Themes and Meanings
This is a story of the loss of innocence and the frustration of first love. The young boy’s exaggerated expectations about the emotional rewards of his devotion to the little girl are cruelly deflated. He interprets the disappointing circumstances of his journey as a sign of the hollowness of the ideals with which he undertook that quest. He thus connects the frivolous banter among the young people and his own earlier brief conversation with Mangan’s sister and thinks that he has perceived the banal reality behind the romantic image. However, his perceptions in each case are unreliable: His immaturity causes him to overreact in each direction. The story, then, shows that the temptations to both the romantic inflation and to the cynical devaluation of experience are but two sides of the same false coin.
“Araby” is the third of the fifteen stories in Dubliners (1914). These stories examine the hazards of the various stages in life, and “Araby” marks the end of childhood and the beginning of adolescence. This protagonist begins his story as a boy amid his peers, full of childish energy and short-lived attention. The image of Mangan’s sister gradually emerges from these confused impressions, however, gathering itself into a vision of desire, both erotic and religious. The growth of these feelings soon sets the boy apart from his fellows, and becomes even more consuming at the mention of the bazaar. He now connects his attitude toward the transcendent with the popular mystique of the Orient, each with an awakening sexual longing. No sooner are these connections made, however, than they are compromised: The girl cannot be possessed (because of her “retreat”), and in the compromise—the material gift—lie the seeds of the destruction of the dream. The rest of the story dramatizes the painful deflation of that dream: the human limitations of his uncle and aunt and the natural limitations of time and space all conspire to thwart the boy’s search for fulfillment. He is therefore emotionally disposed to interpret the material elements of his adventure (the adult admission fee, the falling coins, the extinguishing lights, the casual talk of fibbing) as the signs of the end of the childish idealization of human values. From such a point of view, this is a story of initiation, marking the rites of passage from the Edenic domain of home to the uncertain terrain of adult life.
Similarly, the story can be viewed as a version of the medieval romance. The hero sets forth from surroundings of blissful innocence in pursuit of a distant ideal. In his solitary adventure through dark places, his spirits are buoyed up by the vision of remote beauty with which he hopes eventually to commune. He encounters and overcomes various obstacles and adversaries on his journey, finally gaining possession of the symbol of the truth that liberates him from ignorance and unites him with the beauty he desires. This literary mode is predominantly melancholic and nostalgic, focusing on the consciousness of the narrator or hero, emphasizing the chivalric virtues, and embracing a sense of Christian mystery. In its broad terms as well as in scores of details, “Araby” may be seen as designed in accordance with this story type, though rendering it in an ironic vein. The promise of spiritual bliss is made but not delivered: The hero’s aspirations are cultivated and then denied. The cacophony of the modern city clashes and breaks the harmony of the mood of nostalgia for a faith in an ideal order of nature and grace. Thus, the story conjoins the personal and archetypal stories in a beautiful blend of realistic detail, tonal control, and symbolic design.