Light as Evil, Dark as Good in “Araby”
Despite the often automatic preconception in literature that darkness and negativity are inextricably linked, darkness is first a protective and natural force of childhood on North Richmond Street. The narrator first mentions darkness when describing the sunset, naming the children’s time of play as beginning in dusk. While the darkness flows into the street, “the space of sky above…was the colour of ever-changing violet,” and the streetlamps ineffectively endeavor to bring light back by casting “their feeble lanterns” (Joyce, 1). This powerfully romantic image emerges as the first signal that Joyce’s contrast between light and darkness will not be a traditional, bland one. And describing the sky at sunset as “ever-changing” establishes that the coming darkness cannot be responsible for or indicative of the stuck and paralyzed Dublin that Joyce repeatedly illustrates in both Araby and Dubliners. Instead, light appears as potentially negative, intruding into the darkness, attempting to destroy even the beautiful sunset. The children then roughhouse in this darkness, “[running] the gauntlet of the rough tribes” (1). Joyce uses several details defined by darkness to describe their play, which lend a mysterious and magical air to the night. The children run around in “dark muddy lanes” and “dark dripping gardens” and can hear a stable boy “[shake] music from [a] buckled harness” in the stables, all of which are beautifully wild images. Joyce does not pretend that such play could be perfectly sweet, highlighting strange odours and ashpits, but the scene appears childish and wild and innocent, free of any misery or suffering.
In sharp contrast, light comes to represent corruptive effect of Dublin’s society on its children. While the children delight in their night games, they escape from the harshness of the world, avoiding adults and “[hiding] in the shadow” (1). When Mangan’s sister steps out to call the children inside, they only agree when she “remain[s]” outside the door for a while and then they do so “resignedly”, torn from their comforting shadows into the cruel adult world of Dublin (1). Mangan himself “[teases] her,” but even he has no choice but to go into the light (1), emphasizing that all children are eventually forced into the adult world. And it is only once in this light that the boy first describes his attraction to Mangan’s sister, underscoring that darkness, or anything it might represent, is not the cause of what he later describes as “vanity” (5). He says that “her figure [was] defined by the light from the half-opened door”, reducing her to a representative of the light and virtually nothing else (2). The boy’s only descriptions of her are aesthetic, detailing “the soft rope of her hair” and “dress sw[inging]” (2), which only increases the importance of her figure as defined by light. In his only conversation with Mangan’s sister, the boy focuses primarily on “the light…the lamp opposite our door [catching] the white curve of her neck, [lighting] up her hair…and hand” (2). Only in the light does the boy feels any attraction towards Mangan’s sister, an attraction purely superficial and without basis in anything meaningful. All signs indicate that light, despite any preconceptions to the contrary, is a force that children would rather avoid and should not be one in which they spend time.
Joyce uses the motifs of light and darkness to stress the repressive and harmful Dublin society and the comforting freedom of childhood, respectively. After the boy is yanked into the light of the adult world, he acts in a manner unhealthy for a boy of his age. When he aids his aunt in the marketplace, the boy describes a scene best described as vulgar and one typical to Dublin society. Tellingly, Joyce describes the marketplace as “flaring”, an indication that this perverse scene is another part of the cruel Dublin society represented by the light (2). The boy only can escape from this horror when he returns to the safety of the dark. On a “dark rainy evening”, the boy kneels in the back room and feels “thankful that [he] could see so little” (2). But through a “broken [window] pane” that lead to the outside world, where “some distant lamp or lighted window gleamed”, even the rain serves to bother the boy (2). He describes the seemingly innocuous raindrops as “[impinging]…incessant needles…playing in the sodden beds”, using both violent and sexual imagery (2). The boy later states that the “gloomy rooms liberated me and I went from room to room singing” while waiting for his uncle to return home , indicating that darkness not only protects but actually saves him (3). But the moment he looks outside at Mangan’s sister’s house, he remembers the image of her “curved neck” bathed in light and “may have stood there for an hour” (3). Even the memory of light, this hint at Dublin’s cruel society, figuratively and literally paralyzes the boy in place.
Given this understanding of light and dark’s meaning in Araby, it becomes clearer that the story, in keeping with the rest of Dubliners, is more of an exposure of the harmful effects of Dublin society than a sign of any hope of change. A common explanation of Joyce’s use of light and dark in Araby claims that the narrator finds himself stuck in the horrible gloominess of North Richmond Street, develops a crush on Mangan’s glowing sister, and ultimately realizes, in the face of the darkened and bleak bazaar, that he was “a creature driven and derided by vanity,” foolishly focused on the immaterial and unimportant (5). But this theory, no matter how simple, ignores Araby’s role in the Dubliners collection both chronologically and thematically. Joyce ordered his stories to follow the progression through “childhood, adolescence, maturity, and public life”, and as Araby is only the third piece in the collection, it seems likely that Araby belongs to the classification of childhood. A simplistic interpretation of the light and dark motifs would have no choice but to posit that a young boy of maybe twelve is truly is nothing more than a creature.
Throughout all of Dubliners, Joyce carefully uses the last line of his stories to either stress an earlier theme or to highlight an entirely new point. But if the last line is a true epiphany, then Joyce gives great hope for the future because the boy understands the error of his ways and will presumably change himself, better himself. This stands in stark contrast to the theme of a paralytic Dublin that Joyce consistently portrays. Joyce would certainly not write so sloppily as to unintentionally offer major counterexamples to what he considered the “offal” of Dublin. Rather, the boy’s epiphany was a false one, an ironic realization. The boy believes that his vanity was the problem when Joyce really means to demonstrate that any society which would make a child consider himself a creature is repressive and harmful. Once again, the reader sees that Dublin’s paralyzed society as a whole is to blame, not just a few individuals. Without the motifs of light and darkness, this fullest comprehension of Araby might be very difficult to glean.
Dublin Through the Little Boy’s Eyes in “Araby”
In James Joyce’s “Araby”, readers are taken on a young boy’s quest of discovery. The beginning of the short story paints a picture of Dublin, a place described as rather dark and lonely. This is a ‘coming of age’ tale, peering into the mind of a young boy teetering on the edge of boyhood and adulthood. The main theme of this story shows readers the struggles of a young boy on a journey of discovery of reality versus fantasy, as well as darkness versus light. The story, being mostly pessimistic or indifferent, shows a shift from darkness to light as Mangan’s sister enters and exits the picture. This is a journey of a young boy seeking light, regarding its form, in an otherwise dark existence.
