What purpose do some symbols in "Araby" by James Joyce serve?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Many of the symbols employed by James Joyce in his short story of adolescence, "Araby" serve to illustrate the conflicts between the young narrator's illusions set against the hard realities of his Dublin life, conflicts that lead the narrator to his epiphany.

  • The protagonist/narrator envisions Mangan's sister in an idealized fashion.  As she stands in the doorway, she is likened to a madonna as well as the Arthurian maid:

...her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door....Her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side. 

  • Romantic, the narrator relates that her name "sprang to my lips in moments of strange prayers and praises." As he carries the groceries on Saturday for his aunt, the narrator dreams of himself as a knight seeking the holy grail
  • But, when he invites Mangan's sister to the bazaar, she stands turning a silver bracelet "round and round her wrist" as she tells him she cannot go.  The silver bracelet, symbolic of money and the mundane--it is not gold--suggests that Mangan's sister is not the romanticized madonna that the narrator perceives, only an Irish girl from his neighborhood.
  • After the narrator waits impatiently for his uncle to return so he can go to the bazaar, the uncle mocks the intensity of the boy's feelings by asking him if he knows a poem entitled "The Arab's Farewell to his Steed,"--Araby is symbolic of the exotic-a ballad about an Arab who sells his favorite horse, but in sudden regret, he tosses away the money he is paid for the horse and retrieves his beloved animal.  The uncle, then, tosses the boy a coin, always a symbol for pettiness to Joyce.
  • Once at the bazaar, the boy is overcome by the darkness and the petty gossiping of the women there; nothing is exotic as he has hoped. For, the bazaar is nothing more than a trivial market; it is no Araby. 

Finally, as he recognizes his illusions that are in sharp contrast to Dublin life, the boy narrates,

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

Thus, by the means of symbols with their conflicting meanings, James Joyce brings the narrator to his epiphany.

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