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Symbolism of Mangan's sister in "Araby"

Summary:

Mangan's sister symbolizes idealized love and youthful longing. She represents the narrator's romantic fantasies and the allure of the exotic, which ultimately contrasts with the harsh reality he faces at the bazaar, highlighting the theme of disillusionment.

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What does Mangan's sister represent to the narrator in "Araby"?

To the narrator of "Araby," Mangan's sister represents romance and beauty. One might even call her his ideal of beauty, since he contemplates every aspect of her appearance and movement with a religious devotion. The power she has over him is a mystery, particularly to the narrator himself, since he says:

Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand.

This name is so sacred to the boy that he never entrusts it to the reader. No actual name could convey the poetry it contains for him. Plato writes in the Symposium that love begins in sensuality and desire, becoming more refined as one acquires wisdom. Joyce, in sharp contrast, depicts young, foolish love like the narrator's as the purest of all.

It is appropriate that when the narrator ends the story in disillusion, filled with "anguish and anger," Mangan's sister herself is not directly involved. The idolatry he felt was never anything to do with the girl herself, whom he did not know, and to whom he could not bring himself to speak. There is no logical connection between his disappointment at the bazaar and his idealized love, but the emotional connection is clear. The feeling of reverent adoration with which he regards Mangan's sister is too pure to survive any entanglement with reality.

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What does Mangan's sister represent to the narrator in "Araby"?

To the unnamed boy narrator of Joyce's “Araby,” Mangan's sister represents escape, escape from a shabby-genteel existence in which nothing much ever happens and which appears to hold out no prospects for the future. This is a life without color, without hope or excitement. If anyone needed a touch of the exotic in their life to liven things up, it's this young man.

When Mangan's sister comes along, the lad is well and truly smitten. He doesn't just have a boyish crush on her; he sees in her a chance of escape, an opportunity to enter into a fantasy life that's about as far removed from his daily humdrum existence as it's possible to get. It's easy for us to look at the boy's situation and say that it's nothing more than an infatuation, the kind that most of us develop at some point in our lives. But for the boy, caught up in the maelstrom of emotion that he simply doesn't understand, it's a deadly serious matter.

The boy is so infatuated with Mangan's sister that he resolves to buy her a gift at the Araby bazaar. It too represents an escape from the humdrum to the exotic. But like the boy's feelings for Mangan's sister, it turns out to be nothing more than a fantasy. It's important to note in this regard that neither the narrator nor Mangan's sister is ever named in the story. This highlights the utterly fantastical nature of their relationship.

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What does Mangan's sister represent to the narrator in "Araby"?

Please excuse typographical error of the name Mangan.

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What does Mangan's sister represent to the narrator in "Araby"?

Please excuse typographical error of the name Mengan.

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What does Mangan's sister represent to the narrator in "Araby"?

As a Modernist, James Joyce has written stories in which the characters are spiritually and psychologically floundering; "Araby" is such a story.  Its narrative relates the adolescent infatuation of a young man, the narrator, and the object of this infatuation, the sister of his friend, Mangan.  Mangan's sister, whose name is "like a summons to all my foolish blood," the narrator remarks, represents the romantic and spiritual confusion and illusion of this adolescent.

In his infatuation, the narrator watches her "shadow peer up and down the street"; he lies on the floor of his parlor and watches for her to come out her door.  Her image, much like the Virgin Mary, is with him when he goes to market with his aunt, and he images that he carries the holy grail rather than a box of groceries.  Romantically, he describes his eyes as tearful, his heart floods with emotion, his body is

like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.

In short, Mangan's sister represents an idealization that offers escape from his brown existence on North Richmond Street.  In fact, he attaches an exotic nature to his infatuation as he invites Megan's sister to the bazaar.  However, like his other illusions, the bazaar is but a petty place where the peddlers engage in idle gossip.  It is then that the narrator realizes his illusions and that he has been "derided by vanity" as his eyes burn with "anguish and anger."

