Araby Analysis

  • Araby” is a short story from Joyce’s collection Dubliners, which was published in 1914. In the book, Joyce presents a realistic depiction of life in Dublin at the turn of the twentieth century.
  • In examining a young boy’s movement from childhood to the cusp of adulthood, “Araby” can be considered a bildungsroman, a narrative that hinges on its protagonist’s personal and moral development.
  • The story grapples with the overarching framework of Irish Catholicism, which is particularly prominent in Dublin at this time period.

Analysis

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

To understand Joyce’s aims in “Araby,” it is first important to look at the book in which it appears: Dubliners, which was first published in 1914. Dubliners is a book of short stories, each focusing on different characters who live in or around Dublin at the turn of the twentieth century. This book was written during the height of Irish nationalism, a period in which Ireland was attempting to reclaim and reinvent its national identity as one that was separate from England, which had dominated Ireland for several centuries prior. In writing Dubliners, Joyce wanted to capture the spirit of Dublin as accurately as possible, including messy and unpleasant details that many other writers strove to avoid.

Scholars generally agree that Dubliners is divided in three approximate parts, representing the chronology of childhood, adolescence, and maturity. “Araby,” as the third story in the Dubliners, focuses on a character in his late childhood. It is important to note that in the first story of the book, “The Sisters,” Joyce introduces two motifs that appear in most of the short stories, including “Araby”: paralysis and epiphany. These motifs appear in “Araby” as part of the narrator’s personal growth.

The idea of personal growth is perhaps the main subject of “Araby.” The story is considered a bildungsroman, which is a story that highlights a character’s development. From the subject matter of the story—a boy developing feelings for his friend’s sister—it is reasonable to assume that the narrator is a child approaching adolescence. In fact, Joyce himself spent much of his childhood living on North Richmond Street, the primary setting of “Araby,” and when he was twelve, an oriental fair similar to Araby came through Dublin. The narrator of “Araby” is thus probably about twelve years old.

Over the course of only several pages, readers see the disposition of the narrator moving from that of a child to that of one approaching adolescence. The story opens with the narrator recounting childhood games with neighborhood children, and throughout most of the story, he is under the supervision of his aunt and uncle. These particular instances suggest that the narrator is firmly situated as a child, at least at the story’s beginning.

However, as the narrator begins developing an interest in Mangan’s sister, we begin to see his liminal status between childhood and adulthood, especially in the way that he begins to approach his schoolwork. In the text, the narrator refers to his schoolwork as “child’s play, ugly monotonous child’s play.” This is a contrast to the child’s play with which the story opens. Instead of embracing his schoolwork, the narrator dismisses it as something petty and lacking meaning.

Still, there is something childlike in the narrator’s obsession with Mangan’s sister, and various adult themes, such as religion and nationalism, escape him. He uses a metaphor, for instance, that describes Mangan’s sister as playing him as one might a harp. At the height of Irish nationalism, and as one attempting to write about the state of Ireland, Joyce would have counted on readers recognizing that the harp is the national symbol of Ireland. Here, however, the narrator uses it as an unrelated metaphor, and the broader meaning of the harp symbol is lost. Similarly, when the narrator goes to the market with his mother, street performers sing songs about O’Donovan Rossa, an Irish nationalist and insurgent, as well as ballads about the fighting occurring between Ireland and England at the time. These street singers are a distraction to the narrator, who wishes only to think of his love.

Religion is treated in a similar fashion. For instance, the narrator associates Mangan’s sister with Catholic imagery throughout the story, and when he isolates himself in the back room and prays, it is the image of Mangan’s sister that comes to his mind. In a collection of short stories that comments so extensively on Dublin, the narrator’s relationship with Catholicism—one of the most prominent features of Irish life at the turn of the century—suggests that he is still largely a child, perhaps unable to either grasp the full import of the religious language he uses or to find an alternate language of his own to express his feelings.

By the end of the story, the narrator is thrown into an adult world in his journey to Araby. This again contrasts with the opening of the story, where he is surrounded by childhood playmates, as well as an earlier scene in which he attends a market with his aunt. Here, he experiences the reality and mundanity of adult life. The bazaar, though it promises the romantic exoticism of the orient, is populated by individuals with English accents. By the time he arrives, the hall is dark and mostly empty, and he cannot find the perfect gift for his crush. As he interacts with a shopkeeper, he realizes that what he had imagined is not possible. Here, readers see the two motifs that appear in most of the stories of Dubliners: paralysis, in that the narrator is unable to bring himself to buy anything for Mangan’s sister, and growth in the form of epiphany, as he realizes that his desires have been an exercise in vanity.

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