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In "Araby," Joyce employs much religious symbolism to bring one of his major themes to fruition: the incongruity of the secular and the sacred. The entire story is a religious quest revolving around Mangan's sister, who functions as the Virgin Mary. The "quest" is for the Holy Grail, or her love, but the boy has confused religiousity with lust.
This confusion of the secular and the spiritual begins right away. Consider the second paragraph, which depits the dead priest's library where the boy likes to spend much of his time. The three books that are his favorite are not tomes of religious instruction, but secular works of intrigue. His moral instruction has been compromised from the beginning.
We see how quickly the boy makes Mangan's sister the object of his devotion and shrouded lust. As he observes her unawares, the boy describes "her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door." Think about how much like the glow of a halo around the Virgin Mary this seems.
In the following paragraph, the boy says that, "Every morning I lay on the floor in the front parlour watching her door." When a penitent comes before a holy figure, he is supposed to prostrate himself, and this is precisely what the protagonist does.
Furthermore, like a saint watching over him, the boy says, "Her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance." We see the confusion here once again, as the image is holy but the secular is corrupted by lust/romance.
Here, in perhaps the most direct and poignant moments of confusion, the boy says, almost prayer-fully:
I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes. Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand. My eyes were often full of tears (I could not tell why) and at times a flood from my heart seemed to pour itself out into my bosom. I thought little of the future. I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.
Unpacking these sentences, we find it rife with religious symbolism. The chalice is the "Holy Grail," the cup that Christ drank from at the Last Supper and the subject of thousands of years of pursuit to reclaim. Instead of the Virgin Mary, it is Mangan's sister's name who springs to his lips in "prayers and praises." The boy reaches a religious ecstasy in contemplation of the girl, so moved is he that he cries. He is full, by his own admission, of adulation.
The boy goes on a quest for her, but realizes, when the fog has lifted, that he has confused the secular and the sacred. Denied his grail in the end, Magdan's sister is no longer shrouded in mystery. She becomes just a girl, nothing special, and the boy collapses in his own shame and guilt.
In his introduction to The Dubliners, Terence Brown writes,
For Joyce the symbolic power of writing lay in its capacity, as if it were a kind of revelation or manifestation, to suggest mood, psychology, the moral significance of an occasion, without...obtrusive authorial presence or palpable design upon a reader.
In "Araby," the religious symbols charge the boy's fancies with a spiritual significance which, in the end, contribute to his "anguish and anger" as he realizes the disillusionment to which his dreams have led (theme).
Symbolic images of the Catholic Church prevail throughout Joyce's narrative. With its attached Catholic school, Christian Brothers School, North Richmond Street is suggestive of a church with its two rows of houses like pews with their "brown imperturbable faces." These houses lead to the vacant house of a priest, suggestive of the altar area. "The wild garden" behind the house connotes a Garden of Eden with its vegetation and a "central apple-tree. Already, however, there are indications of the shabby imitation of holiness that will be true of the boy's infatuation with Mangan's sister.
More symbols appear as the boy's idealistic ideas mix sexual attraction with religious fervor when he watches Mangan's sister under the blinds, and he sees her figure "defined by the light" as though she wears a halo. Then, while he helps his mother with the groceries, he imagines that he bears his "chalice," his holy grail, "safely through a throng of foes." And, in the rain there is a "distant lamp or lighted window" that gleams for him, suggesting the lighted candles on an altar and the stained glass windows of a church.
When Mangan's virginal sister tells the boy that she cannot meet him at the bazaar because she is going to a retreat at a convent, this relgious image also suggests the futility of his illusions about the girl since she may be considering a religious vocation. In his last effort to maintain his illusion, however, the boy promises to bring her back something from the bazaar, exotically called Araby. However, he gets to the bazaar late and finds no mystical beauty there, either. Instead, all is banal and mundane; the shopgirls are English, not exotic, and they sit and gossip. With tears in his eyes, the boy discovers in his Church and in his love only disillusionment and mere imitation of real beauty. Joyce's symbols have, indeed, revealed the significance of the theme of ambivalence and disillusionment.
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