“Araby” James Joyce
The following entry presents criticism on Joyce's short story “Araby” (1914). See also James Joyce Short Story Criticism.
Considered one of Joyce's best known short stories, “Araby” is the third story in his short fiction collection, Dubliners, which was published in 1914. It is perceived as a prime example of Joyce's use of epiphany—a sudden revelation of truth about life inspired by a seemingly trivial incident—as the young narrator realizes his disillusionment with his concept of ideal love when he attempts to buy a token of affection for a young girl. Critical interest in the story has remained intense in recent decades as each story in Dubliners has been closely examined within the context of the volume and as an individual narrative. As the third story, “Araby” is often viewed as an important step between the first two stories—“The Sisters” and “An Encounter”—and the rest of the collection.
Plot and Major Characters
The narrator of “Araby” is a young boy living with his aunt and uncle in a dark, untidy home in Dublin that was once the residence of a priest, now deceased. The boy is infatuated with his friend's older sister, and often follows her to school, never having the courage to talk to her. Finally she speaks to him, asking him if he is going to attend a visiting bazaar, known as the “Araby.” When she indicates that she cannot attend, he offers to bring her something from the bazaar, hoping to impress her. On the night he is to attend, his uncle is late coming home from work. By the time the young boy borrows money from his uncle and makes his way to the bazaar, most of the people have left and many of the stalls are closed. As he looks for something to buy his friend's sister, he overhears a banal young salesgirl flirt with two young men. When the disinterested salesgirl asks him if he needs help, he declines, and he walks through the dark, empty halls, disillusioned with himself and the world around him.
Each story in Dubliners contains an epiphanic moment toward which the controlled yet seemingly plotless narrative moves. Among the best-known epiphanies is the one that occurs in “Araby,” in which a young boy recognizes the vanity and falsity of ideal, romantic love. It has also been interpreted as a story about a boy's growing alienation with his family, religion, and the world around him. Moreover, it is viewed as autobiographical, reflecting Joyce's own disillusionment with religion and love. As such, Dubliners is considered a collection of stories that parallel the process of initiation: the early stories focus on the tribulations of childhood, then move on to the challenges and epiphanies of adulthood. A few critics have detected the theme of Irish nationalism, as Joyce employs Irish legends to indicate the vast discrepancy between the narrator's idealized view of the girl and the harsh reality of the bazaar. Moreover, the theme of the quest is a prevalent one in “Araby,” as the young narrator embarks on a dangerous journey to win the hand of a young maiden.
For many decades Dubliners was considered little more than a slight volume of naturalist fiction evoking the repressed social milieu of turn-of-the-century Dublin. When critics began to explore the individual stories in the collection, much attention was focused on the symbolism in “Araby,” particularly the religious imagery and the surrounding of the bazaar. In fact, some commentators have invested the story with many layers of meaning and religious symbolism; others urge a more superficial reading. Literary allusions, influences, and autobiographical aspects of the story have also been a rich area for study; in fact, commentators have found traces of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, Dante's Commedia, and Homer's The Odyssey in Joyce's story. Much critical attention has focused on stylistic elements, especially the impact of the narrative voice in “Araby.” As scholars continue to mine Joyce's Dubliners for critical study, “Araby” remains one of the most highly regarded and popular stories in the volume.