Araby by James Joyce: Summary and Analysis

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at 2016.10.28
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Araby is one of the fifteen short stories that feature in Dubliners, an autobiographical collection of Joyce, seeking to portray the life of the Irish commoners of his time in crude, utterly realistic details.

Background and Setting

Written in 1905, Araby is reminiscent of much of the details of Joyce’s adolescent years while growing up in the late 19th century Dublin. The story contains Joyce’s observation of Dublin as a bleak and dismal city (chiefly poignant in descriptions as a “silent street” or “dark muddy lanes”). In fact, it glaringly points out the truth that though Dublin boasted of being an urban locale, yet it was mostly unsophisticated. Other autobiographical features are:

  1. The same place of residence (as Joyce also lived on North Richmond Street, in Dublin like his protagonist)
  2. Similar self-awakening
  3. Location of the climactic scene being a bazaar called “Araby; a Grand Oriental Fete (in actuality such a bazaar was organized in Dublin in 1984 from May 14 to May 19).

A Summary of the Plot

A boy of about twelve years comes to live with his aunt and uncle at a place called North Richmond Street in Dublin, Ireland. Incidentally, he comes across “some paper covered books” that had belonged to the house’s former tenant, a priest. In winter, the boy plays with his friends in the street, and it is the sister of one such friend (referred to as Mangan’s sister throughout), who captures his naïve heart and soul.

This attraction grows on him such that it begins to mold his day to day actions; he unfailingly waits for her every day before school and ritualistically follows her, unseen till their paths separate. In his so-long arid heart, this first blooming of passion assumes an overwhelming form; he begins to regard it as something sacred and lofty ( a chalice, prayer), chiefly when he finds himself being disposed to a wholly unromantic, “hostile” situations (the flaring streets).

Finally, when she asks him if he is going to a bazaar called Araby on Saturday evening, he is so dazed by her gesture that words fail him. Nonetheless, he assures her of bringing a gift if he visits the place. For the next few days, visiting the bazaar becomes his life’s ultimate mission with the “syllables” of the word Araby representing a mysterious spell of the exotic East.

On Saturday morning, he is disappointed when despite repeated reminders, his uncle returns late at 9 o’clock. Ultimately taking a florin, he mounts an empty third-class compartment to take her to his cherished place. Upon arrival, he is dismayed when he encounters that most of the shops have closed. However, one stall, “Café Chantant” is still open and as he goes over to glance at a certain display, a young lady inquires rather disinterestedly if he wants to buy anything. Soon after the lights go out, leaving the upper hall completely dark. As he is a passive spectator to the dissolution of his hopes by unrelenting “vanity,” he cannot help feeling angry.

Definition of the Word “Araby”

Firstly, Araby is the name of the bazaar ( “Araby: a Grand Oriental Fête”) that in reality used to be held in Dublin. Secondly, to the protagonist, it stands for the mysterious Middle East, an all-pervading charm that seems to aid him in the realization of his unspoken passion.

Themes

  • Epiphany: Epiphanies according to Joyce, relate to personal moments of trivial or profound revelations that enable the characters to gain a better understanding of their hostile situations and thereby adopt reconciliation with it. The adjustment inevitably leads the character to feel bitter and defeated. In Araby, all that the boy presumes of achieving in the “bazaar” fade into nothingness when he encounters “flowered” teacups, English accents and deliberate disregard. Consequently, he is left feeling wretched, being able to grasp the disparity between illusion and reality.
  • The mundane reality of Dublin society: In Araby, right from the passing mention of the boy and his friend’s hiding “in the shadow” till his uncle is seen “safely housed,” to his accompanying his aunt for shopping on “Saturday evenings,” (when he would invariably be “jostled” by “drunken men and bargaining women”), his uncle’s late arrival – all unmistakably voice the repetitiveness and boredom of life in Dublin.
  • The sparkle of youthful passion: Despite a gray undertone, Araby successfully depicts the spontaneous overflow of emotions of an immature heart. The lines, “my heart leapt,” or the more explicit, “her name was like a summon to all my foolish blood,” evoke a picture of an untainted passion that is common to most teenagers. And simultaneously, it embodies an unintended escape – a breaking free from everyday life to a land of the unknown.
  • Mental conflict: The boy in the story faces a conflicting situation when goaded by passion, he is led to observe the limited display at the bazaar and the uninviting ambiance tends to create repulsion towards the same. Initially, when he exclaims, “All my senses – many times,” he seems to struggle against having sensual feelings towards Mangan’s sister mentally.

