Major Themes in Araby
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.
"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...
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