How is the boy in James Joyce's short story "Araby" characterized?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The boy in James Joyce’s short story “Araby” is characterized in a number of different ways, including the following:

  • He grows up in relatively poor and unpromising circumstances, but he does not seem especially bitter, angry, or self-pitying about those circumstances themselves. Whatever harsh judgments he makes are judgments he usually directs at himself.
  • He seems as imaginative as an adult as he was as a boy, as when he uses personification to describe how the

other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.

  • He seems unconventional, as when he notes that he liked a particular book because its pages were yellow.  Another kind of boy might have had entirely different, and entirely predictable, kinds of reasons for liking a particular book.
  • He seems capable of appreciating ethical behavior, as in his praise of the “very charitable priest.”
  • He is observant, as when he notes that

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.

  • He seems capable of appreciating beauty and the finer touches of life, as when he mentions

the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness.

  • He has a vivid sense of his social surroundings, as in his description of going shopping with his aunt on Saturday evenings.
  • He is Romantic, imaginative, and appreciative of feminine beauty in his attitudes toward Mangan’s sister.
  • He is, perhaps, the object not only of self-mockery, when he calls himself a fool, but of mockery by the narrator, who is the more mature version of the boy. This seems especially true when the older narrator reports that the boy murmured “'O love! O love!' many times.”
  • He is respectful toward his elders, as when he notes that he “asked for leave [from his aunt] to go to the bazaar on Saturday night.”
  • He is apparently a good student, since his schoolmaster begins to fear that the boy may be “beginning to idle” (emphasis added).
  • He is sensitive to others’ treatment of him, as when he describes how his uncle answered him “curtly.”
  • He is subject to irritation, especially if he is impatient. Yet he is imaginative enough to battle his impatience by singing to himself.
  • Although he feels impatient, he is patient enough to wait, without complaining, for his uncle’s return.
  • He is apparently trustworthy enough that his aunt and uncle are willing to let him go out after nightfall by train and by himself to a different part of the city.
  • He knows how to use the train system, suggesting again his relative maturity.
  • He is capable of judging himself harshly, as the final sentences of the story illustrate:

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

All in all, the boy is characterized in ways that invite the reader's sympathy and empathy.  Most readers will be able to recall similar periods in their own lives, and most readers may feel that the boy is finally too hard on himself, since his romantic dreams were in many ways noble and since his final disillusionment is part of the process of growing up and coming to terms with the often disappointing realities of life. We are more likely to smile at the boy than to condemn him harshly, as he condemns himself.