Major Themes in Araby

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In his early story "Araby," James Joyce prefigures many, if not all, of the themes which later became the focus of his writing. Joyce, often considered the greatest English-language novelist of the twentieth century, published few books in his lifetime. Chamber Music, a book of poems, appeared in 1907; Dubliners, a collection of short stories from which "Araby" is taken, was published in 1914; and his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, came out in the same year. The book for which Joyce is most famous, Ulysses, appeared in 1922 and was quickly banned. Finally, in 1939, Joyce published Finnegans Wake. Notwithstanding his small output, Joyce's work has been highly influential, and many of the themes and details he uses in his work have become common currency in English literature. In "Araby," a story of a young boy's disillusionment, Joyce explores questions of nationality, religion, popular culture, art, and relationships between the sexes. None of these themes can be adequately explored in a short essay; however, a brief exposition of the most important themes of "Araby" indicates the marvelous complexity of Joyce's insight.

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"Araby" is narrated by a young boy who is, like most of Joyce's characters, a native of Dublin, Ireland. Since the conflict in the story occurs primarily within the boy's consciousness, Joyce's choice of first-person narration is crucial. The protagonist, as with most of Joyce's main characters, is a sensitive boy, searching for principles with which to make sense of the chaos and banality of the world. We know immediately that Catholicism has served as one of these principles; he attends a Christian Brothers school and at home is attracted to the library of a former tenant of his family, a priest. His identification with Catholicism is more than casual. On Saturday evenings, when the boy goes "marketing" with his aunt he sees the crowds in the market as a "throng of foes" and himself as a religious hero who "bears his chalice" through the crowd.

The narrator's dedication to Catholicism, however, does not run as deep as he might believe. In fact, he channels the emotional devotion that his religion requires towards questionable recipients. Readers learn first that the priest's library contains three books especially important to the protagonist: a romantic novel, a religious tract written by a Protestant, and the memoirs of a French police agent and master of disguise. If this priest does not maintain a sufficiently pious library, how can this boy be expected to properly practice his religion?

More importantly, the boy takes the Catholic idea of devotion to the Virgin Mary and finds a real-world substitute for the Mother of God. We learn that he is especially fascinated by the older sister of one of his schoolmates. In the narrator's first description of Mangan's sister she is lit from behind, like a saint. "[H]er figure defined by the light from the half-opened door.... Every morning I lay on the floor in the front parlour watching her door," the narrator tells us, presenting an image of himself as a prostrate worshipper. Furthermore, he relates that "her image accompanied [him] even in places the most hostile to romance." Although the boy explains his feelings for Mangan's sister as romantic, his confusion between her and the Virgin Mary are easily discernible: "Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises of which I myself did not understand." The boy is as rapturous as if he had seen a vision of the Mother of God herself. And when the girl finally speaks to him, he cannot respond coherently: "When she addressed the first words to me I was so confused that I did not know what to answer."

Joyce also makes the nonreligious, and even sexual, elements of the boy's devotion to Mangan's sister clear throughout the story. Her dress, her hair, and her "brown figure" are "always in [the narrator's] eye," and when he finally speaks to her, the same light that once made her glow like a saint now catches "the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease." The boy melds religious devotion for the Virgin with his own romantic longing, and the combined force is powerful. When Mangan's sister asks him if he will be attending Araby, a church bazaar to be held soon, he is caught by surprise: "I forgot whether I answered yes or no." She tells him she must attend a retreat and cannot attend the fair. As his eyes fix upon the silver bracelet she twists on her wrist, he resolves to go and bring her back something that could compare with that bracelet. Here, the narrator ventures dangerously close to idolatry and the pre-Christian tradition of offerings to the gods. In a punning reference to this, he relates that because of his recent distraction in class, his schoolmaster "hoped I was not beginning to idle."

The shift from the boy's initially religious longings to more worldly concerns is accentuated by images of Araby that reverberate in his mind, taking on a very unreligious cast: "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." This is a very ominous sentence; the boy's religious leanings are being completely overthrown by the lure of the mysterious, and possibly sensual, bazaar. The sensuality that he wished to obliterate earlier ("All my senses seemed to desire to veil themselves," he tells us when he is in the priest's room, thinking of Mangan's sister) is now the very thing that he wants to indulge. The fact that Araby suggests a non-Christian culture is also significant here, for in his dedication to Mangan's sister the boy is willing to forsake the safe and familiar world of Catholic Ireland for what he believes to be the exotic and decadent East. As he stands in the upper-story room of his house, he looks upon his old playmates from above as they play in the street, and then looks up on the house across to where Mangan and his sister live. He feels himself chosen, like Sir Galahad (a noble knight from the legend of King Arthur) and prepares himself for his quest.

