"Araby": A simple tale of youthful passion
by Jerry Price
James Joyce's, "Araby" is a simple tale of youthful passion set in the midst of a harsh economic era. The main character of the story is a young boy living in a bleak environment who becomes entangled in the passions, frustrations, and realizations of youth. The bleak setting of the era is enhanced by the narrator's descriptions of the young boy's surroundings. "Araby" is a story of the loneliness of youth, the joy of youthful passion, and the realization of lost dreams.
In the very beginnings of "Araby" the narrator sets up a feeling of loneliness in the story by describing North Richmond Street as a "quiet street" and gives a description of "an uninhabited house" at the blind end which suggests isolation (252). He goes further to describe the other houses on the street as having "brown imperturbable faces" which implies a calm dreariness. In describing the prior occupant of the house the narrator states, "The former tenant of our house, a priest, had died in the back drawing-room" (252). It is interesting that the narrator describes the former tenant in this way. He could have easily described the former tenant as a very popular priest in the area or just simply as a priest who once had inhabited the house, yet the narrator chose to associate the death of the priest with the house. To further enhance the dreariness of the story, the narrator gives the location of the death as "in the back drawing-room" suggesting a "depth" and "mystique" to the house (252).
The narrator's extreme use of negatively descriptive words and phrases in the opening paragraphs such as "quiet", "uninhabited", "a central apple-tree", "a few straggling bushes", and "dark muddy lanes" give a bleak theme to "Araby's" initial opening. These words and phrases suggest a lonely, dark existence for the young boy (252-253).
The most interesting of these descriptions, which appears to be a pivot-point in the story, occurs when the young boy is waiting to see if Mangan's sister would go in or remain on the doorstep. The narrator states that "…we left our shadow place and walked up to Mangan's steps resignedly" (253). It is with the use of this phrase that the narrator turns from his dark descriptions and leads us into the awakening passion of the young boy for the young girl. As the young boy watches the young girl from the shadow, his thoughts turn to her and his own inner passions. He leaves his shadowy place to go to Mangan's steps and so does the narrator leave his dark descriptions of the boy's life and turn to the more passionate theme of the story. The narrator describes Mangan's sister: "Her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side" (253). His passion for the young girl is evident by the thoughts of the young boy. The narrator states, "Her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance" (253). He states again that, "Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand" (253). These statements are in sharp contrast to the analysis of "Araby" by A.R. Coulthard who writes:
Surely the refugee from such paralysis who wrote "Araby" wanted his readers to see the disillusioned adult moralist who narrates the story, and not the dreamy young sensualist he once was, as the story's object of pity.
Coulthard's assessment of the narrator as a "disillusioned adult moralist" would be acceptable if it were not common place for a youthful boy of any circumstance to be infatuated with a young girl. Love and passion in themselves are sensual and in a sense youthful. From a youthful point of view, love and passion know no bounds of morality nor does the economy of the era matter. What young boy has not done the foolish thing in hopes of gaining the affections of a young girl? Does it matter the year or the place? It is only the reflections of the adult man that has learned morality and reason that may see these things as foolish or vain. What adult man has not looked back at his youthful passions realizing the vanity of them? In that sense, we may all be disillusioned adult moralists.
In an assessment of "Araby" by L. J. Morrissey, the young boy's perceptions of the young girl are used as instruments to be tested against the environmental setting of "Araby". Morrissey writes:
In "Araby", for instance, the romantic image of the girl, with "her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door….Her dress sw[inging] as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair toss[ing] from side to side," is aggressively tested against Dublin reality. The boy tests her "image…in places the most hostile to romance, " carrying it like a "chalice" "through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of labourers, the shrill litanies of shop boys who stood on guard by barrels of pigs cheeks."
