured in his daydreams, forces the narrator to a bleak realization: the stark realities of day-to-day living have little to do with the romantic notions we carry in our heads.

Themes

For such a short story, it touches on a number of themes: coming of age; the loss of innocence; the life of the mind versus poverty, both physical and intellectual; the danger of idealization; the decreasing importance of the church, even while the empty ceremonies remain; and, of course, the pain that comes when we learn that what we were told about love, through the books we read and the stories we are told, is largely fiction. These themes build on one another to create a network of meaning. While we pity the narrator for the shame and anger he feels when he discovers the difference between fantasy and reality, perhaps we also hope that, in the future, he will learn to love real people instead of the idealized versions of them he creates in his head. While the idea that people must live in such mind-numbing conditions may cause us heartache, we may take refuge in the fact that the narrator has survived, and is able to recount to us the story he now tells us: obviously his imagination has not been stifled. And while we may find solace in counterbalancing these themes against one another, we must weigh our equivocations against the exorable onslaught of dark, drab, impecunious imagery that Joyce assaults us with in “Araby” to create a vision of childhood that is vitiated of both life and hope.

Romantic elements

Araby contains many themes and traits common to Joyce in general and Dubliners in particular. As with many of the stories in the collection, Araby involves a character going on a journey, the end result of which is fruitless, and ends with the character going back to where they came from. Eveline is just one other story in Dubliners to feature a circular journey in this manner. Also, the narrator lives with his aunt and uncle, although his uncle appears to be a portrait of Joyce's father, and may be seen as a prototype for Stephen Dedalus of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. The scorn the narrator has for his uncle is certainly consistent with the scorn Joyce showed for his father, and the lack of "good" parents is pertinent.

References

  • Joyce, James. Dubliners (London: Grant Richards, 1914)
  • Conboy, Sheila C. “Exhibition and Inhibition: The Body Scene in Dubliners.” Twentieth Century Literature. 37.4 (Winter 1991): 405-419. JSTOR. Borough of Manhattan Community College, New York, NY. March 4, 2007.
  • French, Marilyn. “Missing Pieces in Joyce’s Dubliners. Twentieth Century Literature. 1.24 (Winter 1978): 443-472. JSTOR. Borough of Manhattan Community College, New York, NY. March 3, 2007.
  • Mandel, Jerome. “The Structure of ‘Araby.’” Modern Language Studies. 15.4 (Autumn 1985): 48-54. JSTOR. Borough of Manhattan Community College, New York, NY. March 4, 2007.
  • Zoe Marduel. "Araby"

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