Araby Key Ideas and Commentary
by James Joyce

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This is a story of the loss of innocence and the frustration of first love. The young boy’s exaggerated expectations about the emotional rewards of his devotion to the little girl are cruelly deflated. He interprets the disappointing circumstances of his journey as a sign of the hollowness of the ideals with which he undertook that quest. He thus connects the frivolous banter among the young people and his own earlier brief conversation with Mangan’s sister and thinks that he has perceived the banal reality behind the romantic image. However, his perceptions in each case are unreliable: His immaturity causes him to overreact in each direction. The story, then, shows that the temptations to both the romantic inflation and to the cynical devaluation of experience are but two sides of the same false coin.

“Araby” is the third of the fifteen stories in Dubliners (1914). These stories examine the hazards of the various stages in life, and “Araby” marks the end of childhood and the beginning of adolescence. This protagonist begins his story as a boy amid his peers, full of childish energy and short-lived attention. The image of Mangan’s sister gradually emerges from these confused impressions, however, gathering itself into a vision of desire, both erotic and religious. The growth of these feelings soon sets the boy apart from his fellows, and becomes even more consuming at the mention of the bazaar. He now connects his attitude toward the transcendent with the popular mystique of the Orient, each with an awakening sexual longing. No sooner are these connections made, however, than they are compromised: The girl cannot be possessed (because of her “retreat”), and in the compromise—the material gift—lie the seeds of the destruction of the dream. The rest of the story dramatizes the painful deflation of that dream: the human limitations of his uncle and aunt and the natural limitations of time and space all conspire to thwart the boy’s search for fulfillment. He is therefore emotionally disposed to interpret the material elements of his adventure (the adult admission fee, the falling coins, the extinguishing lights, the casual talk of fibbing) as the signs of the end of the childish idealization of human values. From such a point of view, this is a story of initiation, marking the rites of passage from the Edenic domain of home to the uncertain terrain of adult life.

Similarly, the...

(The entire section is 612 words.)