Dubliners by James Joyce
Essays

The Constant Vanity in Araby

James Joyce’s “Araby” follows a nameless narrator as he pursues a girl for the first time, seeking to win her affections by bringing her a gift from the titular bazaar. The short story can be interpreted in many different ways depending on the different facets the narrator is being viewed through. Despite the different commentaries that stem from the multi-dimensional characterization of the narrator, there is nonetheless an overarching, central thesis, surrounding man’s vanity and his desire for an ideal.

As “Araby” is told in the first person through the main character, the characterization of the narrator is fundamental because the audience is experiencing the events through and around him. The narrator, an un-named boy, is not a static character—as he evolves, so too do the concepts that surround him, becoming increasingly multifarious. Generally, the text can be seen through the two most obvious and prominent interpretations related to religion and knightly literature: if the narrator is Christian, the story is about experiencing the divine; if the narrator is a knight, the story is about a quest for love. Ultimately, “Araby” is about both these ideas and more. By creating two complementary versions of the same journey, Joyce stresses the constant, stripping away the story to its most pure form. Multi-dimensional characterization fundamentally serves to emphasize one shared moment of epiphany: that mankind is “driven and derided by vanity,” constantly wishing for an idealized self and world. In the end, the narrator is just a boy, imagining himself and his surroundings to be great, desiring an idyllic scene that cannot be found in reality.

There is strong evidence that “Araby” is to some extent autobiographical.[1] Joyce and the narrator share the same address, school, with the narrator’s aunt and uncle also being reminiscent of Joyce’s parents. Indeed, Araby was a real bazaar in Dublin. This all suggests that “Araby” is rooted in fact, and that it can be taken literally. This supports the idea that at its heart, “Araby” is about a boy. The story is about how Joyce felt as a child—the commentaries on society and literature are merely tools to demonstrate the self-importance that he felt. Despite any limitations a first-person narrative might have, it nonetheless allows the characters to assert some control and tell their perspective, giving valuable insight on the character.[2]

Some note should be given to the importance of Mangan and his sister, whose namesake was one of Joyce’s favorite Romantic poets.[3] Stone explores how Mangan’s sister is thus an embodiment of the poet’s ideas. It is interesting that she is denied a name. She exists only in relation to Mangan, that is, she represents the poet Mangan’s Romanticism. The narrator is also never named. This lack of concrete identity suggests that he is symbolic of something larger. The feelings and experience the narrator goes through are universal. The narrator functions as an everyman.

The opening paragraphs of “Araby” introduce the setting and context, establishing the narrator’s environment as monotonous. The first paragraph describes the boy’s home, which can be seen as a synecdoche of Dublin and the world at large. It introduces the recurring ideas of blindness which represent ignorance to the true state of the world. The boy’s home and street are personified, “North Richmond Street, being blind” although the houses “gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces” The use of contradiction emphasizes the neighborhood’s insulation and monotony. The street itself is blind, but within the street, the houses are constantly staring at each other, unchanging. North Richmond Street can be seen as self-contained and self-absorbed, ignorant and uncurious of the outside world. This is reflected in the narrator: he is infatuated with himself, believing that his sphere is the most important, while remaining ignorant of the true world. This blindness becomes symbolic of an inability to see the reality of the world.

The only people immune from this monotony are the children, who “played till our bodies glowed”, emanating their own source of light and knowledge. Blindness is intricately linked with the recurring motifs of darkness and light in the story. The light represents some ideal, some truth.  Yet adulthood is inevitable. The children play in “the dark muddy lanes behind the houses”, always near the dullness of reality. The boy seeks the light, which manifests itself as Mangan’s sister. Here is something mysterious, unknown, sensual. The narrator is on the cusp of adulthood.  His feelings are a mix of sexual desire and yearning for some abstract beauty.

A religious context is also introduced, where faith has become stale and oppressive. It “was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free.” The hyperbolic, “set the boys free”, likens the children to slaves, suppressing the children’s natural energy. If the narrator is seen first and foremost as a Protestant, “Araby” can be seen as the pilgrimage of a boy trying to be closer to God. The religious subtext of “Araby” is further evidenced by “the former tenant of our house, a priest,” indicating the setting has a religious past. More importantly, the priest has died, suggesting the decline of religion. This is reiterated by the various objects with religious connotations in the house that have fallen into disuse. The entire atmosphere is stale and insulated, “air, musty from having been long enclosed.” The religious books “were curled and damp”. An insight is given into the narrator’s mind when he remarks that he likes a book “because its leaves were yellow.” This suggests that the boy is somewhat interested in religion, but only on an artificial level. An analogy can be drawn with Mangan’s sister, who the narrator does not really know, but is infatuated with superficially.