From early on in the story, we see Dublin as a dark and somewhat isolated place. The first line reads, “NORTH RICHMOND STREET, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free” (Paragraph 1). The narrator goes on to say, “When short days of winter came dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. When we met in the streets the houses had grown sombre … the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns” (Paragraph 3). A clear picture of what Dublin looked and felt like to the boy is portrayed throughout the story. The darkness and isolation he experiences lays the foundation for his yearning for excitement and adventure, which gets lost in what is reality and fantasy. The boy’s infatuation with Mangan’s sister pulls him even further into this fantasy. When describing how he would watch her, he says “She was waiting for us, her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door” (Paragraph 3). The interactions with Mangan’s sister, whether direct or indirect, begin the boy’s yearning for light in his dark world.
There are many figures of speech present in “Araby”. Alliteration can be seen with the text “… to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens” (Paragraph 3). This grabs the attention of the reader to focus on the dark images being described. Another example of alliteration is shown in “… a big hall girdled at half its height by a gallery” (Paragraph 17). When reading this line, the alliteration stops readers for just a moment to take in the description of the bazaar. As the narrator describes the dark stables the boys encounter, a metaphor is used as the coachman says he “shook music from the buckled harness” (Paragraph 3) of the horses. While describing his confused adoration of Mangan’s sister, he uses a simile when he says “but my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires” (Paragraph 6). Personification is seen in “All my senses seemed to desire to veil themselves” (Paragraph 6). Last, a hyperbole is used with the text, “After an intolerable delay the train moved out of the station slowly. It crept onward …” (Paragraph 16). Because of the boy’s strong desire and rush to get to Araby and the impatience he was experiencing, he felt as though the train was creeping along when, in reality, we know it wasn’t.
Keeping a rather solemn and dark tone throughout the story, the narrator deviates from this only when Mangan’s sister is introduced. As long as the narrator is focused on her, the mood stays optimistic and bright. She becomes his emotional escape from his dull existence; his journey to Araby becomes his physical escape. Once he arrives at Araby, he is greeted with disappointment and the mood of the story becomes once again dark. As the bazaar is coming to an end, so is his excitement for something different than Dublin, as well as his infatuation of Mangan’s sister. Irony is present when the narrator talks about the lights going out as the bazaar is closing. As the lights turn off, the figurative light in his head turns on. For the first time since his infatuation with Mangan’s sister, he is starting to see things clearly. He recognizes the unrequited obsession he has with her just and the fact that it took him all the way to Araby in an attempt to impress her. The first person point-of-view is interesting in that it goes back and forth between that of a young boy and that of a man looking back on a memory. A young boy wouldn’t have the ability to put into words, “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger” (Paragraph 21). This portrays a much older, wiser version of the boy looking back on such a significant time in a young boy’s life.
The boy’s journey toward Araby and love represent his journey from boyhood to adulthood, and all the confusions and frustrations that entails. He gets lost along the way and is seemingly unable to distinguish fantasy from reality. In the last sentence of the story, the boy experiences an epiphany. He realizes that he has been foolish to pursue a girl he knew very little about and to think that he could buy her love with a gift from the bazaar. In being driven by vanity, as he says in the last line, his journey gave him more than he could’ve imagined: a taste of reality. He also experiences disappointment in getting to Araby and realizing it is not the exotic place he had in his dreams. He cannot merely escape Dublin or his life, for that matter. He must learn to accept where he lives and who he is as a growing adolescent boy. As readers, we see the narrator’s disillusionment of his quest as he takes in what Araby has to offer and realizes what it symbolizes: that just as North Richmond Street is a blind end, or dead end, so is Dublin.
Joyce, James. “Araby”. Dubliners. 1914. Project Gutenberg. 2012. Web. 26 January 2014.
Jimmy Doyle in “After the Race” by James Joyce
Just one of the many short stories compiled in James Joyce’s Dubliners, “After the Race” is an effective portrayal of the shame and misfortune that result from Jimmy Doyle’s efforts to become accepted by a wealthy group of men. His constant desire to present himself as an aristocrat, one who is consistently in the company of elitist individuals, undermines his ability to reason and make sound judgments. This weakness is exemplified principally by his reckless gambling and drunken speech. Jimmy’s obsession with advancing his social status leads to his demise as he ultimately finds himself in a state of desolation and poverty. The infidelity of Jimmy’s so-called friends further accentuates the malevolence of greed as the Frenchmen seem to accept Jimmy simply because of his investment in the motor establishment.
The success of Jimmy’s father promotes Jimmy’s desire to advance his own social status as much as it highlights Jimmy’s inherent naivety. Sharing his father’s principles, Jimmy comes to believe that being in the company of affluent Frenchmen will be quite advantageous and, to a certain degree, stimulating. Although the men are simply “acquaintances” (43) of Jimmy, he seems to find “great pleasure in the society of one who had seen so much of the world and was reputed to own some of the biggest hotels in France” (43). Jimmy’s criteria for choosing companions is strictly based on socioeconomic position, effectively alluding to his superficial character. Furthermore, Jimmy does not focus his energies on significant matters such as education as he “did not study very earnestly and took to bad courses” (43) but rather concentrates on presenting a seemingly noble image to the general public. Jimmy’s concerns seem to be chiefly centered on whom he is seen with in public, further elucidating his insecurities and self-doubt.
The Frenchmen do not display a genuine liking towards Jimmy but rather a strong sense of apathy towards him. Jimmy is “too excited to be genuinely happy” riding in the blue car as he unsurprisingly feels somewhat unwelcome. As an uninvited guest, Jimmy rides in the blue car and often has “to strain forward to catch the quick phrase” (44) in order to hear the “light words” (44) of the Frenchmen. Jimmy’s membership in the exclusive group is actually disingenuous, and the men simply tolerate Jimmy because he made a significant investment in Segouin’s motor establishment. Furthermore, Jimmy’s choice to deliver a speech, though well-received by his companions, emphasizes his foolishness and disillusionment. Jimmy “must have [delivered] a good speech” (47-48), but he, in fact, cannot even recall the topic on which he spoke as he is so miserably drunk. Jimmy’s disgraceful condition further contributes to his portrayal as a foolish and drunk individual attempting to impress his ‘audience’ and gain approval.