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What does Mangan's sister represent to the narrator in "Araby"?

Before talking specifically about Mangan's sister in James Joyce's "Araby," it's worth mentioning that Irish literature has a long history of using female characters as symbols and personifications of Ireland. One of the most famous examples of this trope can be found in W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory's play, Cathleen ni Houlihan. In this play, the main character (the eponymous Cathleen) begins as an old woman wandering the countryside and lamenting the loss of her four green fields. This character is often read as a symbol of occupied Ireland, as Cathleen's four green fields roughly correspond to Ireland's traditional four provinces. Furthermore, Cathleen's transformation at the end of a play into a young woman can be seen as a symbol of Ireland's projected rebirth, one that occurs once she regains her sovereignty from Great Britain.

Let's consider this trope in conjunction with "Araby." In Cathleen ni Houlihan, the character Michael Gillane becomes infatuated with the old woman (who represents Ireland), and this infatuation drives him to join a band of Irish rebels fighting for freedom. In "Araby," the main character is similarly obsessed with Mangan's sister, and the thought of her is enough to rouse him to some pretty dramatic emotion: "her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood" (30). Like Michael, the unnamed narrator of "Araby" is infatuated with a girl, and, also like Michael, this infatuation drives the narrator to perform deeds to win over said girl. The difference is that, instead of heading off to war, the narrator goes to Araby in an attempt to buy Mangan's sister a trinket. Through these parallels with the classic personification of Ireland as a female character, we can see Mangan's sister as potentially symbolic of the island itself. 

If we take this symbolism to be the case, then the end of the short story becomes very interesting indeed. At the end, the narrator fails to buy anything at the bazaar, and he realizes the foolishness of his actions and obsession. As such, it would appear that Joyce is throwing an element of disillusionment over Ireland's classic symbolic form. Perhaps, Joyce seems to be saying, it's not wise to allow metaphorical infatuation to govern our lives and drive us to perform deeds to prove our love/patriotism. In this sense, Joyce takes a step toward dismantling the symbolic female as Ireland trope.    

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Why is Mangan's sister viewed as a symbol of Ireland in "Araby"?

It may be a matter of opinion that Mangan's sister represents Ireland, but knowing Joyce, it seems quite safe to make this interpretation.  The personification of Ireland is a persistent theme in Joyce's works.  Notice that the boy has never really known Mangan's sister.  This alone is worthy symbolism of an idealized Ireland, the only Ireland that a person of the boy's generation can know.  Driving the plot of the story is a seemingly hopeless quest that the boy undertakes on behalf of this woman, or his native country.  It is probably not too cynical to take the drunken uncle to represent the Irish people.  And the bazaar, England herself.  Every conceivable obstacle that can slow our boy's quest, impedes him, but he perseveres, only to reach his destination to a conclusion which seems utterly heartbreaking somehow if we take it in the context of the story.

If we accept the premise that Mangan's sister is Ireland, it is easy to consider the story to be at least partly allegorical.  For a different view of this theme, the personification of Ireland, one that almost certainly inspired Joyce, read Cathleen ni Houlihan by W.B. Yeats.

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How does Mangan's sister symbolize Ireland in "Araby"?

It's a pretty dark and bleak world in which the narrator lives. His street is "blind" and "quiet" with a "brown imperturbable [face]." The home's former tenant, a priest, had died inside, and the garden behind the house had grown "wild." The story is set during winter, when "dusk fell before" dinnertime, and the narrator and his friends would play outside in the "dark muddy lanes" and "dark dripping gardens," near the "dark odorous stables." The repetition of the word "dark" is symbolic; this is a dark time for Ireland: its slums are some of the worst in Europe, political tensions are high, and Nationalists see the advent of WWI as an opportunity to rebel against England while she is otherwise engaged.

