How is the setting of James Joyce's story "Araby" related to the boy's state of mind?

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The boy's home is on a "quiet street" where the houses all have "brown imperturbable faces." The air inside is "musty," and one room is "littered with old useless papers." A priest, the previous tenant of the narrator's home, had died there. The backyard contains a "wild garden" with a...

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The boy's home is on a "quiet street" where the houses all have "brown imperturbable faces." The air inside is "musty," and one room is "littered with old useless papers." A priest, the previous tenant of the narrator's home, had died there. The backyard contains a "wild garden" with a "central apple-tree" with a "few straggling bushes" and some rusty junk. Dusk falls early, and the days are short, because it is winter.

The setting forms a really dark and somber backdrop to the boy's state of mind: he seems to focus on light much more than darkness, perhaps because there is so little light around him. He notices that Mangan's sister's figure is "defined by the light from the half-opened door." Thoughts of her make him cry, pray, and feel as though his body is a musical instrument that only she can play. When she finally talks to him, the "light from the lamp [...] caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing." On his way to Araby, he notices the gas lights "glaring" on the streets and the "twinkling river." His state of mind is romantic, even naive; he is inclined to see the "light" as a result of his innocence. In the end, however, he sees the darkness, because his childish innocence is gone and has been replaced by more accurate knowledge of the world.

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"Araby" is a subjective story told from the point of view of a young adolescent boy. Joyce was a modernist, and modernists rejected the idea of an objective narrator standing above and outside a story and telling the "truth," finding truth itself subjective.

In "Araby," the young narrator is dissatisfied with his life in Dublin, which he finds dreary and dull, and his mood of unhappiness and longing influences how we experience the setting. He focuses on all that seems limiting to him in his life. His home and neighborhood strike him as "brown," "musty," and outdated. His house and yard, for example, are filled with aging things, such as "useless" papers, yellowed books, and a rusty bicycle pump. The past hangs over his environment in a depressing way.

The boy hangs onto the idealized crush he has for Mangan's sister, whom he sets apart from the rest of Dublin. He carries this love with him through "places the most hostile to romance," such as the streets of Dublin where he goes to the market.

The bazaar, Araby, is also dark, dismal, and run by the same dull people he sees elsewhere in Dublin.

While there are moments of life in the story, such as when the narrator participates in after school games with his peers, where they all "played till [their] bodies glowed," overall, his feeling of gloom and claustrophobia determines how the setting of the story is conveyed.

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The boy presented in James Joyce’s “Araby” is a would-be Romantic whose options seem limited, whose mood increasingly dark, and whose final attitude is one of frustration and even anger.  The settings of the story are highly appropriate, in some of the following ways, to the options, mood, and attitude just described:

  • The street on which the boy lives is “blind,” or a literal dead-end that is appropriate to the boy’s limited options.
  • The boy’s own house smells musty, seems somewhat unkempt, and is associated with death (see second paragraph).
  • The story takes place in winter time. Dusk is mentioned. The sky is violet in color. The lanterns seem “feeble” against the dark. Nearly all the details of setting mentioned in the third paragraph seem literally or figuratively dark.
  • Clearly the boy lives in one of the poorer sections of the city, and thus his options and future seem limited simply in financial terms.
  • Silence and darkness and symbols of poverty (such as “broken panes” of glass) later help reinforce the mood already established.
  • Subsequent details help emphasize the gloomy atmosphere already established. These include the reference to cold air that seems “pitilessly raw”; the annoying ticking of a clock; rooms that seem “high, cold, empty, [and] gloomy”; mention of a “dark house”; the slow passage of time; the reference to “ruinous houses”;  fact that the boy must travel in a “third-class” carriage; the reference to a “deserted train”; the boy’s reference to being “alone”; the reference to the “dark hall” of the bazaar and to its “silence”; the reference to the turning off of lights at the bazaar; and the bazaar’s increasing and final darkness.

In the famous final words of the story, the narrator sums up his mood and attitude in ways that seem highly appropriate to all the details of the setting just described:
Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.

 

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