Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1553
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, devotion, and her effect on him is intense: “her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.”
All connections the boy makes to the sister have religious associations. In the noisy and vibrating marketplace, the narrator imagines he carries a “chalice” (the holy cup used during Catholic mass) of love, and her name calls to mind “prayers and praises.” His is a “confused adoration” because he has replaced religious love (taught at home and in school) with the earthly love for the young girl. (“Adoration” is a word usually used to describe a love of Christ; clearly, he is confused!) Mangan’s sister is the boy’s secular angel; thoughts of her lift him out of his bleak and uninspiring existence to an other-worldly consciousness. Like an angel, she plays the “harp” of his body with her “words and gestures” (another religious metaphor).
Like all boys in his position, the narrator desires to speak to his beloved. He contemplates this by entering the room where the priest died and praying—not to God, as might be expected— but to (earthly) love itself: “I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled, murmuring: O love! O love! many times.”
His prayers are answered in the very next line: “At last she spoke to me.” When they speak, they discuss the Oriental fair, Araby, which the girl cannot attend because her school’s religious retreat prevents her.
When the narrator promises to bring Mangan’s sister a present, he is instantly overwhelmed by the importance of this task, since he hopes a gift will validate his love for her. The quest for the gift is also important symbolically. Araby is a festival with a vaguely Oriental-Middle Eastern ambience. As any Christian at Joyce’s time would know, believers in the Middle Ages sometimes made pilgrimages to the holy land, usually bringing back a token or relic as a symbol of religious devotion. Joyce creates a parallel here between the narrator and the early Christian pilgrims—both seeking to bring back a relic to symbolize their devotion, the latter a love for Christ, the former a love for the girl. This replacement of the girl for God clarifies for the reader that the boy has abandoned Christianity in hopes of substituting it with earthly love.
As the day of the fete draws nearer and the commitment becomes more real, however, the reader notices a foreshadowing of negative events. The boy, worried that his uncle will forget, cannot wait to see the sister at the parlour window. Though this might seem trivial, he interprets it pessimistically: “The air was pitilessly raw and already my heart misgave me.”
By evening, when the uncle tarries before coming home, the aunt suggests he forget about the fair, “for this night of Our Lord.” Although it is Saturday, the evening of the Sabbath, the boy will certainly not substitute religious piety for this extremely important journey to Araby. His boring religious schooling, an uncle who returns home late (and drunk), and his aunt’s irritating and pious visitor all highlight the lack of importance religion plays in this boy’s life.
The train to Araby is deserted, and the gloomy ride foreshadows the negative aspect of the boy’s mission. Once there, the narrator sees that the fair is dark and empty, with an atmosphere “like that of a church after a service.” Like the dead priest, the empty church further symbolizes the emptiness of religion in the boy’s life. The analogy to an empty church after mass is underscored by the counting of coins, which also takes place after a mass, except that this hall represents an ordinary commercial event, not the site of spiritual fulfillment. Therefore, the narrator has “difficulty remembering why [he] had come.”
After examining the insignificant little gifts at the counter, the boy notices the English accents of two men and a woman flirting and speaking shallowly about the woman’s “fib.” This word, a euphemism for “lying,” emphasizes the lie the boy suddenly understands he is living. He experiences an epiphany when he realizes that no gift will allow him to substitute the love of a common girl for the lost love of a God in which he no longer believes. Although he lingers, “to make [his] interest in her wares seem more real,” he recognizes that his pilgrimage to Araby for love and fulfillment is “useless,” that he has—in fact—been deceiving himself.
When he hears a voice calling that the “light was out,” the boy is indeed in the dark about the meaning of spirituality, having failed to find it both in heaven and on earth. This recognition of his own vain and pretentious notions allows him to see himself as he really is: deluded, with little hope of saving himself. Though the epiphany is a painful and lasting one (remember that the narrator still recalls it as an adult), the boy has learned something about his own nature and the danger of attempting to fool oneself with false hopes. His “anguish and anger” are directed toward himself.
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