Explain the religious effects in "Araby" by James Joyce.

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In James Joyce's short story "Araby," there is the strange mixture of the exotic with the bazaar along with implications of religious fervor mixed with innuendoes of sexual desire in the mind of the boy who is infatuated with his friend Mangan's sister.  In fact, the blind allegiance to religion that the Irish boy has and his blind allegiance to the girl mirror and foster each other.  All of these--the myth of the exotic and his blind allegiance to religion and to the girl--end in disillusionment.

From the beginning, religious imagery is interwoven into the story:  The Catholic school is mentioned and the neighborhood is reflective of an old church as the uninhabited house rises above the others like the belfry and the other houses "gaze at one another with brown imperturbable faces."  This use of brown by Joyce connotes rows of pews, and it also connotes the drab and stultifying lives of the Irish who follow the precept of the Churdh blindly.  (In Joyce's Stephen Hero, he refers to "one of those brown brick houses which seem the very incarnation of Irish paralysis.")  Behind the house is a wild garden with straggling bushes and a central apple tree, a garden suggestive of a thwarted Garden of Eden.  Likewise, the vision of Mangan's sister as having a halo of light behind her, like a saint or the Virgin Mary, is thrawted while the boy lies on the floor so that he can see Mangan's sister under the blind.

Yet, this illusive pure image of Mangan's sister accompanies the boy to where it is "the most hostile to romance."  When he goes to market with his aunt, for instance, the boy imagines himself on a quest for the holy grail,

I imagine that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes

as he carries the aunt's groceries. His body becomes like a harp, the heavenly instrument that is also symbolic of Ireland.  When Mangan's sister does speak to him, the boy again envisions her in the light as a virginal creature held captive "behind the railing" for him to worship.  As he looks over at the girl's house from the two-story empty house, the boy sees "nothing but the brown-clad figure cast by my imagination."

In his essay, Araby: A Quest for Meaning, John Freimarck writes,

The myth element enriches the story, but we are never really on the quest for the grail—we are in Dublin all the time with the psychologically accurate story of the growth of a romantic boy awakening to his sexuality, idealizing Mangan's sister and encountering frustration in the process.

The boy's idealization is religious, his disappointment and disillusionment are human; these are real.  He stands outside the bazaar, realizing his illusions, and his eyes "burned with anguish and anger."  The religious imagery mirrors the illusions of the relationship of the boy and girl that is no more exotic and romantic than the mundane bazaar.