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A Modern Tale of James Joyce’s “Araby” Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 17th, 2021

“Probably no other twentieth-century short story has called forth more attention than James Joyce’s “Araby”. Some universality of experience makes the story interesting to readers of all ages, for they respond instinctively to an experience that could have been their own.” (The Literary Link).

It is instinctive in man’s nature to long for what he senses as the world’s lost spirituality. Through all the ages, man has believed that it is possible to seek and find a talisman that, if retrieved, will bring back this lost spirituality. In Araby, the development of theme resembles the archetypal myth of the quest for a holy talisman such as Sir Galahad’s quest for the Holy Grail, such as James Joyce’s looking for the lost light of the world through the experience of his youthful protagonist in his short story Araby.

“James Joyce (1882 – 1941) was a writer and poet born and educated in Dublin, Ireland. Through Joyce spend his adult years in self-imposed exile in Europe, most of his work was based on life in Dublin. His education in theology and medicine and in the classical tradition under Jesuit direction made him exceptionally competent in languages.

Joyce left Ireland in 1902 after his graduation from University College. He lived in Trieste until 1915, then in Zurich until 1920. The last third of his life was spent chiefly in Paris. The most widely-read of Joyce’s work is A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (Grolier Encyclopedia 1961: 29).

Joyce had a talent for music. His skill in languages when joined with his sensitive musical ear produced some of the memorable literature of the 20th century. He achieved his most notable effects by employing the use of symbols to transmit both single as well as complex ideas. By combining sounds and symbols, he was able to convey simultaneously different layers of both meanings and thought. As a narrative device, he often used the rapid flow of thoughts called “interior dialogue” or “stream of consciousness.”

His prose is clear and straightforward in the cadences that are beautifully developed as in Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. In the latter work, “Joyce combines age-old myths with the cycle of birth, death, and resurrection, thus bringing human existence to focus in the celebration of an Irish wake. Joyce’s poetry was published in Chamber Music; Dubliner is a collection of short stories; while Exiles is a drama. His writing techniques have created a marked influence on later writers.” (Groiler Encyclopedia 1961: 29)

Convinced that the Dublin of the 1900s was a center of spiritual paralysis, James Joyce tied together with his stories in Dubliner by means of their common setting. Each story paints a portrait in which Dublin contributes to the dehumanizing experience of modern life. Araby on a surface level Is the story of a boy’s first love; but on a deeper level, it is the story about the world in which he lives – a world prejudiced, may even hostile to dreams and high ideals.

The deeper level is introduced and developed in a number of scenes; namely a description of the boy’s street, his horse, his relationship with his aunt and uncle, information about the pries and his belongings, his walk through Dublin shopping, and his trip to “Araby.”

Joyce’s short story Araby is filled with symbolic images of a church. It opens and closes with strong symbols; and in the body of the story, the images are shaped by the young protagonist’s impression of the effect that the Church of Ireland has upon the people of Ireland.

The story opens with a description of the Dublin neighborhood where the youth resides. North Richmond Street where his house is situated is “blind”; it is a dead-end and its inhabitants, smug and complacent. It is a cold and silent street where the houses “gazed” at one another with brown imperturbable faces. This is an apt personification to depict a place of fixed, decaying conformity and false piety. The boy’s house contains the same sense of a dead present and a lost past. The brown faces (the pews) lead down to the tall “uninhabited house” (the empty alter).

The boy’s own residence is set in a garden which in its natural state would be an Eden, since in the center grows an apple tree, standing alone amid “a few struggling bushes”. The boy seeks the “light” everywhere in his dark surroundings. He looks for it in the apple tree, a symbol of religious enlightenment, but the tree is overshadowed by the desolation of the garden and has become the tree of spiritual death. At dusk can be seen the boy and his playmates as the street lamps lift their feeble lanterns to the sky of ever-changing violet” (shy supplicants to the far-away heavens). The narrator is the boy himself, the mention of the symbolic images shows that he is not insensitive to the lack of spiritual beauty in his milieu. Anyone who is aware, not spiritually blinded or asleep would feel saddened and threatened by North Richmond Street.

The people who live on that street; namely the boy’s kinfolk, especially his aunt are prejudiced. The aunt’s prejudice is dramatized by her hopes that “Araby”, the bazaar the boy desires to visit is “not some Freemason affair” (Joyce 1986: 48). The boy’s uncle is negligent and indifferent to the boy’s impatience and subsequent anguish. Even old Mrs. Mercer, the neighborhood gossip, talks about the failings of her neighbors while collecting stamps for “some pious purpose”.

The next use of symbolic description is that of the dead priest and his belongings. They suggest remnants of a more vital past. The bicycle pump is rusting away in the backyard. Some books with yellowed pages show that the priest once actively engaged in true service to God and man. The boy enjoys leafing through the pages mainly because they are old. But these remnants become symbols of the intellectual and religious vitality of the past. In the midst of such spiritual decay, he experiences the confusion that arises from the idealism and dreams of first love that is incompatible in contrast to the said world he lives in.