Jimmy ultimately realizes the futility of his situation but simply ignores it. Having drunk a substantial amount, Jimmy is unable to sensibly engage in a game of cards. However, he refuses to let his condition stop him from gambling and eventually “knew that he would regret in the morning but at present he was glad of the rest” (48). Though Jimmy has lost a great sum of money, he attempts to cover up the situation and ignore it, essentially denying the inevitability of shame in his eternal quest for wealth and acceptance. The irony inherent in the situation, however, occurs when Jimmy loses all of his money. Hoping for a “dark stupor that would cover up his folly” (48), Jimmy finishes the game promptly at daybreak, allowing for no time to mourn and grieve over his heavy losses. Though Jimmy consistently finds himself in a state of hopelessness and despair, he continuously ignores the harsh reality of the innate regret and misfortune that result.
Jimmy’s father changes his political views with the sole interest of accumulating more wealth. To him and Jimmy alike, integrity can be sacrificed for wealth. Such is the case for Jimmy’s father who “had begun life as an advanced Nationalist” (43) but “had modified his views early” (43) in order to open shops in Dublin and make a fortune. Jimmy’s father also proves to sacrifice his Irish nationalism in securing police contracts supporting the British, displaying far greater concern for his own self-interests than the wellbeing of the state. This egoism is not confined strictly to Jimmy’s father but is also exhibited by Jimmy, thus portraying the materialism and superficiality exemplified by the Doyle family.
As unfortunate as Jimmy Doyle’s demise is, he must be criticized for his self-centered and naive character as his disillusionment of befriending wealthy people propels him into a state of shame and poverty. “After the Race” is an effective portrayal of the consequences of greed and excessive ambition.
Deconstructing the Old Style of Writing in “A Mother”
James Joyce’s A Mother is a short story based around the life of Mrs. Kearney, a strong-willed woman whose breach of convention results in the destruction of her acclaimed reputation. Joyce’s linguistic use of naturalism, modernism, and feminism, exemplifies the “paralysis” of Dublin’s rigid societal conventions. It further reiterates the gender divisions that existed. The abstract use of language offers the reader different interpretations of the story without disclosing Joyce’s intended meaning. However, it also adds a layer of complexity for readers when analyzing simple interactions between characters, or trying to understand the characters themselves. Despite this, it is clear that Joyce’s use of the above linguistic styles are effective in making makes the reader’s interpretation of the story, their own.
Joyce’s use of modernist techniques means that the language used is never absolute. He aims to deconstruct previous styles of writing, by manipulating the normal narrative structures of stories. This means that the reader is prevented from making an immediate judgment of Mrs. Kearney until after the story’s end. For example, Mrs. Kearney is described initially as a “Lady” – a title that evokes respect and good breeding. Through this title she is free from the restraints cast upon other women, and indulges in privileges like organizing the talent show. Yet, in gaining these privileges, it appears that Mrs. Kearney had to succumb to the patriarchal society of the time, by marrying. Joyce describes this action as “silenc[ing] them [society] by marrying”. The use of such language makes it difficult for the reader to ascertain whether Mrs. Kearney is repressed in her identity as a woman, or whether she has gained greater freedom in society through marriage.
In helping the reader reach a balanced judgment of Mrs. Kearney, Joyce provides the reader with various examples for each of the above roles. In some ways Mrs. Kearney has become trapped in her role as “A Mother” – she can no longer fulfill her dreams and must live vicariously through her daughter. In other ways, one could perhaps infer that she has been liberated, as she is able to take on a more active role in society whilst commanding the respect of the Committee (initially). This contrasts with the character Polly in The Boarding House, who is assigned one identity only – a mere sexual object – by her mother and Mr. Doran, because she is a woman. Unlike Mrs. Kearney, Polly does not have an option of “rights” and thus submits herself to societal conventions. However, Joyce shows Mrs. Kearney as obsessed with “asking for [her] rights,” such that her passive-aggressive behavior eventually leads to her downfall.
Indeed, her unbending nature and desire to win even small triumphs can be seen when she desperately orders Mr. Holohan “I’m not done with you yet”. However, her attempt to break free from the chains of female repression leads to her portrayal as someone without “decency”. This is similar to the story Clay, where the character, Maria, disregards reality in favor of appreciating the small (but meaningful) aspects of life. As such, what Joyce portrays, is a woman who is unaware of just how limited her rights are as a woman. Although Mrs Kearney demands rights because she is a “Lady”, she is ultimately trapped in the sexist social order existing in Dublin for centuries. It is this contradictory view of Mrs Kearney as both aggressive and vulnerable that makes it difficult for the reader to view her in one light.
Furthermore, Joyce’s naturalistic writing style prevents the reader from providing conventional responses to Mrs. Kearney’s character and situation. He adds a complexity to her character – she is neither good nor bad, nor feminine nor masculine; and yet she harbors traits familiar to all these concepts. What Joyce intends to do is create an authentic image of humans; they are complicated beings who can hold various identities at any one time. This means that all humans, like Mrs. Kearney, can exist in a state of paralysis. Moreover, the use of free indirect discourse allows the reader to explore various thoughts/feelings presented by the characters, and this is a cunning manipulation of normal narrative structures. It is through this that the reader is able to view Mrs. Kearney as both vulnerable and obstinate, as they are able to appreciate how her insecurities and zeal for power could possibly have arisen from her unfortunate situation of being a woman.
Further examples of Mrs. Kearney’s inherent contradictions are demonstrated when she admits that she would be treated better “if she had been a man”; this follows a perverse logic of feminism. Such a fight for independence is not truly independent, for Mrs. Kearney wishes to attain equality without raising a woman’s worth in society. To this end, the reader sees Mrs. Kearney assuming a more masculine role when ordering her husband, “Get a cab!” – this is a shocking power play for a woman in the nineteenth century. Moreover, Mrs. Kearney pressures her daughter Kathleen into fulfilling her own lost dreams. By doing so, she represses another female, just like the male-dominated Committee represses her. Certainly, Joyce makes this clear by only representing Kathleen’s voice in the story, once. Kathleen’s situation is similar to the stories Eveline and The Boarding House, where both Eveline and Polly try to break free from the fate of their mothers; ultimately they are overwhelmed by parental pressure. However, because of the stagnant societal conventions and Mrs. Kearney’s own quashed dreams, the reader is able to appreciate that her character’s power struggle primarily stems from her own disillusionment with society.