However, Mangan's sister is always characterized by light, in comparison to the darkness everywhere else. As she stands in the doorway, looking for her brother, the narrator sees her "figure defined by the light from the half-opened door." Later, when he speaks to her, "The light from the lamp opposite [his] door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there, and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing." Now, the repetition of light is symbolic, and she seems to represent something hopeful. Perhaps she is meant to represent the writer's hope that, someday, Ireland will not be the bleak and sad place of the narrator's youth.  Therefore, Mangan's sister is Ireland's brighter future.

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What does Mangan's sister represent in "Araby"?

In the narrator's eyes, Mangan's sister represents an idealized romantic figure. For him, she is an intoxicating combination of beauty and hope, and his fantastical longing for her takes him out of the confines of his dull everyday existence and gives him a tantalizing glimpse of a much richer, more exciting world.

The powerful effect that Mangan's sister has on the boy can be seen in the almost religious way he describes her, as if she were the Virgin Mary herself:

Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand.

There is clearly something about the girl's beauty that is pure and transcendent, something that cannot adequately be captured in ordinary, everyday language. The very fact that the boy cannot bring himself to utter the name of Mangan's sister is a sign of just how sacred she is to him.

Having idealized Mangan's sister, the boy sets out on a kind of Arthurian quest to buy her a gift at the Araby bazaar. His eventual failure in that quest immediately dispels the romance with which his mind has recently been so obsessed. The powerful ideal of romantic beauty that he has found so all-consuming and intoxicating vanishes, leaving the boy crushed, humiliated, and thoroughly disillusioned.

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In "Araby," what does the fence Mangan's sister stands behind symbolize?

Since the boy idealizes Mangan's sister, the fence may symbolize the division between reality and the infatuated illusion of the boy in "Araby." 

Or if Mangan's sister came out on the doorstep to call her brother in tohis tea we watched her from our shadow peer up and down the street. She was waiting for us [Mangan and the boy], her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door.  Her brother always teased her before he obeyed and I stood by the railing looking at her.  Her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.

From the "sombre" shadows of the houses and the "dark, muddy lanes" of his neighborhood, the boy see Mangan's sister as an image of Mary, almost saintly with a light behind yet, yet seductive in her movements and tossing of her hair.  However, he is held at a distance from her by the "railing."  This symbolic railing, suggestive of a communion railing in an Irish Catholic church, maintains its motif throughout the story as the boy never has real contact with Mangan's sister. For instance, when he invites her to the bazaar, she cannot come because she is going on a religious retreat. 

The boy's other religious imaginings--carrying parcels on his Saturday shopping, he imagines,

I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes.  Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises...my body was like a harp

However, the relgious "railing" closes these romantic dreams for the boy as the reality he finds at the bazaar is less than exotic and romantic. After he arrives late, he hears only petty gossip and the tingling of coins.  Letting his "two pennies fall against the sixpence" in his pocket, the boy's eyes "burned with anguish and anger" at his self-deception in his idealized and religious images of Mangan's sister.

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In "Araby," what does the fence Mangan's sister stands behind symbolize?

The fence physically separates the narrator and Mangan's sister, but it also symbolizes how untouchable she is emotionally. The boy exalts and worships Mangan's sister so much that she seems almost unreal, or at least unreachable to him.

In a cultural sense, the fence also symbolizes how "cloistered" Mangan's sister is, as well as the other young women in her convent school. She mentions that she cannot go to Araby because of a school event. One gets a sense that the girls of Richmond street do not enjoy quite as much freedom as the young boys do.

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In "Araby," what does the fence Mangan's sister stands behind symbolize?

The fence symbolizes the fact that the sister is unattainable.  The protagonist, realistically, will not be able to woo the sister, who is not interested in him romantically.  She is his first real crush and this is evident by his actions, like neglecting everything else in his life to watch her.  He finally realizes, though, at the end of the story, the reality of what time he has wasted obsessing over this young woman.  This reality is a sobering one for the young protagonist.  He realizes that he has much to learn about life. 

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