The important idea to note is that the narrator subconscious notices the lack of spirituality around him. It is never explicitly stated that the priest was a beacon of light; Stone points out that “the priest’s charity may have been as double-edged as other details in the opening paragraphs.” Nonetheless, this is irrelevant. What is relevant is how the narrator perceives the priest. The characterization of the narrator makes him seem nostalgic for better times past, appreciative of the aged pages of old books. The boy is aware of his spiritual dearth, and wishes to fill it, in the form of Mangan’s sister. In this interpretation, she can be seen as reflective of the Virgin Mary. Vivid religious imagery is used to describe her, with a recurring motif of light. “She was waiting for us, her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door.” The light creates a distinctive holy aura, almost like a halo: the light “caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair.” The narrator pictures Mangan’s sister as beckoning him towards “the half-opened door”, symbolic of salvation, the source of the great light. That the door, the source of light, is only half-opened, suggests that the narrator is still partially blinded. The narrator views Mangan’s sister as virginal and pure, perhaps because of his own inexperience. Yet there is also a distinctively sexual element. Joyce repeatedly uses a “shifting aureole of religious adoration, sexual beckoning, and blurred version”[4] to show the narrator’s delusional grandeurs and confusion.

The narrator becomes increasingly obsessed with getting closer to his crush, under the pretense of some greater purpose and with a sense of religious ritual. “Every morning I lay on the floor in the front parlor watching her door.” Special distinction is given to an evening where the narrator goes into “the back drawing-room in which the priest had died.” It is fitting that the drawing-room, where the decline of religion started, is where the boy should continue his misconceived notions of divinity. The self-absorption of the narrator is obvious, “there was no sound in the house.” The narrator is aware that he is embarking on a journey of sorts. “Some distant lamp or lighted window gleamed below me.” Given the previous motif of blindness, this faint light indicates the boy now has some excitement in his life, some source of knowledge. Yet this excitement is a conscious product: “I was thankful that I could see so little.” The narrator knows that if all was illuminated, he would see that his feelings for the girl was just a crush. Yet his vanity prevents him from doing so—his feelings must be special, must be divine! The narrator is in effect lying to himself to extend the illusion, “all my senses seemed to desire to veil themselves.” The narrator is notably praying, “pressed the palms of my hands together” His obsession is finally evident in the first instance of direct speech in “Araby”: “’O love! O love!” The exclamations are reminiscent of apostrophes. However, unlike romantic literature where apostrophes are followed by beautiful speech to the abstraction, the narrator here only has a superficial idea of love. He is in love with the idea of love, so he can only repeat the phrase over and over, devoid of any meaning.

This religious reaffirmation directly precedes Mangan’s sister enquiring about Araby. At this point, the narrator has so connected love with religion that he is desperate to go on a pilgrimage for her. It is at this scene that the characterization of the narrator as a knight becomes obvious. Jerome Mandel notes the shared plot archetypes in “Araby” and traditional medieval romantic literature, that Joyce deliberately “structured with rigorous precision upon a paradigm of medieval romance.”[5] Mandel’s thesis can be altered so that the emphasis of medieval literature is on characterization rather than plot structure. After all, Joyce’s central thesis is more about the narrator’s philosophy than a study of medieval literary tropes. The narrator should be viewed as sharing the basic character development as knights in medieval literature. Mandel does touch upon characterization, noting that the narrator deliberately shares similarities with famous knights, such as Lancelot, Tristan and Parzival.

Mandel notes five stages of plot that mark medieval romance, which Araby adheres to: the enfance, meeting the lady, committing to the quest, facing trials, and completion of the quest.[6] The importance of these plot structural points is how the narrator develops. After all, the epiphany at the end is one of internal self-realization, not of a change in the external world. As discussed previously, “the first three paragraphs of ‘Araby’ define the hero’s enfance,”[7] how his environment has affected him.  In this new literary context, the scene where the narrator repeats “O love! O love!” is noted as staple in medieval literature, and “have long been examined for images from medieval romance.” Again, the superficiality of the narrator’s understanding needs to be understood. By parodying knights’ quests from medieval literature, Joyce emphasizes the difference in what the narrator sees in himself and the reality.

The scene where the narrator and Mangan’s sister are alone at the rails is extremely effective in mixing the religious and knightly imagery. “The multiple religious symbolism of the two ‘alone at the railings’ which suggest both marriage and communion”[8] is combined with the knightly image of him giving her his lance, “she held one of the spikes.” This scene is also interesting for being the only time any real information is given about Mangan’s sister, that she attends a covenant. Mangan’s sister “as a romance heroine must be above the knight in station and she must be taboo.”[9] Mangan’s sister is not real in this regard. She has been put on a pedestal, so that she is not really a tangible person. Interestingly, Mangan’s sister is initially denied direct speech, indicating that her importance does not lie in her character. The only instance of direct speech she is given, “It’s well for you,” also has medieval roots. In medieval literature, the line would mean that Mangan’s sister is in love with the narrator.[10] Of course, there has been no evidence to suggest this in the story. Merely, the narrator’s ego means he has reinterpreted himself and her so that she returns his feelings.