Ultimately, Mrs. Kearney’s character has been left for debate amongst Joyce’s readers, but one can infer that she essentially represents everything that she despises. She holds contradicting traits because she is a product of unfair treatment based on her gender. It is clear that Joyce’s use of different styles of language is deliberately and effectively ambiguous, so as to allow the reader to draw their own conclusions. The simplicity of his language and manipulation of narrative techniques by using free indirect discourse creates an observational and objective tone, so that the narrative does not restrict what is being conveyed to the reader. However, this naturalistic and modernist style contributes to a sense of ambiguity and passiveness, such that the reader is never fully confident of their judgments.
Sherill Grace, Rediscovering Mrs. Kearney: An Other Reading of A Mother Contradictions within Mrs. Kearney, P37-41, July 1988, Canada
Lukas G, Justin W, and Adam R, The Boarding House” and the Trappings of Expectations, 03/10/12, London
Maria Rodriguez Moran, Nationalism in James Joyce “Paralysis”, 1999-2000
James Joyce, Dubliners, A Mother, The Boarding House, Clay, Eveline, p146-148, p56-65, p95-103, p29-35, 03/02/2000 [Penguin Modern Classics], June 1914 [Original], London
Wandering Blindly: The Idea of “Araby”
Darkness and light are everywhere, and one cannot exist without the other. However, a combination of the two creates shadows in which a world can be altered into a form of dusk, twilight. It is in this shadowy light that a person may find themselves wandering blindly, much like the character in the short story of “Araby” written by James Joyce where a boy is, in a sense, blind throughout the story until he sees truth. In his short story, “Araby,” Joyce uses a combination of diction, imagery, and light/darkness to create the motif of blindness that conveys the narrator’s experience and journey toward enlightenment.
To begin, the diction in Joyce’s “Araby” brings forth a very present idea of blindness. He begins with “North Richmond Street, being blind” as an unusual description of a street, and he goes on to say “An uninhabited house of two storeys stood at the blind end” (Joyce 1223). Immediately an idea of being blind is established, and though it is curious why a street is being described as blind, it can be deduced that perhaps the street (or more the inhabitants of it) are blind to the outside world as well. As for the house standing at the blind end, it is detached from the rest of the neighborhood and blind to the neighbors. “The other houses, conscious of the decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces” (1223). To be conscious, one must have sight in some sort of way and be able to perceive some of the world around. These houses are also aware of their inhabitants and gaze at one another indicating that they are not blind in contrast to their detached, blind neighbor. However, these other houses are described as “brown,” which is a muddy, blind color. These first few moments in “Araby” immediately establish the concept of blindness that remains prevalent throughout the rest of the story.
The imagery in Joyce’s “Araby” is a fantastic combination of light and darkness that creates a dim and shadowy environment which also contributes to the concept of blindness. On page 1224, the narrator describes the state of appearance of the neighborhood “when the short days of winter came” and “when dusk fell” earlier in the day. Dusk is a shadowy time of day, a confusing in-between of light and darkness that can be disorienting if not sometimes blinding, and winter is a dark season where daylight lacks primary presence. It is also mentioned on page 1224 that the sky was “the colour of ever-changing violet,” adding to the imagery of the setting by creating a world of half-light and making it perhaps difficult to see, resulting in a contribution to blindness. Along with the sky and season, there are also “dark muddy lanes,” “dark dripping gardens,” and even “dark odorous stables” (1224). It is clear that darkness is dominant in the world of the narrator from these descriptions, and a world of darkness would yield a difficulty to see. This contributes to the concept of blindness as well because an inability to see is an attribute of blindness. Also, the narrator expressed that he “hid in the shadow” when his uncle came home and also watched Mangan’s sister from a shadow as well (1224). Not only is the setting and environment a dark, shadowy color of blindness, but the narrator also seems to embrace this shadowy world as well to the extent that he hides in it. Instead of seeking out the light, the narrator recedes into the shadows where it is difficult to see, causing him to be blind to reality and also to himself. The dim imagery and the darkness of the setting undoubtedly contribute to the idea that it may be difficult to “see,” thus adding to the motif of blindness.
The thoughts and feelings that are expressed by the narrator also contribute to the concept of blindness in the story. On page 1225 the narrator freely admits “I thought little of the future.” When a person is either blind or in darkness, it is difficult to see very far ahead of himself, especially into the future. The narrator could be so blind to the extent that he literally is not capable of seeing anything that might lay before him because of the vast darkness that shrouds him and because of his blindness. Even on a “dark rainy evening,” the narrator says “I was thankful I could see so little” (1225). This is rather striking in the fact that not only is the narrator blind in his ignorance and desire, but he is content and even thankful that he is blind to reality. Like previously mentioned, the narrator almost deliberately chooses to hide in the shadows and in a blinding darkness, yet he is blind about what this does to him. The narrator also admits “I could not call my wandering thoughts together” (1225). Perhaps the reason the narrator cannot control his wandering thoughts is because he may be blind in the shadows and darkness he chooses to hide in, and in this blindness, the narrator wanders in a confused disorientation. These thoughts that are expressed by the narrator indicate that he is somewhat lost or even blind to the world around him and is unable to find his way – he remains in the shadows, blind.
A contributor to the concept of blindness is Mangan’s unnamed sister. Her being unnamed alone fuels the idea that the narrator is blind to his childish desire for her. In fact, the narrator’s name is undisclosed as well which perhaps furthers the idea that the narrator is blind to even his own self, behaviors, and his own blindness. Not only that, but this is blinding to even the reader because these characters’ identities are hidden behind a curtain of darkness. Mangan’s sister is only scarcely described as a “brown figure” on page 1224, and again on page 1226 when the narrator stares at the “dark house where she lived” and sees nothing but the “brown-clad figure cast by his imagination.” Brown is, again, a murky and blind color that makes the girl seem mysterious, and the narrator is enchanted by this mystery to possibly the point of a dazed disorientation. In this disorientation it is difficult to see truth and reality, so through Mangan’s mysterious and unnamed sister, it is revealed that the narrator is blind in his desire for her.
At the end of the story, the narrator is left in the dark in a literal blindness that forces him to finally “see” himself and reality for what they really are. “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger” (1227). In his failed attempt to attain a trinket at the bazaar to “win” the love of Mangan’s sister, the narrator is awakened from his disoriented daze, his blindness. The darkness blinds the narrator in a fresh way causing his eyes to burn, and it is in this blackness – this new sort of blindness – that he is finally able to reflect upon himself and reach an awareness of reality. This enlightenment allows him to see how blind he truly was regarding his behavior and desperate desires, and in shame his eyes burn with this realization of the reality of his shadowy world.