One would have to agree that this assessment is correct in that these are the circumstances in which this story occurs. However, does this "testing" of the perceptions delude the reality of the story which is simply the passion the young boy feels for the girl? Does this passion have bounds to only the dreary environment and circumstances of "Araby" or could this passion be felt by a young boy of riches on a warm tropical island? The driving desire was not to get to the bazaar, but was to gain the affections of the young girl. The circumstances and surroundings are simple tools to enhance and thwart the desire of the boy.
The writer clearly reveals the desire and frustrations of "Araby" in the subsequent paragraphs with statements from the narrator such as, "I wished to annihilate the tedious intervening days" referring to the wait the boy had to endure until the bazaar and "I'm afraid you may put off your bazaar for this night of Our Lord" referring to the Uncle coming home late (254-255). The first statement is of the boy's desire and the second statement is the frustration of not being able to fulfill it. Are these feelings only to be felt by a young boy in the setting of "Araby"?
In the final paragraphs of "Araby," the boy rushes into the bazaar only to find a few shops open. There were items the boy could have purchased but he chose not to. The narrator states, "I lingered before her stall, though I knew it was useless, to make my interest in her wares seem the more real" (256). What does this mean? The quest of getting to the bazaar had been achieved and there were items to buy yet the boy was not interested. What was it that happened at this moment to change the young boy from a Knight on a quest to a "creature driven and derided by vanity" (256)? Was it the circumstances of "Araby" or was it the feelings that every young boy feels when his fantasies are vanquished? A clue perhaps is given by Walter Wells in his assessment of John Updike's "A & P". Wells' assessment is that the young boy sees the banter of the salesgirl and her two admirers, and the men counting money as something uncomfortably close to his own longing. He later sees his dream as being actually sexual, and money would not buy it (v30 n2 p127).
There is one realization about "Araby" that that is spoken well by Margot Norris who writes:
The reader confronts a variety of hermeneutical options at the end of the story - ranging from "straight" acceptance of the boy's self-estimation, to sympathy with the idealist's victimization by the vulgar philistinism, to critique of the narrator's exploitations of the juvenile experience by turning it into an aestheticized social parable.
Perhaps one point of view is that Joyce, in some way, was trying to use this simple youthful experience to explore a larger social parable, but as Ezra Pound puts it, "Mr. Joyce's merit, I will not say his chief merit but his most engaging merit, is that he carefully avoids telling you a lot that you don't want to know" (Vol 1, 267). One could conclude that this is true of Joyce in his telling of "Araby". There are no outstanding moral or religious issues. The theme of "Araby" is the simplistic common experience of youth.
Coulthard, A.R., "The Explicator", Wntr 1994 v52 n2 p97 (3) Central Virginia Community College online library, Lynchburg, VA 10 Nov. 2003 http://80-web4.infotrac.galegroup.com
Kirszner, Laurie G., and Stephen R. Mandell, eds. Literature, Reading Reacting,Writing. 5th ed. Boston: Heinle, 2004. 253-255
Morrissey, L. J., "Inner and Outer Perceptions in Joyces's "The Dead", Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 25, No. 1, Winter, 1988, pp. 21-29 Central Virginia Community College online library, Lynchburg, VA 10 Nov. 2003 http://80-galenet.galegroup.com
Norris, Margot, "Blind streets and seeing houses: Araby's dim glass revisited." Studies in Short Fiction, v32 n3 p309 (10), (Summer 1995) Central Virginia Community College online library, Lynchburg, VA (Special "Dubliners" Number)
15 Nov. 2003 http://80-web4.infotrac.galegroup.com
Pound, Erza, "Dubliners and Mr. James Joyce", The Egoist, Vol. I, No. 14, July 15 1914, p. 267.
Reprinted in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 35 Central Virginia Community College online library, Lynchburg, VA 12 Nov. 2003 http://galenet.galegroup.com/
Wells, Walter, "John Updike's "A & P": a return visit to Araby." Studies in Short Fiction, v30 n2 p127 (7) (Spring 1993), Central Virginia Community College online library, Lynchburg, VA 15 Nov. 2003 http://80-web4.infotrac.galegroup.com
Return to Home Page