Character Analysis

The boy: The narrator in Araby embodies all those young boy’s who get smitten by the bug of intense love at a crucial phase of growing up. The boy falls in love madly, yearns to reach adulthood (disregarding his school work as “child’s play”) and finally stumbles upon the crude reality of life.

Mangan’s sister: Joyce presents this character in two ways. On the one hand, she stands for the enchanted images of the East while on the other hand; she is also a “brown figure” reflecting the brown buildings where both live.

Some of the partial characters who help in reaffirming the depressing reality of life are the boy’s uncle, the schoolmaster, the stall attendant and the two Englishmen.

Mood of the Story

As long as the narrator’s description concerns Mangan’s sister, the mood is hopeful but as his journey becomes futile, it becomes pessimistic and dark.

Diction

The use of words such as “anguish,” “blind,””quiet,” “vanity” help to establish the mood of the story. In fact, throughout the story, Joyce adheres to this diction to arrive at the disappointing conclusion of the story.

Symbols

Dusk and Darkness: The author mentions “dusk” and “darkness” at various points of the story such as, “dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners,” or the fact that soon after the boy reaches the bazaar, the building is enveloped in total darkness. Thus dusk and darkness symbolize the half-life and the failed expectations of the protagonist.

Chalice: Chalice is the cup that Christ drank from at the last supper. Here it symbolizes the boy’s passion, protected from the oppressing clutches of society.

Blind Street: Perhaps this stands for the fact that the dreams of the boys would ultimately have no fruitful end.

Brown: The color symbolizes dullness associated with life in Dublin.

Imagery

Garden of the Priest: Evokes the picture of the Garden of Eden and is a crucial inclusion since, like Adam, the boy’s failure too indicates his loss of innocence.

The other houses on the street…gazed at one other with brown imperturbable faces: Brings to mind the sorry picture of modern survival that is isolated and grim.

Araby as a Modern Short Story

The characteristic features of Modernism that are found in the story are:

  • Subject matter based on mundane life: Neither does Araby deal with the celebration of boy’s epiphany nor does his unfurling of emotions occurs amidst beautiful circumstances. Most importantly, the “boy” is unnamed throughout and so remains his lady love.
  • Shifting point of view: The story begins with the boy as a third person omniscient narrator, but as the story reaches its climax, we have a first person narrator who is keenly expressive of his altered mental state. Notice the first line and the last line of the story.
  • The central character as an isolated individual: Araby essentially focuses on the alienation of the main character, the boy who is shown to struggle between the real, familiar, commonplace life and the lofty, beautiful, magical life.
  • An ending that can have multiple interpretations: The protagonist does not gain any satisfying realization regarding his new love; rather the reader is invited to form his estimation of the boy’s “wretchedness” which may be due to his depressing experience at the Bazaar and also perhaps due to his disillusionment concerning Mangan’s sister.

Figures of Speech Used

Biblical allusion

Retreat alludes to a period of seclusion in Roman Catholicism that is done to improve one’s mortal life.

Garden of the priest alludes to the Garden of Eden

Chalice alludes to Christ’s last supper

Irony

The line, “Remembering with difficulty why I had come” points out that all the hopes that the boy had carefully nurtured all along meet a dead end on encountering the drabness of the bazaar.

Personification

Paragraph 1: The “houses” are said to have “brown” faces

Paragraph 6: “Senses” are said to have “desires.”

Simile

Paragraph 5: the narrator’s “body” is compared to a “harp” and his “words” and “gestures” to fingers.

Metaphor

Paragraph 5: The shouts of the shop boys are compared to Christian prayers or litanies.

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