Throughout the plot as a whole, the narrator seems to wander further and further into a shadowy blindness in a futile attempt to win the heart of Mangan’s sister. He is so driven in his blindness that it begins to appear to be obsessive in nature, but the author is unaware of this at the time because he is so driven by his desires, and he is so blind to reality in his youth. However, through this journey of wandering in a dazed blindness in a darkened world of desire, the narrator finally achieves enlightenment when he is truly left in the darkness of the Araby bazaar. In this darkness, he realizes how futile and essentially pathetic his attempt was to impress Mangan’s sister, and he sees himself and reality as it truly is. In the continuation of the motif of blindness throughout the story, the author has ingeniously constructed the journey of a boy who, once figuratively blind, is enlightened when he finally realizes and sees the truth.
Illusion and Reality in “Araby” by James Joyce
Irving Howe, a literary and social critic, once noted that “the knowledge that makes us cherish innocence makes innocence unattainable”(Lifehack Quotes). Often depicted in the transition from childhood to adulthood, this loss of innocence is sorrowful yet eminent. A functioning society requires that individuals at some point transition from a world of illusion to a world of reality; a transition that’s catalyst is a loss of innocence. James Joyce, an Irish novelist and poet, highlights this loss of innocence in his short story, “Araby.” In his work, Joyce pits the innocent, childlike nature of his narrator against the strident realities of the world, forcing the narrator to reconcile his perception of reality. By questioning and inverting the practicality of romance and faith, Joyce expedites his narrator’s loss of innocence. Furthermore, Joyce suggests that optimistic ideals are limited to the world of illusion, thwarted in the real world by the selfish, materialistic, and corrupt nature of society.
Through his incorporation of autobiography in “Araby,” Joyce conveys the universal nature of the loss of innocence. For example, both the narrator and Joyce grew up on North Richmond Street and attended the Christian Brother’s School. Furthermore, Joyce’s critic, Harry Stone, suggested that historical documents verify the Araby bazaar came to Dublin at the same time Joyce’s family was living on North Richmond Street (346). However, Joyce also made strategic and purposeful autobiographical alterations. Literary critic J.S. Atherton suggested that Joyce’s father is actually portrayed as the uncle in “Araby” in order to make the narrator appear “lonely so as to stand out in contrast to his surroundings” (41). Although there are “grounds for considering that “Araby” is based on an actual event in Joyce’s childhood” the incorporation of autobiographical elements give Joyce’s work merit (Atherton 40). By entwining autobiographical strands into his thread of literature, Joyce ultimately yields a supreme work rife with genuine relevance and universal applicability rather than condescension and patronization.
Joyce uses personification and connotatively charged diction in the first paragraph to contrasts the initially innocent nature of the narrator with the lifeless world around him. In the first line of the text, Joyce describes North Richmond Street as “being blind” and with a “blind end” (15). Although the phrase “blind end” denotes a dead end street, the connotation of the phrase exemplifies the nature of the narrator: blind, unaware, and unknowing of the problems that pervade the real world. The boy has an “idyllic ignorance of the wider world,” as described by journalist Chris Power, which solidifies his initial state of innocence. Furthermore, Joyce notes that at the end of the school day the “school set(s) the boys free”, insinuating that the children are imprisoned by their education (15). This imprisonment is to an extent responsible for holding the boys captive in a bubble of innocence; it prohibits them to explore other, possibly dangerous or enlightening realms of the world. Joyce then contrasts the innocent nature of the narrator with the apparently lifeless state of the rest of the world which has lost its innocence. The houses, for example, are described as “uninhabited,” “detached,” “brown,” and “imperturbable,” adjectives which invoke a mood of hopelessness and despair (Joyce 15). By contrasting the innocent nature of the narrator with the corrupt nature of his world, Joyce suggests that the innocent narrator is oppressed by the outside world. In the end, Joyce reveals that the chasm between the narrator and world is too great to endure; ultimately the gap, Joyce foreshadows, will be mended through the narrators conformity, achieved through his loss of innocence.
By analyzing the practicality and possibility for romance in the real world, Joyce catalyzes the loss of innocence in the narrator. Joyce examines the role of romance through his depiction of the narrators relationship with Mangan’s sister. In the beginning, the narrator appears to have nothing more than an innocent crush on an older girl. While the narrator finds himself with “her brown figure always in my[his] eye,” he does not have the courage to speak to her as he always “quickened his pace” to pass her when they encountered (Joyce 16). This depiction, of a harmless, child-like crush, dramatically shifts as an undercurrent of sexual symbolism inhabited the later part of the text. The first instance of this transition, occurred on the evening when the narrator was alone in his home and entered the back room. In that moment, the narrator described that all his “senses seemed to desire to veil themselves” and he felt as though he was “about to slip from them”, while he “pressed the palms of his hands together” and murmured “O love! O Love!”(Joyce 16). As noted by literary critic Edward Brandabur, this scene is clearly one of “autoerotic displacement” and the fulfillment of the narrator’s sexual desire, which is more dominant than ever before (53). The shift of the narrator’s physical nature from one of boyhood to manhood, permeates the rest of text through “symbolic suggestion” such as the symbolically erotic objects for sale in the final scene at the bazaar (Brandabur 53). As a result of this transition, the reader is no longer able to view the intentions of the boy in his romantic quest as solely innocent. Instead, his actions must be considered at least in part to be a sexual conquest, thereby highlighting his loss of physical innocence.
While the narrator looses his physical innocence, he also experiences a loss of spiritual and emotional innocence. Via religious allusions and undertones, Joyce suggests even religion is corrupt and will fail as a cornerstone of strength for his narrator. Immediately, Joyce established a connection between religion and his narrator by stating that the narrator attended the “Christian Brother’s School” and resided in a home once occupied by a priest (15). However, these images are juxtaposed by their description, for example, with the clarification that priest had “died in the back drawing room” (Joyce 15). By aligning the spiritual with negative description, Joyce portrays his utter disgust for the “decay of the church,” also suggesting the eminent loss of the church, faith, and spirituality from within the boy (Atherton 44). This loss of spiritual innocence is foreshadowed early on, with Joyce’s inclusion of the narrator’s own garden of eden residing in his back yard: a “wild garden” containing a “central apple-tree” (15). On the day of the bazaar, which fell on the “night of Our Lord,” the narrator ignored his religious duties and instead engaged with the profane world (Joyce 18). This decision is what ultimately led to the “fall of the coins”, the fall of man, and the fall of the narrator from spiritual innocence (Joyce 19). By incorporating the religious construction of the garden of eden and original sin, Joyce was able to both symbolically depict his narrator’s loss of spiritual innocence while also describing his revulsion for the Church.
