James Joyce's The Dubliners, which he wrote as a "stages of man," has three stories devoted to the following stages:
- mature life
- public life
- married life, which is inserted between adolescence and mature life.
"Araby" falls into the adolescent stage, a stage in which the teen characters are all failures. In the first paragraph of this story, the narrator describes North Richmond Street, which is quiet until the Christian Brothers' School sets the "boys free." As he continues his description of his neighborhood, the narrator describes his play with the other boys; they shout and play "till our bodies glowed." Mangan's sister, for whom the narrator has an imaginative infatuation calls her brother in for "his tea." Later, when she speaks to the narrator, he remarks,
When she addressed the first words to me I was so confused that I did not know what to answer.
The narrator's immaturity is clearly indicated by his play and his confusion when he does talk to Mangan's sister, and it is suggested by the romanticized concept of love that he constructs as the Arthurian knight pursuring "the grail," as well as his burgeoning sexual feelings as he lies on the floor in the front parlour where he peeks through the blind, watching her. These indications, therefore, point to the narrator as a boy in the early stages of adolescence.
We are not told the exact age of the boy who narrates "Araby," but the story indicates he is at the cusp of a transition from boyhood to adolescence. He goes to school, he plays games with the other boys in the streets until dark, and he is under the thumb of his aunt and uncle. He cannot go to the bazaar called Araby if his uncle doesn't take him.
We know he is more than just a little boy because of his awakening sexual desire, which he focuses on his friend Mangan's older sister. As he puts it:
Her dress swung as she moved her body, and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.
He watches her from afar, and she becomes an idealized object of his desire. She doesn't have a name that we are told, but he conflates her with the Virgin Mary, symbol of motherhood and purity, and with the exotic bazaar Araby, symbolizing the mystery and sexuality of the Orient. As he views her one day, the word "white" stands in for the mixture of purity and sexuality she represents to him:
The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing. It fell over one side of her dress and caught the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease.
When she speaks to him of the bazaar:
The syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me.
Yet like a young adolescent, his emotions are in turmoil, on a roller coaster ride, and quickly crash into disillusion as the bazaar—and thus the girl—don't live up to his expectations. Like many young adolescents, he is sorting out fantasy and reality as he gropes to come to self understanding:
Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.