James Joyce’s short story Araby is a reflection of the author’s experiences as an Irish writer during the early 20th Century (the story was first published in 1914). What the poet W.B. Yeats called “a terrible beauty,” Ireland was entering a stage of increased anti-England militarism while the start of the Great War was brewing on the continent. While the issue of Irish nationalism is not a major, or even a minor theme of Araby, it does loom in the background. Early in the story, Joyce’s narrator, a young boy on the verge of enormous physical and emotional transformations, describes the scene in which he, the aunt and uncle who are raising him, and his friends exist. Within this description are two subtle references to the Troubles: “. . .the nasal chanting of street-singers, who sang a come-all-you about O'Donovan Rossa, or a ballad about the troubles in our native land.” Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa was an early Irish nationalist and leader of the movement for independence from England. He would die the year after Araby was published. His name is followed by a reference to the conflict that characterized Ireland’s existence for hundreds of years. Ireland has long been a desperately poor country, and its enforced subservience to the British Crown served as a rallying cry for Irish nationalists for hundreds of years. That Joyce would choose to include these references in his very short story – a story about a boy and his all-consuming love for his friend’s sister – is testament to the overwhelming influence Irish nationalism would have on many Irish writers, Joyce included.
More pertinent to the matter at hand, Joyce’s writing in Araby is beautifully wrought in the serve of a story with a melancholy ending. The language is both straightforward in its telling of a story, and filled with metaphors and phrases that could only have come from a gifted mind:
“When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street;
“What innumerable follies laid waste my waking and sleeping thoughts after that evening!
“I looked humbly at the great jars that stood like eastern guards at either side of the dark entrance to the stall . . .”
Joyce eloquently describes the setting and the human emotions that depict both the normality of the childhoods presented and the unique conditions under which these children play. The narrator’s mission, to visit the bazaar called “Araby” and to purchase an item, any item, for Mangan’s sister, with whom he is deeply infatuated, recalls many a novel in which the protagonist must defy all odds to achieve his objective. The depth of this infatuation can best be described by Joyce/narrator in the following passages:
“Her brother always teased her before he obeyed, and I stood by the railings looking at her. Her dress swung as she moved her body, and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.”
“Every morning I lay on the floor in the front parlour watching her door. The blind was pulled down to within an inch of the sash so that I could not be seen. When she came out on the doorstep my heart leaped.”
Joyce’s protagonist is driven to accomplish his objective of returning from the bazaar with a gift for the girl about whom he spends tortured days and nights, all the exclusion of his friends and to the detriment of his studies. It is in this context that his belated arrival at the bazaar, following a maddening wait for his uncle to return home and give permission for the trip to Araby, fails so miserably. Treated with indifference if not contempt by the “young lady” operating one of the few remaining stalls still open to customers, the narrator decides at the last minute to forego his purchase, the indignity of his treatment punctuated by the observation that the two “young gentlemen” with whom the sales woman was conversing were apparently the enemy:
“At the door of the stall a young lady was talking and laughing with two young gentlemen. I remarked their English accents and listened vaguely to their conversation.”
Again, the tensions permeating Ireland regarding the English boot on its collective neck invade Joyce’s narrative. Araby ends with the boy incensed over the night’s misadventures culminating in the indignity of being snubbed in favor of the English. As Joyce describes his protagonist’s reaction to the evening’s events, the seeds of an Irish nationalist are firmly planted:
“Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”
Joyce’s language reveals a great deal about the boy at the center of the story. This boy and his friends are normal children acting like they’re supposed to act, playing in the street, but with the narrator increasingly isolating himself from those friends as his infatuation with Mangan’s sister deepens. That infatuation drives his thoughts and actions, and compels him to take a trip to a market that he would otherwise not have taken, only to see his dreams of winning over the girl’s heart destroyed at the hands of the very people, the English, who are most associated in Irish eyes with this country’s eternal suffering. What the narrator is thinking and doing is clearly articulated, and the birth of a very deep resentment directed against the world, with the English at the top at the list, is unambiguous.