The boy carries his aunt’s parcels while she shops in the marketplace and imagines that he bears, not parcels but a chalice through a throng of foes.” The contrast between harsh reality and his idealistic dreams is ironically delineated and clearly foreshadows the boy’s inability to preserve the dream and to remain blind. Despite his discouraging surroundings, the boy is determined to find some evidence of the beauty his dreams tell him should exist within the Church. His first love becomes the focal point of his determination in the person of Mangan’s sister. This girl is a bit older than the boy but then he is satisfied that he has found an object of worship. He imagines that he can carry her image like a “chalice” through a throng of cursing, brawling unbelievers as he escorts his aunt at the marketplace on Saturday evenings and that he protects her in “Places most hostile to romance.” Everything else fades from his consciousness. He is aware only of his adoration of the blessed “image”.

Every morning before school, the boy lies on the floor of the front parlor peering through a crack, watching, waiting for the object of his worship to emerge from her place and walk to school. Being shy, he walks past her silently and not daring to speak. He dares not speak to her for to him, she is both a saint to be worshipped and a woman to be desired. He no longer joins in his schoolmates’ games. Instead, he experiences fantasies in his isolation – the pain and ecstasy of first love.

He spends his days feeling a strong physical attraction as well as a strong pull to the holiness missing in his life and in the lives of the people around him. Then finally, the girl speaks to the boy. Her words are of ordinary concern; she asks him if he is going to “Araby”, a bazaar in another part of the city. The girl cannot go there because of a retreat her convent is having that week. This request has an impact on the boy. He feels a summons – a call that has symbolic overtones of a holy crusade and he answers that he means to go and promises her impulsively that if he does go, he will bring her something. He is now determined to go forth to the enchanted place and bring back a gift worthy to lay at the feet of his adored one.

The relatives of the boy with whom he lives are insensitive to his dire need to fulfill his crusade. They do provide the money (a florin) to allow him to go to “Araby”. It is late and alone he makes his way in the darkness to the bazaar which is closing. But when he arrives there, he is struck by a “silence like that of a church.” Then he finds himself in a booth displaying porcelain vases and flowered tea-sets The jars guarding the stall can be interpreted as symbols of mysticism standing guard over the church.

For the boy, the girl attending the stall like Mangan’s sister becomes an object of faith in a world of darkness. But not for long. When she speaks, her words are trivial and worldly. In a sudden flash of insight, the boy realizes that his faith and his passion have been blind all along. He sees in “the two men counting money” a symbol of the money lenders in the temple of Christ’s time. This is his moment of disillusionment for he feels himself at fault for being so blinded by his ideals that he failed to see the world as it is. His disillusionment results in “anguish and anger”. When he realizes that love existed only in his mind love is represented as an empty passing emotion. Araby, the symbolic temple of love for whom the bazaar is manned has been profaned

Before the boy goes home, he allows the pennies to fall from his pocket, the lights in the hall go out and his “Church” is in total darkness. The “contrasting world of light and darkness” contains the lost spirituality and the dream of restoring it. By this time it is clear that the boy failed in his attempt to bring home a gift for Mangan’s sister “Gazing up into the darkness, I saw myself as a creative-driven and decided by vanity” (Tomeldan 1986: 51).

Although the boy castigates himself by thinking he was stupid to romanticize life, the story itself does not convey the idea. The reader is bound to realize that the boy is expressing his confusion and disenchantment of puppy love. “The vision had been his alternative to the real world, had indeed become at one point so realistic as to apparently fuse with reality for him. But that vision… proved too fragile for a world of real older girls, money, drunken and indifferent uncles, and the necessary crassness of day-to-day existence…Anguish, however intense, is a perfectly appropriate action.” (Brugaletta & Hayden, 1979: 17) Later, his comment will extend to more mature experiences.

Perhaps one of the best features of this story is the delicately subtle way in which James Joyce conveys the sense of disenchantment. Powerful but confusing thoughts and feelings are experienced by the boy during his visit to Araby. The nature and significance of the visit he will completely understand when he is already an adult recalling the experience.

The boy’s final disappointment takes place as a result of his awakening to the world around him. The tawdry superficiality of the bazaar, which is his mind had been on “Oriental enchantment”, strips away his blindness and leaves him alone with the truth that life and love differ from the dream. It is the hope of the writer that the lost light of the world will be restored. Araby is the poetic word for Arabia which is associated with the Phoenix, a symbol for the renewal of life.

Works Cited

Coulthard, A.R. Joyce’s Araby. Explicator, Winter94, Vol. 52 Issue 2, 1994.

Brugaletta, J. J. and Hayden, M.H. “The Motivation for Anguish in Joyce’s ‘Araby’. Studies in Short Fiction 15 (1979): 11-17.

Grolier Encyclopedia, 1961.

Joyce, J., Araby, taken from Tomelden, Y., et al, Prism, 1986.

The Literary Link, “Sample Essays Analyzing James Joyce’s Short Story ““. Web.

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