Araby Themes

The main themes in “Araby” are loss of innocence and religion, public and private.

  • Loss of innocence: The progression of the story is tied to the beginning of the narrator’s movement from childhood to adulthood. In having his dreams of Araby disappointed, the narrator realizes that reality will not always correspond with what he wishes for.
  • Religion, public and private: Joyce draws a distinction between the public tradition of Irish Catholicism and the narrator’s private experiences of ecstasy and reverence, which relate to his experiences of love.

Themes

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Loss of Innocence

One of the major arcs in “Araby” is the narrator’s movement from innocence to experience. As the story begins, the narrator is one of many neighborhood children who play daily; he describes “the career of our play” as they run all over from the starting point of their street. There are, however, hints of the adult world to come in the remnants left behind by the priest who used to live in the narrator’s house—particularly the “central apple-tree,” which in the story’s deeply Catholic context evokes humans’ biblical expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

The beginning of the narrator’s infatuation with Mangan’s sister is a clear point of transition. He creates an image of her rather than realistically interpreting her. He becomes obsessed, afraid that schoolwork or interruptions from others will force him to stop thinking about her. This is despite the fact that Mangan’s sister seems to have no special interest in the narrator, only speaking to him once within the story, and is described several times as “brown.” The reader is reminded that she is a girl like any other, and it is clear that the narrator’s depiction of her is highly subjective.

After the narrator begins to dream of Mangan’s sister, he isolates himself—feels differentiated, even, in the strength of his affections—and seems to stop playing with the other children on his street, instead seeing them from afar while he thinks of her instead. As he waits for his uncle to return home so he can go to Araby, he says,

From the front window I saw companions playing below in the street. Their cries reached me weakened and indistinct and, leaning my forehead against the cool glass, I looked over at the dark house where she lived.

The narrator’s journey to Araby, alone in a “bare carriage” of “a special train for the bazaar,” is itself set up as a sort of quest. Yet it signals the distance between the Araby of the narrator’s imagining—an “Eastern enchantment” that might just make Mangan’s sister return his affections—and the reality of his day. His uncle forgets about the bazaar entirely; the bazaar does not have the exotic spirit that the narrator imagined and is instead composed of English shopkeepers; the half-dark space of the hall late at night even recalls the too-familiar space of a church. Though a few afterimages of the narrator’s imagined outcome flicker (“two men . . . counting money on a salver” and “the great jars that stood like eastern guards at either side of the dark entrance to the stall”), the story’s end is characterized by the disappearance of light at the top of the hall and the narrator’s accompanying disenchantment. By the last sentence, the narrator feels “anguish and anger” at his “vanity” and his realization that what he had imagined is so far from the prosaic truth.

Religion, Public and Private

From the beginning of “Araby,” Joyce clearly marks the Catholic Church’s overarching public presence in the daily life of the narrator’s Dublin. The narrator explains that his street is near “the Christian Brothers’ School” and that his house had once been inhabited by a priest who “died in the back drawing-room.” The priest’s papers and books are still “littered” about a back room, and the very air, “musty from having been long enclosed,” seems infused with the priest’s presence as it “hung in all the rooms.” Throughout, the narrator’s scant descriptions of religious institutions are suffused with much the same mustiness. Religion is the air the characters of “Araby” breathe and move through, but it is more...

(This entire section contains 950 words.)

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associated with tradition and mundanity than with ecstasy.

It isn’t clear exactly how devout a Catholic the narrator may be, but it is apparent that he is attuned to spiritual experience in a more private sense. He describes the mystical experience of playing with his friends after winter dusk: “The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.” As he realizes his romantic feelings for Mangan’s sister, the narrator comes to revere her as one might a religious icon, and he uses extensive Catholic imagery in describing his care for her. He holds these feelings like a “chalice,” the ceremonial wine cup used for the Eucharist; he repeats her name as in “strange prayers and praises.” One evening, he goes into the room where the priest had died as one might go to a church, and he is overcome in prayer:

I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled, murmuring: “O love! O love!” many times.

When Mangan’s sister finally speaks to the narrator, they stand on opposite sides of “the railings” on Mangan’s steps, which are reminiscent of the altar rails at which Catholic churchgoers receive Communion. In this context, her bearing (“bowing her head towards me”) and the narrator’s light-saturated description are reminiscent of artistic depictions of the Virgin Mary.

The narrator’s clearly religious associations with Mangan’s sister seem derived from the dominance of the Catholic Church within his Irish upbringing. Because the Church of the time discourages and represses romantic and sexual feelings, particularly outside of marriage, the narrator is left with only religious language to describe such extremity of feeling. In fact, religious language is only used in the story as a point of comparison, as the narrator attempts to render his feelings about Mangan’s sister—never in description of ordained religious experience. Joyce may be making the point that love is more sacred than belief ritualized and made mundane by the Church.

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