Analysis of James Joyce’s Araby

One of James Joyce’s most frequently anthologized works, “Araby” is the third in the trilogy of stories in his 1914 collection, Dubliners, which Joyce described in a letter to the publisher Grant Richards as “stories of my childhood.” Like its predecessors, “The Sisters” and “An Encounter,” “Araby” tells the story of an unfortunate fall from innocence, as a young boy comes to recognize the sorry state of the world in which he lives. On the whole, Joyce’s home city is not kindly portrayed in these stories; he set out in Dubliners to produce what he called “a moral history of my country,” with a particular focus on the supposed “centre of paralysis,” Dublin itself. “Araby” and the other stories of Dublin’s youth are tales of initiation into this gray world.

As is the case with most of the stories in Dubliners, “Araby” takes its inspiration from remembered fragments of the author’s own childhood, including the Joyce family’s sometime residence on Dublin’s North Richmond Street, the Christian Brothers’ School that Joyce and some of his siblings briefly attended, and the “Araby” bazaar that passed through the city in May, 1894, when Joyce would have been 12 years old. Yet although Joyce’s life is deeply woven into his art, neither “Araby” nor any of his other works are merely autobiographical. These remembered elements come together in a story of a young boy in the intense grip of his first love, who imagines himself dispatched on a romantic quest by his beloved, only to realize in the end that his romantic notions were the naive fantasies of a child.

The dismal state of Joyce’s Dublin is suggested in part by the gloomy atmosphere of the story. We are twice reminded in the opening moments that North Richmond Street is “blind.” At its dead end is an empty house, and along one side is a school whose description likens it to a prison. The “brown imperturbable faces” of the other houses suggest a neighborhood of pious moralists keeping each other under constant surveillance. The young boy’s own home is redolent of a past that persists in a stale and unpleasant form: The “air, musty from having been long enclosed, hung in all the rooms.” The house’s former tenant, a priest who passed away there, has left numerous uninspiring reminders of himself, from the rusty bicycle pump in the garden to the “old useless papers” scattered about the place. The narrator hints that the old man was at home among the street’s “brown imperturbable faces” when he tells us that the supposedly charitable old man left all of his money to unspecified “institutions” and only the furniture of his house to his sister.

“Araby” is set in the short days of winter, whose cold and dark further underscore its gloomy atmosphere. Throughout, light contends weakly with an encroaching darkness. The boys’ evening play takes place among houses “grown sombre” and beneath a violet sky toward which “the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns.” As the boy arrives at the nearly empty bazaar in the story’s closing moments, the lights are turned off in the gallery of the hall, leaving him “gazing up into the darkness.” Amid the persistent gloom, however, stands the radiant object of the boy’s devotion, Mangan’s sister, “her figure defined by the light.”

The young boy’s ability to see dazzling light in the midst of overwhelming darkness is a function of the romantic idealism that is gradually stripped from him by his decidedly unromantic world. Even the scattered leavings of the dead priest, which include Sir Walter Scott’s historical romance The Abbot, together with the memoirs of the adventurous criminal-turned-detective, Eug ne Fran ois Vidocq, afford him fuel for his romantic imagination. Until the story reaches its sad conclusion, the boy is able to keep the darkness at bay, running happily through the darkened street with his young friends and transforming the clamor of the market on a Saturday evening into the backdrop for his imagined knight’s quest. There he imagines “that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes”; however, the boy’s adventure-story version of his world is challenged by the songs of the street singers, with their allusions to O’Donovan Rossa and other reminders of “troubles in our native land.” The boy imagines his adventurous life despite the political troubles whose effects are felt and sung all around him. For a while, he imagines himself able to transcend such concerns and inhabit a thrilling realm of heroism and perfect love.

However, in the end his world will not sustain these happy illusions. The name of the Araby bazaar promises an Eastern exoticism entirely absent from the tawdry affair he finally experiences. Having imagined himself a questing knight, the boy encounters in Araby his Chapel Perilous, a defiled temple where “two men were counting money on a salver,” and his heroic selfimage crumbles during his encounter with the young woman at the stall he visits, who clearly regards him as a young nuisance. He witnesses in the flirtatious but shallow exchange between the young woman and the two gentleman a version of love considerably less operatic than the devotion that brought him to Araby, and he comes to see himself as a much smaller being than the gallant hero who undertook a sacred quest for his beloved, regarding himself in the final moment “as a creature driven and derided by vanity.”

In recounting the boy’s journey from passionate innocence to jaded cynicism, Joyce employs a narrative technique that is subtle but effective. The story is told from a first-person retrospective point of view that enables us to perceive two distinct but intimately related voices in the narration: that of the devoted young boy able to imagine himself a knight-errant “in places the most hostile to romance” and that of the subdued older man, recalling his younger self with an ironic detachment born of disappointment. The narration brings us inside the mind of the youthful lover, perplexed and overwhelmed by emotions that he can interpret only in the languages he knows: that of religious devotion and the stories of adventure and romance. Throughout, though, we are reminded that the young boy’s “confused adoration” is being recalled by his older and sadly unconfused self. The gloomy opening description of North Richmond Street, with its houses “conscious of decent lives within them,” gazing at each other “with brown imperturbable faces,” clearly reflects the perspective of the older man rather than that of the boy who careened through the same street in play. And the explicit judgment in the narrator’s recollection that “her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood” (emphasis mine) reflects an ironic self-perception that the young boy does not at that moment have. These two voices eventually converge in “Araby” ’s closing paragraph, when the narrator declares, “I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity,” revealing the origin of that ironic perspective in the moment of his sad fall from romance to cynicism.

Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. 1959. Revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Gifford, Don. Joyce Annotated: Notes for Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.
Joyce, James. Dubliners: Text, Criticism, and Notes. Edited by Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz. New York: Penguin USA, 1996.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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