James Joyce's "Araby" is a coming of age story. The narrator is a young man with an enormous crush on his friend's sister. She is older, but he worships her from a distance, obsessed with everything about her. The story shares the narrator's journey from idealization—seeing himself almost as her champion—to confronting the reality of his age, his behavior, and how the world works.
The author's motives are to make an impression on Mangan's sister. He wants to be noticed by her—to feed his desire to see himself in a positive light; her attention could make him feel like something special.
Some themes in the story are easy to understand regarding this young man's journey. They include change and transformation; and God and religion. The love he imagines for her changes him; and his realizations about the "real" world, transform him yet again—this is his emotional growth. At the same time, the narrator believes his love has a religious component to it as well:
The narrator of this story is a young, sensitive boy who confuses a romantic crush and religious enthusiasm; ....the narrator...confuses religious idealism with romance.
This complication makes it more difficult for the narrator to sort out his feelings.
When Mangan's sister calls her brother home, the narrator watches her. His attitude is worshipful:
Her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.
He watches her all the time: before school, he waits for her to leave:
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...I had never spoken to her, except for a few casual words, and yet her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.
The sight of this young woman is like a magic spell that calls to the narrator—he cannot resist. Her name has a power over him—controlling him. Even in his blood, he is hers to command—though she doesn't seem aware of it.
When the sister finally speaks to the narrator, it is about the fair, Araby. She is sad she cannot go. The narrator offers to bring her something, like a knight promising to bring a princess a magical apple. Her words—this time of Araby—once again enchant him:
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.
When the boy arrives late at Araby, the place (soon to close) has a magic all its own. The narrator thinks of a church:
I recognised a silence like that which pervades a church after a service.
In his mind, this is a holy place. He has a holy duty to fulfill for this girl: to bring her back something from this "crusade"—like a knight's dedication to the Virgin Mary. However, the disinterested salesgirl at the tent—the sound of coins counted—illuminate his vision in a cheap light that makes him (and his dreams) tarnished:
Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.
This self-awareness is painful to him. His idealization of the girl is empty and meaningless. All along, the narrator wanted to worship and venerate the girl as one might worship Guinevere in Arthur's tales. The tawdry world robs him of the purity of his quest, destroys the magic this woman has to move him; seeing himself in this new light, he is embarrassed and angry, having lost the dream that elevated his soul—his world.