Discuss Joyce's "Araby" as a modern short story, including elements of modernism in your discussion.

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

With the effects of world wars and the Freudian movement along with Darwinism, the Romantic movement saw its end as Modernism came into being.  This movement is characterized with a marked pessimism in its examination of subject matter is much more mundane, With James Joyce's The Dubliners, from which "Araby" comes, there is concern with city life as a central force in society, with the individual often standing alone attempting

to preserve the autonomy of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life. [sociologist Georg Simmel]

As a modern short story, then, Joyce's "Araby" places a boy in the impecunious environment of North Richmond Street in Dublin, Ireland, where the houses are brown.  Joyce himself referred to the brown brick houses as the "incarnation of Irish paralysis," a phrase he uses to characterize the powerlessness of the Irish to change their hopeless situations through individual action.

In "Araby," the young man is the narrator who romanticizes his infatuation with his friend's sister as he uses the exotic word araby to suggest the exciting world of romance.  He imagines further that at the market on Saturdays, he carries, not the groceries, but the holy grail for his fair maiden. 

The narrator's confusion with reality and truth is something that he brings on himself in the midst of the brown houses and even the girl's brown dress, which suggests that she is not what he imagines.  His pure thoughts of the grail are, in reality, sullied by his watching her and imagining the border of her slip as well his voyeurism as he peeks under the shade.  That his idealism is doomed to failure is further determined by the unconcern of the uncle and his flippancy after he returns too late for the narrator to get to the bazaar before it closes.  Then, when the boy reaches the bazaar, he realizes in his epiphany that he has been "a creature driven and derided by vanity."  Ashamed of his silly romantic ideas, the boy's eyes fill with tears in "anguish and anger." Trapped in his brown city life, the narrator feels the overwhelming pessimism and "paralysis" of his lonely existence.


mstultz72 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Aspects of modernism in literature:

1.  Unreliable narrator

2.  Shifts in points of view

3.  A questioning of traditionally-held Western beliefs

4.  A gnawing sense of alienation, isolation of the individual

So says Enotes:

Joyce is one of the most famous writers of the Modernist period of literature, which runs roughly from 1900 to the end of World War II. Modernist works often include characters who are spiritually lost and themes that reflect a cynicism toward institutions the writer had been taught to respect, such as government and religion. Much of the literature of this period is experimental; Joyce's writing reflects this in the use of dashes instead of quotation marks to indicate that a character is speaking.

The main aspect of modernism was the shift in points of view and, as such, a tenable grasp on truth.  Here, we have a narrator who confuses secular and religious imagery, a romantic crush and Catholic faith, and the real and the imaginary.  In a word, our narrator is blind.  Look how many times sight and blindness are used in the story:

  • "North Richmond Street, being blind,"
  • "An uninhabited house of two storeys stood at the blind end,"
  • "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. "
  • "If my uncle was seen turning the corner, we hid in the shadow until we had seen him safely housed. Or if Mangan's sister came out on the doorstep to call her brother in to his tea, we watched her from our shadow peer up and down the street. We waited to see whether she would remain or go in and, if she remained, we left our shadow and walked up to Mangan's steps resignedly. "
James Kelley eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The previous posters both have provided very good comments, but I'm not sure that they've really gotten at the complexity of the boy-as-narrator in James Joyce's short story "Araby." The term "unreliable narrator" doesn't quite adequately describe what is happening in this story.

Consider, for example, the opening line or the closing line to the story:

North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers' School set the boys free.

Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.

In the opening sentence of the story, the narrator seems very removed from the boy (or "the boys," for that matter), even from the setting itself. The narrator here seems pretty much the conventional third-person limited omniscient narrator. In the closing sentence, however, the narrator is indeed first-person but seems to have fully transcended his state of limited awareness; the way he talks about himself (including the very words that he uses) does not at all sound like something that would come out of the mouth of a very young man.

For me, one of the features of the "modern" in this story is that sort of shifting and instability in the narrative voice. (It's not simply a sign of weak writing in this case, I don't believe.) Another feature of the "modern" would be the extreme interiority of the storyline. This isn't truly stream-of-consciousness, of course, but everything is still filtered intensely through one character's perspectives.

subrataray | Student


Araby deals with a matter of profound psychological interest of a young boy’s – fascination for the ideal of his life. This story is about the romantic yearnings and dreams of the boy – how he was fascinated by and drawn to Mangan’s sister and how he was haunted with the dream of Araby, an oriental fete held in Dublin between the 14th to 19th may in 1894. But Araby was for him a place of ideal beauty and romance. He felt an irresistible urge to visit it and to realize his dream. His keenness of going there was intensified when the girl asked him to visit the splendid Bazaar. And he promised to bring a gift for her.

The boy felt that to bring a gift for the girl from the dreamland of beauty and glamour would satisfy his romantic ravings and his ego, which he had been fostering in his bosom in the midst of the stifling condition of the Dublin city. The girl was for him the very embodiment of Romance and charms and Araby became beauty incarnate. He was convinced that his search for ideal beauty there would meet for with success and his dream would be realized. He was also convinced that his love would achieve supreme fulfillment. But his visit to Araby brought him face to face with another sort of reality. The dullness and the frivolity of the place, its commercialism and conventionality destroyed his romantic illusion that he had woven about the place. His dreams were shattered. The boy felt himself derided and left the place in anguish and anger. Thus the boy’s quest for beauty is as much frustrated as man’s universal search for the ideal.

Araby is not a conventional story of character and situation. It Pays attention to the creation of atmosphere, which is made of scenes found in Dublin – narrow street, darkness and light, adrousashpits and stables and dirt and shabbiness. Human factories also contribute to the creation of this unhappy atmosphere – the roughness of cottagers and the self-centered attitude of the middle class people with their miserliness and the constant attempt to maintain decency of life. The story thus centers round the boy’s endeavor to maintain his imaginative nature amidst an atmosphere of dirt, darkness and dragoness.

The plot of the story begins with the boy’s fascination for mangan’s sister. The girl urging the boy to go to Araby and his desire for bringing a gift fro her constitute the middle of the story. The end is the boy’s disenchantment (disillusionment) and failure to buy a gift for his beloved. Thus the conflict as a story arises of a clash between dreams and reality.

The art adopted in the story is epiphany. Here the story begins from ignorance and ends in sudden discovery. In reality the story depicts a young boy’s psyche- journey from romance to despair and disappointment.

Araby focuses on the quest for beauty which is universal and the frustration of the quest, which is also universal. The story is symbolic of human predicament – human aspiration and frustration. The symbolic tale is told against the realistic background of a city life. And the story is a fine blend of realism and romanticism. The story bears the evidence of Joyce’s masterly craft of wonderful artistic skill in dealing with the psychological problem of human life. It is a finest specimen of the modern short story.