Although the narrator appears initially unaware of his own journey of revelation, Joyce uses vivid imagery and purposefully included details to convey the narrators original awareness of enlightenment. After receiving his duty of service to his lady – to bring her back a gift from the Araby bazaar – the narrator returns home “mounting the staircase” to watch his “companions playing in the street below” (Joyce 17). By including this vivid description of the narrator’s literal ascendance over and separation from his young friends, the narrator is no longer portrayed as a child, with the same child-like innocence of his playmates in the street. Furthermore, Joyce has the narrator go on to lean his “forehead against the cool glass” as he “looked over at the dark house where she lived” (18). This is one of the first moments of distinct revelation for the narrator who realized that in order to achieve his quest he “must escape the vivacious sounds and warmth of life” and instead inhabit a state “where passion freezes through the operation of intellect” (Brandabur 54). In this precisely described moment, the narrator reveals his new found understanding: in order to successfully achieve his romantic conquest he will have to forgo his previous state of innocent and passionate being embodied by his friends below, and instead be present in the real world. The narrator, at this point, is aware that he is neither who he was nor who he will be. Instead he is captivated in a realm of enlightenment where ignorance is dissolved and understanding gained.
The narrator’s epiphany at Araby finalizes his fall from innocence while also describing the inhibiting characteristics of the real world. The boy enters the bazaar to hear the “fall[ing] of the coins” in a darkening hall and “remembering with difficulty” why he had come (Joyce 19). The pairing of these phrases highlight the futility and meaninglessness of the boys fall from innocence; he has gone on a romantic quest only to arrive at a darkening, symbolic church to realize that neither romance nor faith have given him true meaning. He looks around the bazaar describing the overheard, flirtatious conversation between a saleswomen and two Englishmen. In that moment, the narrator appears to be second-class to the Englishmen, even though his journey has left him far more enlightened and wise than the other men; a disparity which exemplifies the unjust nature of the real world and his new “reality.” However, his final epiphany occurs after the narrator speaks to the dismissive saleswoman when, “gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger”(Joyce 19). In this moment, the narrator is forced to look both into the literal darkness of the hall and the “sad darkness of self awareness” (Brandabur 56). The narrator is finally able to “glimpse reality unadorned” (Stone 362). He comes to understand that his new reality, grounded in the real world, is a place where “everyday religion…is based upon self deluding and mindless materialism” and where romance is simply a mode of self deception (Stone 356). However, the narrator’s mood regarding his revelation is two fold. This paradox of emotions is conveyed through Joyce’s construction of the closing sentence which is initially heavy, even burdening to voice with the alliteration of the words “darkness,” “driven,” and “derided” (Joyce 19). The later part of the closing sentence includes the alliteration of the words “anguish” and “anger,” which instead roll off the tongue, disseminating into a peaceful tonality. This precise and distinctive sentence structure mirrors the feeling of the narrator: dismal and depressed that “one portion of his lie, his innocent, self-deluding childhood, is now behind him” while also relieved in the sense that he has discarded his vail of ignorance and is now enlightened to the reality of the world (Stone 366). In the end, Joyce conveys life and the efforts of his narrator as pitiful and futile; for the real world is governed by corruption, valuing materialistic and shallow ideals rather than enlightenment and knowledge, therefore, leaving the narrator no better off than when he initially began his journey.
Society often stresses the importance of “growing up,” of assimilating and conforming to the expectations that govern one’s culture. Although this transition, from the world of innocence and illusion to the world of reality is essentially eminent, its not necessarily enviable or desirable. Instead, Joyce depicts the loss of innocence to be mournful through his narrator’s experience. The narrator’s initial zeal, passion and naivety towards life is obvious, appearing in stark contrast to the seemingly lifeless world around him. However, as the narrator begins his quest, Joyce catalyzes his loss of innocence, first physically and then spiritually, ultimately thrusting him into a state of unjust chaos — also known as the real world — where materialism and pessimism reign supreme. Joyce presents the world of illusion as white and the world of reality as black, with a small street in between: a one way street, connecting the world of illusion to the world of reality, whose toll requires the non-refundable payment of one’s innocence.
Atherton, J.S. “Araby.” James Joyce’s Dubliners: Critical Essays. Ed. Clive Hart. New York:
Viking, 1969. 39-47. Print.
Brandabur, Edward. A Scrupulous Meanness; a Study of Joyce’s Early Work. Urbana: U of Illinois, 1971. Print.
“Irving Howe at Lifehack Quotes.” Quote by Irving Howe. Lifehack Quotes, n.d. Web. 20
Oct. 2015. <http://quotes.lifehack.org/>
Joyce, James. “Araby.” Dubliners. New York: Dover Publications, 1991. 15-19. Print.
Power, Chris. “Darkness in Literature: James Joyce’s Araby.” The Guardian, 20 Dec. 2012. Web. 20 Oct. 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/books/ booksblog/ 2012/dec/20/ darkness-literature-james-joyce-araby>.
Stone, Harry. “”Araby” and the Writings of James Joyce.” Dubliners: Text, Criticism, and Notes.
Ed. James Joyce, Robert E. Scholes, and A. Walton. Litz. New York: Penguin, 1976.
“Dubliners” and “Kew Gardens”: Modernism in Woolf’s and Joyce’s Works
‘[T]he modern period […] begins really with the late nineteenth [century], when the sense of the passing of a major phase of English history was already in the air.’ Indeed, when we discuss ‘modern’ in terms of literature this tends to be a reference to modernism, which was a reaction in writing to sudden and rapid changes occurring across Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century; change most concentrated in metropolitan cities. Many in the modern period felt these rapid changes in technology, industrialism and social mobility to be negative, seeing the city as desolate and isolating, as demonstrated in Hornes’ reference to ‘crook-backed chimney pots’ and ‘broken-windowed houses.’ Modernist writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, whose work I will discuss in this essay, attempted to encapsulate these changes through their writing with a departure from traditional forms and linearity; experimenting with more fractured and disarrayed style to reflect the changing world. Where the previous generations of writers had used the city as ‘the backdrop against which these writers’ characters acted out their lives,’ the city for the modernists played a more foregrounded role. Modernists such as Joyce and Woolf represented metropolitan city life predominantly through its impact on their characters as well as vice versa, personifying the city in an attempt to conceptualize and understand it with familiar characteristics. Through this method, whilst metropolitan life was in some ways vibrant and promising, modernist writers predominantly expressed the feeling of instability and anonymity that the ‘new’ metropolitan life represented for them.