After withstanding the peril of the drunken uncle and the aunt who hints he might have to "put off [his] bazaar for this night of Our Lord," the protagonist is finally ready to embark upon his quest. His excitement is palpable as he rushes towards the festival, trying to get there before it closes. As he approaches the darkening hall, his once-clear purpose is now muddy: he "remember[s] with difficulty why [he] had come." The futility and purposelessness of his project begins to dawn upon him as he hears an English shop-girl and two young English gentlemen chatting:

"O, I never said such a thing!"
"O, but you did'"
"O, but I didn't!"
"Didn't she say that?"
"Yes. I heard her."
"O, there's a... fib!"

One of the recurring themes in Joyce's stories is the "epiphany," a Greek word meaning "revelation." In one of the drafts of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce's character Stephen Dedalus is preoccupied by epiphanies: "By epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture of in a memorable phrase or the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments." Joyce, like his fictional counterpart Stephen, saw the epiphany as a crucial building-block of fiction, because it was the moment at which a character understands that the illusions under which he or she has been operating are false and misleading.

At this point in "Araby," the narrator experiences an epiphany. As the protagonist nears the end of his quest and is about to buy a gift for Mangan's sister, he changes his mind. As he leaves the hall where the bazaar is closing down, the narrator says: "[g]azing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger." Somehow, the overheard conversation between the English shopgirl and her friends has changed his outlook.

Here at the end of the story, the various symbols Joyce employs converge. The light in which the narrator has always seen Mangan's sister now meets the darkness of the hall as the bazaar shuts down. Our narrator begins to see Mangan's sister not as the image of the Virgin, but as a mundane English shop-girl engaging in idle conversation. His quest, he now realizes, was misconceived in the first place, and he now recognizes the mistake of joining his religious fervor with his romantic passion for Mangan's sister. Although he does not say, it seems clear that the protagonist will fully reject both.

The story, like much of his work, is taken almost directly from Joyce's own life. Like the narrator of this story, Joyce lived on North Richmond Street in Dublin and attended the Christian Brothers' School. The aunt and the uncle of "Araby" bear some resemblance to Joyce's own parents. Even Araby is factual: advertisements survive that date the bazaar to May, 1894.

In Joyce's later fiction, characters almost identical to the narrator in "Araby" recur; the most prominent is Stephen Dedalus, the hero of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and one of the main characters in Ulysses. Both wrestle with a similar predicament—they must free themselves from the "nets" of their society, family, and religion in order to be entirely self-determined. Although many of the characters in Dubliners prefigure Joyce's later characters, the boy in "Araby" seems closest to being a younger version of Stephen Dedalus/James Joyce. He goes through almost the same struggle as Joyce shows Stephen fighting in Portrait. In the words of the critic Harry Stone, in The Antioch Review, "'Araby' is a portrait of the artist as a young boy."

Source: Greg Barnhisel, for Short Stones for Students, Gale Research, 1997.
Greg Barnhisel is an educator and Assistant Director of the Undergraduate Writing Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Araby: A Quest for Meaning

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 923

The story of a young boy journeying to Araby in hope of winning the favor of an idealized girl immediately raises echoes of the Grail Quest story-pattern. Indeed, several actions and images in "Araby" common to basic versions of the Quest suggest this theme stimulated Joyce's imagination in ordering his modern material, and of course the reader who recognizes them is tempted to look for clues. Yet even in the case of Joyce such a reader can rest assured that it is not as important to scrutinize what goes into a story as to assess what comes out.

In "Araby" a boy ignores the reality of his bleak, winter surroundings and allows the word 'araby' to suggest the exciting summer world of Romance. But, if it is a land of spices he dreams of, classical writers note that the richest part of Araby was infested with snakes. The very title of the story is the first of several images promising the apocalyptic world of romance, but containing the demonic.

