Like all of Dubliners (and all of Joyce’s work), “Araby” is filled with allusions. Some are biblical or literary, but the most crucial ones—the ones that students need to understand in order to make sense of the story—refer to contemporary Irish culture. One of Joyce’s missions was to illustrate how the forces of society influence and confine Dubliners’ lives, and one of the ways he did this was by peppering his stories with passing references to these forces, in effect showing that they were so pervasive as to be taken for granted. His contemporaries would have understood such references without a second thought, but they can pose a challenge for present-day readers and students.
Allusions to Religion: The Catholic Church was a major force in the daily lives of Dubliners. Its prominence comes through in a number of allusions in the story:
- The narrator’s home, previously occupied by a Catholic priest, contains a garden with an apple tree. In the biblical book of Genesis, the first humans, Adam and Eve, live in the Garden of Eden. They both eat from the Tree of Knowledge, the fruit of which is commonly depicted as an apple, and then lose their innocence and are cast out of the garden. This early allusion foreshadows the events of the narrator’s tale.
- The narrator uses religious terms and imagery to describe his love for Mangan’s sister. When he walks through rabble-filled Dublin streets, he carries the thought of her in his mind, saying “I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes.” “Chalice” is an allusion to the cup used in the Christian act of communion, and by extension to the Holy Grail used by Jesus Christ. He goes on to describe how the girl’s name comes to him “in strange prayers,” and how, thinking of her, “I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled,” as if in prayer. This use of religious imagery elevates his feelings for the girl to the level of spiritual idolatry—which ultimately heightens his sense of disillusionment at the end of the story. It also shows that what the boy knows about passion at this point in his life has come to him through religion. When he feels the first yearnings of romantic love, the vocabulary of the Catholic Church is the language most readily available to describe it.
- Mangan’s sister can’t go to the Araby bazaar because “there was a retreat that week in her convent.” The convent is where she goes to school—one example of how the Catholic Church and education were inextricably linked in Ireland at the time. Such retreats were multi-day events during which students withdrew from daily life to focus on spiritual matters. (They remain a common practice at Catholic schools today.) The fact that the retreat keeps her from going to the bazaar functions as a symbol of how religious and worldly desires conflict and intertwine in the culture of Dublin.
- When the narrator asks his aunt if he can go to Araby, she says she hopes it’s not “some Freemason affair.” The Freemasons are a centuries-old–semi-secret male social organization that traditionally bolsters members’ business interests while espousing Protestant values. They exclude Catholics, and Catholics have frequently suspected them of actively working to undermine the Church. By alluding to the Freemasons here, Joyce provides another example of how religious concerns are woven into every aspect of Irish life. The aunt’s first thought when she hears about Araby is the concern that it might be an event put on by an enemy of her religion.
Allusions to External Cultural Influences: Joyce’s “Araby”...
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also uses allusion to show the influences on Ireland of outside cultures. These take two polar-opposite forms. On one hand, the governing control of England over Ireland, which would remain in effect until Irish independence in 1922, is Dublin’s defining political issue at the time of the story. On the other, fantasies of exotic foreign lands serve as an antidote to the tedium of daily life— including the ever-present sense of repression and humiliation brought on by English rule.
- The key allusion of this kind is the Araby bazaar itself. The bazaar’s name is intended to capitalize on the commonly held, fanciful vision of the East as a place of exoticism, mystery, and romance. Describing his anticipation of the event, the narrator says “The syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me.” This is, to say the least, precisely the effect the event organizers would have been hoping for.
- When the narrator enters the event hall, the first stall he notices is labeled Cafe Chantant, French for “singing cafe.” It’s noteworthy that this place is a middle ground between the fantasy of Araby and the reality of Dublin—the French name is still fanciful and foreign, but it’s closer to home and less cloaked in mystery.
- The stall the narrator approaches is occupied by a young woman and two young men with English accents. Their Englishness is crucial—it marks a crashing end to the narrator’s romantic illusions. The banality of their flirtatious chatter shows him that his own romantic vision of Mangan’s sister is just a fantasy. The cursory way the young woman addresses him (“The tone of her voice was not encouraging; she seemed to have spoken to me out of a sense of duty”) is symbolic of the disinterested, condescending attitude of England toward Ireland.