Araby: Summary and Analysis
Narrator: boy, 9–12 years old
Mangan’s sister: sister of narrator’s friend with whom the boy is in love
Narrator’s Aunt and Uncle
“Araby” is a puzzling story upon first reading because very little happens in terms of plot. The narrator, looking back upon his youth (he is approximately 12 years old), recalls a time when he was deeply in love with his neighbor, Mangan’s sister. Although we never learn the narrator’s or the sister’s name, we understand that the boy has a vivid imagination and is desperate to prove his devotion to the object of his affection.
When he hears of an exotic neighborhood fair called Araby, the boy asks the sister if she plans to attend. She tells him she must attend a religious retreat instead, and he promises to bring her something as a memento. After he promises her this, the boy is simultaneously excited and terrified at having made this vow, and what his commitment implies.
On the day of Araby, the boy is extremely anxious and cannot concentrate; he fears that his uncle will forget to give him pocket money, and his fears are justified. When the uncle returns home late in the evening, there is a danger that the boy won’t be allowed to attend, but his aunt intervenes for him, and he takes a late train to the fair site.
Entering Araby, the boy feels unsettled because it is nearly empty and quite dark. Momentarily, he is so confused that he forgets his mission entirely and must re-focus upon his quest. Upon finding a gift counter with presents suitable for Mangan’s sister, the boy loses interest in the knickknacks and declines help from an English shopgirl who offers to serve him. After she looks over at him a few more times (presumably to keep him from stealing), the boy, completely disappointed, walks out, having abandoned his quest and regretting the plans and promise he made.
The narrator of “Araby” is obviously telling us a story of his youth from the perspective of adulthood; the sophistication of his language indicates this. Because the boy in the story is still young enough to depend on his aunt and uncle for money, but old enough to fall in love, it’s safe to judge his age at about 12–13.
North Richmond Street, where the boy lives (and where the Joyce family also lived) is described as being “blind,” or a dead end, but this is only one of the many metaphors and similes which Joyce has worked into his story. The street—like the narrator—is blind to its own limitations, the houses gazing out with “brown imperturbable faces.”
The boy’s environment tells us much about him. He lives in the former home of a dead priest; in other words, where religion once was, it is no longer. The priest’s belongings, especially his books, are further symbols. Scott’s The Abbot is a romantic novel about Mary I, a Catholic queen of Scotland, while The Devout Communicant is, surprisingly, a Protestant book of religious devotion. Finally, The Memoirs of Vidocq (the boy’s favorite) is a lurid, tell-all confessional by a notorious detective and archcriminal. That these books are the boy’s connection to the priest is ironic and revealing.
When the narrator widens the scene to describe his neighborhood, it is “sombre,” with “feeble lanterns,” “dark muddy lanes” and “odorous” stables and ashpits. The environment is gloomy and oppressive; the only source of light—or uplift—is the object of the boy’s love, Mangan’s sister. (Note that none of the story’s key characters is given a name.)
The sister, described in detail twice in the story, is a figure of light: she stands “defined by the light” of her front door, the lamp light falling on her hair, on “the white curve of her neck,” on her hand and petticoat. Like an angel or the Virgin Mary in a vision, the sister appears in an aura of light, complete with a halo. Although the boy behaves toward her as would any adolescent, she is clearly a figure of fervent, almost religious,...
(The entire section is 1,553 words.)