Bobby Seal asserts in the article Woolf at the Door that cities in the modern period became ‘[M]ore than accidental meeting places and crossing points. They were generative environments of the new arts, focal points of intellectual community,’ or in simpler terms, the new city held great promise. Throughout Joyce’s Dubliners, characters frequently hope have ambitions or an epiphany which is almost never fulfilled or realized. For example in Araby, the young boy waits all evening to attend the bazaar, and upon arriving finds that it is closing, whilst in Eveline, Eveline considers eloping with her lover but at the close of the story abandons her lover Frank at the docks. This provides a perfect metaphor to represent metropolitan life. The new modern city promises to be progressive and exciting in its advancements, but in reality the rapid growth in the cities often left people feeling a ‘disconnection, detachment, even alienation from all local and particular ties.’ The best example of this metaphor is exemplified in Joyce’s story A Little Cloud. Little Chandler at the opening of the story is imbued with anticipation for his meeting with Gallaher:
‘Little Chandler’s thoughts ever since lunchtime had been of his meeting with Gallaher, of Gallaher’s invitation and of the great city of London where Gallaher lived.’
In the antithesis between the adjective ‘little’ preceding Chandler’s name and the ‘great’ preceding ‘London,’ Joyce contrasts the city and the man, setting up the promise of London for Chandler, which he hopes will raise him out of his uninspiring and unfulfilled life. The repetition of ‘Gallaher’ here also establishes Gallaher as an emblem of the city and all the promise it holds, later highlighted by the further ‘contrast’ Chandler feels between him and Gallaher. He states that ‘if you wanted to succeed you had to go away. You could do nothing in Dublin,’ again seeing the metropolis of London as a kind of Promised Land of opportunity. However, Chandler in fact already lives in Dublin, the largest city in Ireland, and the reader quickly gets the feeling that London will be equally as unfulfilling and disappointing; a conclusion affirmed by Gallaher’s actual presence in the story, where Chandler brushes off his sense of disillusionment towards Gallaher and the vulgarity he notices in him as perhaps a ‘result of living in London.’ Whilst Chandler here willingly dismisses this, the reader picks up on the fact that if his vulgarity is associated with London, the city cannot possibly hold all the promise Chandler hopes. Similarly, Gallaher’s opening dialogue is somewhat fractured and erratic, ‘well, and how have you been pulling along since I saw you last? Dear God how old we’re getting,’ leaving no space for Chandler to respond and presenting the man as unstable and fickle. Despite, or perhaps because of Chandler’s faith in him, we are disappointed by Gallaher as readers. His hurried manner and erratic dialogue make him seem insincere, and we are left wondering whether Chandler’s ‘tears of remorse’ at the close of the story are for his imprisonment in Dublin or his disappointment in Gallaher, who for him represented the promise of the metropolitan London. This story therefore provides a perfect metaphor for Joyce to represent the city through Gallaher; a man who in theory is exciting and successful, but in reality is superficial and disappointing.
One of the most notable features of modernist writing is in its style, which often rejected Victorian values of chronology and traditional narrative in mimesis of the new rhythms of metropolitan life. In discussion of Virginia Woof’s work, Seal states in his article, ‘Woolf evolved a new approach to the use of rhythm in her writing too; the pace of life in a modern city was disorientating and intense.’ Woolf represents metropolitan life by trying to mimic its rhythms and pace through her style and structure. Examining Kew Gardens for instance, the reader passes through the minds of a number of different characters in quick succession, disabling them from really knowing the characters before their attention is diverted to something else. Whilst Woolf does provide some specifics about the characters, ‘rosy-cheeked,’ ‘nimble,’ ‘in the prime of youth,’ these qualities are all superficial and to the reader these people remain simply people. In Misperceiving Virginia Woolf, James Harker comments that ‘cinema is recreated in the image of the city,’ and indeed Woolf here creates a cinematic effect of walking down a city street, an experience during which one only observes snippets of other people’s lives without any prior information about them. It should perhaps be noted here that by representing metropolitan life this way, Woolf does not impose a sense of judgement on the reader about city life, firstly as she believed in the removal of the author from the text, and secondly because her structural choice and rhythm mediated through her characters, merely reflects the pace of metropolitan life; presented to the reader who in turn makes their own judgement.
Horne’s depiction of houses ‘staring’ at each other is a personification which is symbolic of the modern fear of constant surveillance, and indeed Joyce employs a similar image in Araby of houses that ‘gazed at one another.’ Technological and industrial advancement in the modern period allowed people to travel to places with more ease, enabled telephone communication, and brought masses of people into the cities. Such advancement is something the modernist writers of the period could not ignore, and whilst one might anticipate these changes to be received positively, these writers often presented metropolitan life as suffering because of them; increased population ironically inducing feelings of anonymity and hindering communication. This is again something represented through Woolf’s characters in Kew Gardens, all of whom share a lack of communication with one another. This seems best exemplified in the married couple’s exchange, in which the two seem on entirely different wavelengths:
‘For me, a square silver shoe buckle and a dragonfly-‘ ‘for me, a kiss.’
Not only here are their minds turned to different subjects, but the dash here indicates an interruption, the wife not even pausing to consider what her husband has said. If this is indeed a metaphor for the lack of communication in metropolitan life, we must pause to consider why this lack of communication is apparent. Whilst Woolf’s story is set in gardens rather than the city streets, Kew Gardens are in London and are cultivated by man and could therefore be seen as a metaphor for the city streets. For instance, her opening description of the flowers in the garden is incredibly vibrant and bursting with color:
‘[F]rom the red, blue, or yellow gloom of the throat emerged a straight bar, rough with gold dust and slightly clubbed at the end.’
