How is James Joyce's short story, "Araby" an initiation story?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

James Joyce's short story, "Araby" is an initiation or rite of passage story.

A rite of passage is...

...a ritual event that marks a person's progress from one status to another.

Joyce's story concentrates on an emotional transition—the loss of emotional or psychological innocence. There are many "rite of passage" stories. For example:

..."Araby" [greatly influenced] John Updike, whose oft-anthologized short story, "A&P", is a contemporary (1960s American) reimagining of Joyce's tale...

In Joyce's "Araby," the unnamed narrator is a close friend with Mangan, and he has a crush on Mangan's sister. The narrator watches her; the details he notices are not those of a disinterested kid:

...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.

As the narrator continues to describe how he acts when she is around, the reader gets a very clear picture of just how much he likes her:

When she came out on the doorstep my heart leaped. I ran to the hall, seized my books and followed her. I kept her brown figure always in my eye and, when we came near the point at which our ways diverged, I quickened my pace and passed her. This happened morning after morning...her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.

The young man adores her, but they have never spoken, though when her name is spoken, even the blood coursing through his veins responds. He takes his mental image of her everywhere.

The narrator is so taken with her, that he begins to obsess and daydream about her, to the point that he often responds in an intensely emotional way—though he is at a loss to explain why:

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.

When Mangan's sister first speaks to the narrator, it is about the street fair known as "Araby." Mangan's sister expresses her disappointment that she cannot go because of a school retreat. Quickly the young man offers:

"If I go," I said, "I will bring you something."

What innumerable follies laid waste my waking and sleeping thoughts after that evening! I wished to annihilate the tedious intervening days. I chafed against the work of school.

The use of the world "annihilate" shows how deeply infatuated the narrator is—he can barely contain his anxiety for his trip to the fair. "Araby..."

...cast an Eastern enchantment over me...

...taking on exotic overtones. He feels that things of his everday life are now "child's play, ugly monotonous child's play." That day, he waits impatiently. During the trip, his anticipation heightens almost unbearably. Entering...

Nearly all the stalls were closed and the greater part of the hall was in darkness.

The fair is closing. When he has the chance to buy a gift, he stops. The young woman behind the counter has little time for him—she is talking with two young men. Reality sets in—the narrator is aware of his youth (he's still a kid)—but his youthful innocence is gone. The bazaar is not magical as he thought it would be. His gift would not endear Mangan's sister to him. He better understands the "real" world. This self-awareness—his awakening to his own self-important foolishness—devastates him:

I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.

susan3smith eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Araby" is a coming of age story, another way of saying "initiation."  In the short story, the narrator is presented at first an innocent youth, oblivious to the harshness of his surroundings and the meaningless routines of his elders.  His crush on Manghan's sister draws him further away from reality.  His mission to buy her something at the bazaar becomes his Holy Grail.

When the narrator actually gets to the bazaar, he becomes acutely aware of its tawdry wares, the banal conversation of those working there, and of his own lack of money.  Through the darkness of the fair, the narrator sees his situation as it truly is:

a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.

This realization serves as an initiation into the adult world as represented by such adults as his uncle (tied to the routines of work), Mrs. Mercer (who "collected stamps for some pious purpose), and the dead priest mentioned in the beginning of the story.  There is no escape from the drudgery of routine and poverty that pervades Dublin.  There is no Araby in Dublin--North Richmond Street is a dead end.