In a world hostile to romance, Mangan's sister is the object of the boy's "confused adoration." By the time his lady speaks, his naive crush has lead to the heroic bearing of her image like a chalice through market streets, and worship in a chapel-like room where the boy presses his hands together and murmurs "O love! O love!" Hearing she longs to go to Araby, but cannot, he promises to return with a gift if he should make the trip. Imprisoned on the other side of the railing before the house, turning the silver bracelet "round and round her wrist,'' the girl is the supplicant woman. The quest and marriage theme is strengthened when "she held one of the [railing] spikes, bowing her head towards me." In some versions of the Quest, the knight may marry or sleep with the maiden who carries the grail or bleeding lance. In any case, no favor is lightly given; the journey preempts his thoughts and the everyday world is denied: "I had hardly any patience with the serious work of life."

The boy's confusion is something he causes himself. The girl's brown dress suggests she may not be the true lady, and the boy's love is itself suspect. The image he conjures up includes the border of her slip; and lying on the floor, prostrating himself before her, peeking under the drawn shade, the boy is a voyeur. He is already doomed to failure because he does not have the chaste mind and body essential to the quest. This is emphasized shortly before he leaves for the bazaar. After going upstairs (a position of relative height) he receives the traditional vision, seeing "nothing but the brown figure cast by my imagination,'' a figure complete with the petticoat showing. Not only is the vision imagined, rather than beheld, but it is not even pure.

Finally the boy begins his journey, leaving the house to the strains of "The Arab's Farewell to his Steed." The deserted train takes the place of a horse, passing through the waste land of "ruinous houses" and crossing the body of water, a river, on its way to Araby.

Araby, the building with the "magical name," is likened to a church; this, and the attendant at the door link it to the magic castle which the knight approaches in the evening. Inside, the young boy examines vases and flowered tea-sets, grail-like containers. Approaching the two men and the woman he is deterred by their attitude and the trivia of their conversation. In the grail castle the knight's success depends on his asking the right question concerning the grail which is carried past him. The woman questions the boy: "I looked humbly at the great jars [grails] that stood like eastern guards [the cherub at the East wall of Eden?] at either side of the dark entrance to the stall and murmured: 'No, thank you'." The wrong answer has been given and the boy asks no questions. The lights go out. When the knight does not ask the correct question in the castle it disappears and he wakes up at the edge of a cliff by the ocean, or in a manure wagon being driven through a town where people insult him because of his failure to heal the land. Here the boy realizes his journey is over and feels humiliated. His failure brings an increase in knowledge, which, continuing the story's ironic counterpoint to Romance, does not bring hope or felicity.

To press these parallels further is possible, but to do so would be to pass the point of diminishing critical returns. The problem is one of perspective which, in Dubliners, involves always keeping in mind the fact that the main impact of the story is on the naturalistic level, the faithfulness to the detail of Irish family life. It may be more to this level that Joyce's notion of paralysis really refers than to any other. The continual wonder is how Joyce can introduce so intricate and faithful a Quest story-pattern and yet subdue it to the naturalistic one we read at face value. The myth element enriches the story, but we are never really on the quest for the grail—we are in Dublin all the time with the psychologically accurate story of the growth of a romantic boy awakening to his sexuality, idealizing Mangan's sister and encountering frustration in the process.

Source: John Freimarck, "'Araby': A Quest for Meaning," in James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 7, no 4, Summer, 1970, pp. 366-8.

Araby and the Writings of James Joyce

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For "Araby'' preserves a central episode in Joyce's life, an episode he will endlessly recapitulate. The boy in "Araby," like the youthful Joyce himself, must begin to free himself from the nets and trammels of society. That beginning involves painful farewells and disturbing dislocations. The boy must dream "no more of enchanted days." He must forego the shimmering mirage of childhood, begin to see things as they really are. But to see things as they really are is only a prelude. Far in the distance lies his appointed (but as yet unimagined) task: to encounter the reality of experience and forge the uncreated conscience of his race. The whole of that struggle, of course, is set forth in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. "Araby" is the identical struggle at an earlier stage; "Araby" is a portrait of the artist as a young boy.

The autobiographical nexus of "Araby" is not confined to the struggle raging in the boy's mind, though that conflict—an epitome of Joyce's first painful effort to see—is central and controls all else. Many of the details of the story are also rooted in Joyce's life. The narrator of "Araby"—the narrator is the boy of the story now grown up—lived, like Joyce, on North Richmond Street. North Richmond Street is blind, with a detached two-story house at the blind end, and down the street, as the opening paragraph informs us, the Christian Brothers' school. Like Joyce, the boy attended this school, and again like Joyce he found it dull and stultifying. Furthermore, the boy's surrogate parents, his aunt and uncle, are a version of Joyce's parents: the aunt, with her forbearance' and her unexamined piety, is like his mother; the uncle, with his irregular hours, his irresponsibility, his love of recitation, and his drunkenness, is like his father.

