Identify the protagonist and antagonist, and their relationship to the story's main conflict in James Joyce's short story, "Araby."  

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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In James Joyce's short story, "Araby," the protagonist (the character around which the story primarily revolves) is the unnamed narrator. The antagonist, in my mind, is also the narrator. An antagonist is the character or force that opposes the protagonist. This is most clearly seen in the major conflict of the story (though there may be more than one conflict). As with other stories where the protagonist has to deal with an internal conflict (man vs. himself), the difficulty that the narrator struggles with the most is in trying to understand himself and his place in the world.

At first, it may seem that the conflict is about the young man and Mangan's older sister. (Mangan is his friend from school.) The narrator is irresistibly drawn to her—becoming totally preoccupied —and so alienates himself from friends and family.

Obviously, the narrator is romantically drawn to Mangan's sister—seen in the way he describes her:

Her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.

Each day the narrator watches for her to leave for school so he can walk behind her:

When she came out on the doorstep my heart leaped. I...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.

However, the narrator also describes his feelings when she is not around; his descriptions have deeply religious overtones—it is suggested that he sees in her the "embodiment" of the Virgin Mary.

These noises converged in a single sensation of life for me: I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes. 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...and at times a flood from my heart seemed to pour itself out into my bosom.

With these two very different images of Mangan's sister, it is easy to understand why the narrator might become confused—he has mixed up his romantic feelings with those of a reverent, religious nature.

As readers, we might at first feel confident believing that this is the major conflict of the story; however, it is not until the story's end—after the narrator's "epiphany" ("a moment of intense insight and self-understanding")—that we learn that his confusion has simply served to cloud his judgment—and a truth about life. When his "inner-vision" clears, he sees the world for what it is—he feels foolish because he realizes he has been childish in his perceptions. His enlightenment—and consequent embarrassment—provides the true conflict of the story, and it is one that is not resolved at the story's conclusion. In his epiphany, he has separated his religious beliefs from his imagined romance.

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

He is a young man realizing that Mangan's sister is just a girl—she feels nothing for him. She is not his true love or a religious icon. With this awareness, the world is a cold place: without someone or something to worship. Knowing that he has been wrong about this central focal point of his life changes the way he views himself, love and most likely, his faith.