Theme of Epiphany: Joyce said that one of his literary aims was to portray what he called (borrowing from religious language) epiphanies: moments of revelation, often brought on by commonplace occurrences, that transform an individual, giving a deeper, truer understanding of life. A popular critical approach to Dubliners is to see it as a collection of epiphanies, and “Araby” lends itself to that line of interpretation particularly well. The narrator’s experience at the bazaar leaves him a different person than he was before.
- For discussion: How exactly has the narrator been transformed by his experience? In the final sentence of the story he says, “I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” Is that reaction what students expected? Is this really an epiphany, and if so, in what way has the narrator gained a truer understanding of life?
- For discussion: Why did Joyce place so much importance on epiphanies? Are they really a common feature of life? Do all people have them?
Theme of First Love: “Araby” is, at its most fundamental level, the story of a boy on the cusp of adolescence experiencing his first romantic feelings. Plainly put, he has a crush on the girl who lives across the street. The theme is one of the most familiar in literature, but the details of the story firmly anchor it to a specific time and place.
- For discussion: Joyce is famous for saying, “In the particular is contained the universal.” How well does that statement apply to this story? Which aspects of it are universal and which aren’t? Do all first crushes end in some sort of disillusionment? Why or why not?
Theme of the End of Childhood: Joyce structured Dubliners so that the stories when read together take readers through the stages of life, from childhood to adolescence to maturity. “Araby” is the last of the childhood stories, and its conclusion marks one of life’s most monumental milestones: the end of childhood, and with it the end of innocence. That’s a lot of significance to place on one disappointing event, but Joyce makes it clear that what may seem like a trivial experience to an outsider is monumental to the narrator.
- For discussion: How will the narrator’s experience at Araby affect the way he feels about Mangan’s sister? How is he likely to behave toward her the next time he sees her?
Theme of Religious Hypocrisy: At the time Joyce was writing Dubliners, the Catholic Church was deeply ingrained into most facets of Irish life. Born a Catholic himself, Joyce eventually claimed to “make open war upon [the church] by what I write and say and do.” He detested the degree of control the church had over individuals and their choices, and he depicted the hypocrisy he saw there in many of his works. In “Araby,” explicit depictions are subtle—the “charity” of the dead priest, the uncle’s drunkenness on “this night of Our Lord”—but themes showing the detachment of religion’s aspirations from Dublin’s lived reality are pervasive.
- For discussion: Consider the description of the former tenant’s life of the narrator’s house, the priest. He is described as charitable, but to what extent does the class agree that these actions represent true charity?
- For discussion: Facilitate a classroom discussion on hypocrisy. To what extent do students agree with such positions as “Do as I say, not as I do”? Does being hypocritical alter or harm the message of the hypocrite?
Theme of the Repressive Forces of Society: Throughout the story there are indications of how the lives...
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of the characters are controlled by the forces of society. The children at play in the first scene try to hide when they’re called to dinner, but inevitably they must bow to adult demands and go in. Mangan’s sister wants to attend the Araby bazaar, but she has to go to a religious retreat instead. At school, the narrator grows frustrated by the demands of his studies, which seem trivial compared to his passionate desire to please his love. The boy has permission to go to Araby, but his plans go awry when he has to wait for his uncle, the head of the household, to return home and give him money.
- For discussion: Based on the story, what do Joyce’s views appear to be about the impact social forces have on his characters?
- For discussion: In the story, social forces are often shown to be in conflict with individual desires. Is one better than the other? Are there instances where a character is better off for having to conform to the demands of society, or worse off for not doing so?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
Cryptic References to Irish Culture of the Time: The story is filled with passing references to aspects of daily life in Dublin that will be unfamiliar to most students. Why do the families in the story have tea at a time when you’d expect them to be having dinner? What are “the troubles in our native land”? Why does Mangan’s sister go to a convent? Why does the narrator’s aunt dislike the Freemasons? Those are just a few of the questions the story raises. There’s a lot to unpack here.
- What to do: It helps to work with an annotated text that clarifies some of more obscure references. Annotation, though, isn’t likely to be enough to make students feel at home in Joyce’s world. You can have them research Irish culture of the time before they read the story, or assign them to figure out the answers to their questions after they’ve read. You can also simply explain the references in class. (Refer to the “Significant Allusions” section of this guide.)
Employment of Sexual Imagery: While the epiphany of “Araby” can be framed in the context of the clash between romanticism and commercialism, it is also the case that Joyce semi-explicitly describes his narrator’s “awakening” as a sexual one. While the narrator himself does not understand where his feelings are coming from and conflates them with feelings of religious devotion, readers may notice his conflation and be confused, either by the force of the narrator’s religion or by the story’s unconventional framing of this aspect of young love.
- What to do: Acknowledge the innuendo directly if your class is capable of sustaining a discussion on puberty and sexuality. Focus on how the narrator’s physical desire for Mangan’s sister is complicated by his religious education and the ways he expresses this desire. What does this have to say about his education? About his transitioning from childhood to adulthood?
The Topic of First Love May Hit Too Close to Home: The narrator of the story is likely to be a few years younger than your students, but the symptoms of his infatuation with Mangan’s sister—his dizzying sense of longing, his stifling shyness—are likely to strike a familiar chord with some of them. The result could be embarrassment or childish behavior.
- What to do: Classroom management strategies need to be tailored to the individuals involved, but in general it’s a good idea to keep conversations from becoming too personal. Asking, “Does this sound realistic to you?” may elicit a better response than, “Have you felt the same way the narrator feels?”
Alternative Approaches to Teaching "Araby"
While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving “Araby,” the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the story.
- Focus on the significance of the narrator’s house. For such a short story, “Araby” spends a lot of time describing the house where the narrator lives, and the time he spends in it by himself. The second paragraph of the story is devoted to the back drawing room and the house’s former tenant, a priest, who died there. One rainy evening the narrator has a near-ecstatic experience in this room as he contemplates his love for Mangan’s sister. Before school he spies on her from the front parlor. On the night of the Araby bazaar, as he’s waiting for his uncle, he retreats upstairs and goes singing from room to room. Joyce clearly thinks the house is an important, possibly symbolic place for his protagonist. See what theories students can come up with as to why this is so.
- Focus on the visual nature of the story. Throughout Dubliners Joyce pays great attention to visual details, as though he’s trying to draw portraits and cityscapes with his words. In “Araby” descriptions of children playing in the streets at dusk, of crowds at the market, and, especially, of Mangan’s sister bathed in light, are like pictures hanging in a gallery. To emphasize the importance of the visual details, have students draw actual pictures based on the story’s descriptions. If this idea takes hold, have them make a comic strip of the story.
- Focus on the perspective of Mangan’s sister. Readers know all about how the narrator of “Araby” sees the world, but what about the object of his affection, Mangan’s sister? Can students draw any conclusions about her based on the few details they know? This is a richer area of focus if your class is reading other stories in Dubliners. What do the lives of the female characters in later stories indicate about the potential paths that Mangan’s sister’s life might take?