The title and the central action of the story are also autobiographical. From May fourteenth to nineteenth, 1894, while the Joyce family was living on North Richmond Street and Joyce was twelve, Araby came to Dublin. Araby was a bazaar, and the program of the bazaar, advertising the fair as a "Grand Oriental Fête," featured the name "Araby" in huge exotic letters, while the design as well as the detail of the program conveyed an ill-assorted blend of pseudo-Eastern romanticism and blatant commercialism. For one shilling, as the program put it, one could visit "Araby in Dublin" and at the same time aid the Jervis Street Hospital....

Other literary prototypes also contribute to "Araby." In "Araby" as in Joyce's life, Mangan is an important name. In life Mangan was one of Joyce's favorite Romantic poets, a little-known Irish poet who pretended that many of his poems were translations from the Arabic although he was totally ignorant of that language. Joyce championed him in a paper delivered as a Pateresque [Walter Pater was a nineteenth-century English essayist and critic] twenty-year-old before the Literary and Historical Society of University College, Dublin, and championed him again five years later, in a lecture at the Universita Popolare in Trieste, as "the most significant poet of the modern Celtic world, and one of the most inspired singers that ever used the lyric form in any country." In "Araby" Mangan is the boy's friend, but, what is more important, Mangan's sister is the adored girl. In each lecture Joyce discussed Mangan's poetry in words which could serve as an epigraph for the boy's mute, chivalric love for Mangan's sister and for his subsequent disillusionment and self-disdain. In the latter lecture, Joyce described the female persona that Mangan is constantly adoring:

This figure which he adores recalls the spiritual yearnings and the imaginary loves of the Middle Ages, and Mangan has placed his lady in a world full of melody, of lights and perfumes, a world that grows fatally to frame every face that the eyes of a poet have gazed on with love. There is only one chivalrous idea, only one male devotion, that lights up the faces of Vittona Colonna, Laura, and Beatrice, just as the bitter disillusion and the self-disdain that end the chapter are one and the same.

And one of Joyce's favorite poems by Mangan—a poem whose influence recurs in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses—is "Dark Rosaleen," a love paean to a girl who represents Ireland (Dark Rosaleen is a poetic name for Ireland), physical love, and romantic adoration. In "Araby" Joyce took Mangan's idealized girl as an embodiment of the artist's, especially the Irish artist's, relationship to his beloved, and then, combining the image of the girl with other resonating literary associations, wrote his own story of dawning, worshipful love....

These and other ambiguously worded ironies had already been sounded by the three opening sentences of "Araby." Joyce begins by telling us that North Richmond Street is blind. That North Richmond Street is a dead end is a simple statement of fact; but that the street is blind, especially since this feature is given significant emphasis in the opening phrases of the story, suggests that blindness plays a role thematically. It suggests, as we later come to understand, that the boy also is blind, that he has reached a dead end in his life. Finally, we are told that the houses of North Richmond Street "conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces." These words, too, are ironic. For the boy will shortly discover that his own consciousness of a decent life within has been a mirage; the imperturbable surface of North Richmond Street (and of the boy's life) will soon be perturbed.

In these opening paragraphs Joyce touches all the themes he will later develop: self-deluding blindness, self-inflating romanticism, decayed religion, mammonism, the coming into man's inheritance, and the gulf between appearance and reality. But these paragraphs do more: they link what could have been the idiosyncratic story of the boy, his problems and distortions, to the problems and distortions of Catholicism and of Ireland as a whole. In other words, the opening paragraphs (and one or two other sections) prevent us from believing that the fault is solely in the boy and not, to some extent at least, in the world that surrounds him, and still more fundamentally, in the nature of man himself.

The boy, of course, contributes intricately to his own deception. His growing fascination for Mangan' s sister is made to convey his blindness and his warring consciousness. Joyce suggests these confusions by the most artful images, symbolisms, and parallelisms. The picture of Mangan's sister which first sinks unforgettably into the boy's receptive mind is of the girl calling and waiting at her doorstep in the dusk, "her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door," while he plays in the twilight and then stands "by the railings looking at her." "Her dress," he remembered, "swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side."

