What realization does the boy have at the end of "Araby"?

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At the end of “Araby,” the boy realizes that there is a gap between desire and attaining one’s goals. Fulfilling his promise to the girl becomes impossible, and shopping at the bazaar proves less satisfying than he had anticipated.

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In James Joyce’s short story "Araby," the protagonist is a young boy who has a crush on a neighbor girl and wants to please her with a gift. This unnamed, first-person narrator is also attracted by the prospect of making this purchase at Araby, a temporary bazaar held in his town. For much of the story, the boy anticipates the girl’s reaction and the enjoyment of choosing just the right object at the bazaar, a place he imagines will be magical and filled with exotic goods. Because of his youth, he needs an adult to accompany him on the shopping excursion, and his uncle agrees to do so.

The boy and his friend Mangan are much younger than Mangan’s sister, the girl whom the protagonist admires, and this difference in their ages is perhaps what makes the protagonist especially keen to impress her. When she mentions she will have to miss the Araby bazaar, the protagonist promises her that if he does go, he will get her something. From that point on, he becomes obsesses with going there and getting her gift.

Things do not go according to plan, however. His uncle ends up forgetting about the bazaar, but although it seems too late to go, he allows the boy to go alone. When the protagonist arrives, almost all the stands are already shut down, and he cannot find anything suitable. Realizing that he cannot fulfill his promise, he feels shame for having been vain. His anticipation of enjoyment, through both his efforts to please the girl and the experience of shopping at the bazaar, proves to be quite different than the outcome.

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In "Araby," what is the nature of the boy's sudden realization?

Disillusionment.  In what Joyce referred to as an epiphany, the boy of "Araby" transforms from an innocent child to a disillusioned adolescent as he realizes that his religious and romantic idealization of Magan's sister and the bazaar have been foolish.  Added to this realization is the fact that the boy is alone in his anger with himself:

Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.

It is at this point that the boy has matured, but this maturation is at the expense of the loss of the exotic dream--"innumerable follies laid waste"--that has sustained him in his loneliness and "sombre" neighborhood: In the shadows and browness of his neighborhood, he could watch Magan's sister's "dress swing as she moved her boy and the soft rope of her hair toss from side to side."  The boy, like the knights of Arthur's tales, has held Magan's sister as his ideal:

Her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance....through the shrill litanies of shop-boys...the nasal chanting of street-singers...I imagined that I bore my chalice [like the Holy Grail] safely through a throng of foes.  Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand.... 

Not only has the boy romanticized his infatuation with Magan's sister to the exotic level [Araby], but he has confused this infatuation with religious fervor.  So, with his disillusionment of his romantic idealizing of the girl, comes also a certain degree of religious disillusionment.

Reduced to the petty life of the street whose houses have "brown imperturbable faces, and the bazaar in which only idle gossip takes place," the boy allows "the two pennies to fall against the sixpence in my pocket," a gesture symbolic of his knowledge that life is only filled with the mundane.

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What does the boy in "Araby" realize?

The narrator's realization in "Araby" concerns the distinction between his inner world of infatuation and fantasy and the comparatively cold outer world. This realization is conveyed in the story’s final lines, when the narrator says, “gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” He has come to the Araby bazaar with hopes of finding a perfect and unique gift to give to the girl he loves, Mangan’s sister, but his hopes have been disappointed in a number of ways.

First, his uncle is late to arrive home to give him money to go to the bazaar; then the train is slow; then he cannot find a cheap entrance to the bazaar; then, he finds only English tea sets and vases—nothing unique or exotic, as he expected. In the bazaar, the lights are going out and he hears the clinking of coins being counted and an empty exchange between a young woman and two young men.

As a whole, the bazaar in no way reflects or accommodates his dream of finding a meaningful and romantic gift. He seems to realize in this moment that though his feelings seemed so significant to him, they mean nothing to the world. He realizes that he was vain and naive to have believed that his hopes and dreams of love mattered in a broader sense.

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