The next step of medieval romantic structure would have the knights embarking on a great journey, facing many trials and tribulations.[11] Again, the boy’s journey is a pale mockery of a traditional knight’s. Through hardship, knights would prove their courage and commitment. The boy, on the other hand, faces only the most minute of irritations: schoolwork, a late uncle, Mrs. Mercer. The narrator seeks to mirror these trivialities with those of an epic to give weight to himself. Of course, the only relic worthy of the narrator is the Holy Grail. This was foreshadowed previously by the mention of a “chalice” that the narrator imagines himself to hold. Mandel notes the distinction Grail quests had from other knight quests: that Grail quests produced widespread failure.[12] Mandel aptly sums that the Grail quest “shows the knights their own limitations and lack of purity, leads to general disaffection, and destroys a brilliant civilization.” All these things happen to the narrator. The boy realizes he has failed, and experiences great anguish. This marks a change in the boy forever, as he is no longer the carefree boy who glows; the brilliant civilization of childhood innocence is gone.

Depending on the interpretation, Araby can respectively be seen as a church or the location of the Grail. The important idea to note is that despite these differing interpretations, the central thesis remains static: that Araby is actually just an ugly marketplace, and that the narrator has simply elevated it to a higher status due to his vanity. The first thing the narrator notices is the absence of light. “The greater part of the hall was in darkness.” Araby is such a huge disappointment to the narrator that he loses purpose, “remember with difficulty why I had come.” Furthermore, the narrator is unable to afford anything—his quest to bring back the grail is a failure. Once the narrator is faced with these disappointments, all his other grandeurs fall apart too. He is no longer in love with Mangan’s sister. The female seller at Araby does not heed him any attention, instead flirting with other men. The narrator’s ego has been shattered; he is not the dashing knight he thought he was. The use of anaphora in the flirting creates great tedium and monotony, indicating that the narrator begins to see that he has also idealized love.

The narrator had envisioned Araby to be the final destination in his religious and knightly quest. Yet he finds it dominated by capitalism, with “men counting money on a salver.” A biblical allegory can be drawn here, with the men representing the moneylenders in the temple. The narrator realizes that there is no area of perfect sanctity; even Araby is corrupt.

The complexity of “Araby” means there are several other possible interpretations of the narrator. The boy can be seen as a Dubliner seeking for his national identity;[13] an anti-consumerist against capitalism;[14] an adolescent coming-of-age (which has been explored briefly previously).[15] But these ideas are secondary. At the end of the story, the boy’s epiphany does not center around Ireland’s independence, a free market or puberty. No, the epiphany ultimately reveals to the narrator his true nature. His journey may have been ersatz, his feelings temporary, but in that single moment of release, the boy truly sees himself for what he really is: a wretched “creature driven and derided by vanity”, as polar as possible from the romantic figures he had envisioned himself to be. “Araby” is centered on the idea of human vanity; all other concepts are secondary.

 

 

Works Cited

Benstock, Bernard. “Narrative Strategies: Tellers in the “Dubliners” Tales .” Journal of Modern Literature Spring 1989: 541-559. JSTOR. Web. 18 Nov. 2011.

Mandel, Jerome. “The Structure of “Araby” .” Modern Language Studies Fall 1985: 48-54. JSTOR. Web. 19 Nov. 2011.

Morse, Donald E.. “”Sing Three Songs of Araby”: Theme and Allusion in Joyce’s “Araby” .” College Literature Spring 1978: 125-132. JSTOR. Web. 18 Nov. 2011.

Stone, Harry. “”Araby” and the Writings of James Joyce .” The Antioch Review  Fall 1965: 375-400. JSTOR. Web. 17 Nov. 2011.

 

 


[1] Harry Stone, “Araby” and the Writings of James Joyce. (1965), 376.

[2] Bernard Benstock, Narrative Strategies: Tellers in the “Dubliners” Tale. (1989), 546.

[3] Stone, “”Araby” and the Writings of James Joyce,” 378.

[4] Stone, “”Araby” and the Writings of James Joyce,” 383.

[5] Jerome Mandel, The Structure of “Araby”. (1985), 48.

[6] Mandel, “The Structure of “Araby”,” 48.

[7] Ibid., 49.

[8] Ibid., 51.

[9] Ibid., 49.

[10] Mandel, “The Structure of “Araby”,” 51.

[11] Ibid., 52.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Stone, “”Araby” and the Writings of James Joyce,” 380.

[14] Ibid., 395.

[15] Donald E. Morse, Sing Three Songs of Araby: Theme and Allusion in Joyce’s Araby. (1978), 131.

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