This highly evocative, carefully staged, and carefully lit scene—it will recur throughout the story with slight but significant variations—gathers meaning as its many details take on definition and thematic importance. That importance was central to Joyce, and versions of the scene occur often in his writings. As his Mangan essay (1902) indicates, he had early chosen the adored female as an emblem of man's vanity, an emblem of false vision and self-delusion followed by insight and self-disdain. The female who appears in "Araby'' (she appears again and again in his other writings) is such an emblem. The prototypical situation in all these appearances is of a male gazing at a female in a dim, veiled light. There are other features: the male usually looks up at the female; he often finds her standing half obscured near the top of some stairs and by a railing; he frequently notices her hair, her skirts, and her underclothes. But though the scene varies from appearance to appearance, the consequences are always the same. The male superimposes his own idealized vision upon this shadowy figure, only to have disillusioning reality (which has been there unregarded all the time) assert itself and devastate him. Joyce found this scene—with its shifting aureola of religious adoration, sexual beckoning, and blurred vision—infinitely suggestive, and he utilized it for major effect....

Araby—the very word connotes the nature of the boy's confusion. It is a word redolent of the lush East, of distant lands, Levantine riches, romantic entertainments, mysterious magic, "Grand Oriental Fêtes." The boy immerses himself in this incense-filled dream world. He tells us that "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." That enchantment, or to put it another way, Near Eastern imagery (usually in conjunction with female opulence or romantic wish fulfillment), always excited Joyce. It reappears strongly in Ulysses in a highly intricate counterpoint, which is sometimes serious (Molly's Moorish attributes) and sometimes mocking (Bloom's dream of a Messianic Near Eastern oasis). But the boy in "Araby" always interprets these associations, no matter how disparate or how ambiguous they are, in one way: as correlatives of a baroquely beatific way of living. Yet the real, brick-and-mortar Araby in the boy's life is a bazaar, a market, a place where money and goods are exchanged. The boy is blind to this reality lurking beneath his enchanted dream. To the boy, his lady's silver bracelet is only part of her Eastern finery; his journey to a bazaar to buy her an offering is part of a romantic quest. But from this point on in the story the masquerading pretenses of the boy—and of his church, his land, his rules, and his love—are rapidly underlined and brought into a conjunction which will pierce his perfect dream world and put an end to "enchanted days...."

Joyce has succeeded, here, in taking the raw, rather humdrum, unpromising facts of his own life and transforming them into abiding patterns of beauty and illumination. He has taken a universal experience—a more or less ordinary experience of insight, disillusionment, and growth—and given it an extraordinary application and import. The experience becomes a criticism of a nation, a religion, a civilization, a way of existing; it becomes a grappling hook with which we can scale our own well-guarded citadels of self-delusion. Joyce does all this in six or seven pages. He manages this feat by endowing the simple phrases and actions of "Araby'' with multiple meanings that deepen and enlarge what he is saying.

The image of Mangan's sister is a case in point. Joyce takes this shadowy image, this dark scene which fascinated and obsessed him and which he returned to again and again, and shapes it to his purposes. He projects this image so carefully, touches it so delicately and skillfully with directive associations and connotations, that it conveys simultaneously, in one simple seamless whole, all the warring meanings he wishes it to hold—all the warring meanings it held for him. The pose of the harlot is also the pose of the Virgin; the revered Lady of Romance (kin to Vittoria Colonna, Laura, Beatrice, Levana, Dark Rosaleen, and the beloved of any artist) is also Ireland and at the same time a vulgar English shopgirl. One need not belabor the point. These meanings are conveyed not merely by the juxtapositions and evocations of the chief images—of Mangan's dark sister and the English shopgirl, for example—but by the reiterated patterns, allusions, and actions which bind the whole work together: the dead priest's charitableness, Mrs. Mercer's used stamps, the fall of money on the salver; Araby, Eastern enchantment, the knightly quest for a chivalric token; the swaying dress, the veiled senses, the prayerful murmur, "O love! O love!" Scarcely a line, an evocation, on object—the central apple tree, the heretical book of devotions by Abednego Seller, "The Arab's Farewell to His Steed," the blind street—but adds its harmony to the whole and extends and clarifies the story's meaning.

Source: Harry Stone, "'Araby' and the Writings of James Joyce,'' in The Antioch Review, Vol. XXV, no. 3, Fall, 1965, pp. 375-445.
Stone is an educator, editor, and Charles Dickens scholar.

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Critical Overview