The description of the flowers here borders on garish, with a multitude of colors and shapes presented to the reader in quick succession. The intense and overwhelming properties of the flowers in the garden can therefore be seen as Woolf’s representation of mass media which grew rapidly in her era in the sense that they provide a distraction in the story, ‘the ponderous woman looked through the pattern of falling words at the flowers,’ just as mass media did in the city. As Rechniewski puts it, ‘how is the writer to compete with the siren call of the mass media?’ This potential metaphor for the city is a representation of metropolitan life which opposes Hornes’ apocalyptic and desolate image of the city; by contrast, the flowers are symbolic of life and excitement. However, what lies behind this image is in the implication that the flowers are the distraction at the root of the lacking communication in the story, again accentuating Woolf’s use of character to mediate on metropolitan life.
Character is not just presented in humans, however. In trying to encapsulate the city, modernist writers often lent human qualities to buildings and vice versa, presenting the modern city as uniform and bleak. This returns us to Hornes’ depiction of the city, ‘broken-windowed houses grow crazed with staring at each other out of countenance, and crook-backed chimney-pots in cowls turn slowly round with a witch-like mutter,’ which shares an affinity with some of Joyce’s presentations of Dublin. In A Little Cloud, for instance, Chandler describes a row of houses as ‘stunted,’ saying ‘they seemed to him a band of tramps, huddled together along the river-banks.’ In this instance, the personification of the houses as ‘tramps’ indicates that they are unwanted, or a nuisance; a quality which expresses the animosity and disgust towards the new cities. Similarly, qualities of the city are reflected in human character, where for instance in A Painful case, Mr Duffy’s face is described as wearing ‘the brown tint of Dublin streets.’ Immediately, we are given the impression that the city has affected the man, and not in a positive way, with the color ‘brown’ being indicative of uniformity whilst also the color of the bricks of the houses in the story. This merging of man with city has the effect of depersonalizing the characters and emphasizing the anonymity of metropolitan life, whilst simultaneously the personification of the city creates the impression of being under constant surveillance. These seemingly conflicting presentations of metropolitan life work in harmony because one can always be watched by a crowd in the city yet remain without identity and anonymous.
The metropolitan city was widely seen by many as a negative thing; ‘the pace of life in a modern city [being] disorientating and intense.’ In an attempt to stabilize what seemed so unstable, it was the task of modernist writers like Joyce, T.S Eliot, and Virginia Woolf to invent new ways in writing to attempt to embody metropolitan life and the rapid change of the city around them. Whilst literary techniques like stream of consciousness and disruption of chronology were a key way in which these writers achieved this effect, the metropolitan city is most effectively represented through character, a familiar outlet to every reader. The true reaction towards the metropolitan city in the modernist period can therefore be read in the behavior and actions of the characters in the period’s literature.
Deep Dive in Symbolism of “A Mother”
The thirteenth of fifteen stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners collection, “A Mother,” can be seen as something of a break between the heavy, serious vignettes in its vicinity. It can be seen as a story to chuckle at; after all, the title character is an overbearing “stage mother” who demands that her daughter be paid full price for performing in a series of concerts in which she accompanies on the piano. Everyone, including eventually her family, feels that she is not only overreacting but ruining the show for everyone. It is possible to read this story and conclude that it’s simply a case of a shrill, uptight woman trying to live vicariously through her child. Upon a closer reading of “A Mother,” however, it is evident that there is more than meets the eye. Joyce includes intricately placed symbols and metaphors alluding to Irish tradition, and references Irish history quite a few times. In the following essay I will make a case that Joyce constructs a social commentary within “A Mother,” calling for a progressive mindset in Ireland. To do this, Joyce discusses three main themes: death, Irish nationalism, and feminism.
First, death is symbolically portrayed throughout the narrative, with Mrs. Kearney symbolizing life. This argument demands more than a surface-level reading of her character. As far as Mrs. Kearney’s marriage goes, Joyce writes that she had married “out of spite” (91) and jumped at the chance to wed her husband to silence the gossip of her friends. Her marriage is suitable, yet moribund. Mr. Kearney was very serious and pious and had a “great brown beard” (91), brown being a universal color of decay and death. He lacked romantic inclinations while his wife still harbored them. Mr. Kearney provided and was a good father in that respect, but the bond between the two was emotionally lifeless. After opening the story with the description of the mother and her marriage, Joyce goes into setting up the plot. We learn that Mrs. Kearney signs a contract for her daughter to perform in four concerts – she will receive eight guineas upon completion. Kathleen, the daughter, is not present when the deal is made, but is encouraged by her mother. Mrs. Kearney even goes out and buys expensive charmeuse fabric for Kathleen’s dress in anticipation of the performances. The mother and daughter enter the concert hall with high hopes, only to find the auditorium dead and lifeless – hardly anyone is present. Mrs. Kearney is appalled at the lack of turnout, and is told that they had scheduled too many shows. She regards Mr. Fitzpatrick, the secretary of the Society, as having a “vacant” smile (93) in response to this obvious failure in planning.
The next day, on the night of the second show, the audience is loud and behaves rudely. This night Mrs. Kearney finds out that the shows are being so badly attended that they have canceled the third night. This sends her into panic mode, because she signed a contract to be paid for four nights. The cacophony at this point sets a harrowing tone. Mrs. Kearney, “beginning to be alarmed” (93), could find no one to answer her question. It is raining the night of the concert, and everyone is hoping that the “melancholy of the wet street” (93) doesn’t ruin things. Later on, in order to get away from everyone, Mr. Holohan leads the man from the newspaper “along some torturous passages and up a dark staircase…to a secluded room…” (97). This description of where the men go to drink has double significance, because in one scene, they are entering a place with a deathlike description, and on the other hand, the darkness is a metaphor for the mens’ roles in this story, which I will touch on later. The room is a gathering place for the men, who are shown to be ineffective bystanders throughout the story, never truly getting anything done. Finally, death is referenced by the description of the soprano Madam Glynn’s performance. It is described as being “bodiless” and “gasping,” “with all the old-fashioned mannerisms of intonation and pronunciation which she believed lent elegance to her singing…She looked as if she had been resurrected from an old-stage wardrobe” (98). These allusions to oldness and decay are in direct opposition to Mrs. Kearney, who can be seen with her daughter passing judgment against Madam Glynn before the performance.
In this section I will examine the references Joyce makes to Irish culture at the time. In the very beginning, before we observe Mrs. Kearney and Mr. Hollohan’s meeting, Joyce mentions that this is taking place during the Irish Revival. Nationalism and classical Irish culture are very important to the characters. The children send Irish picture postcards and learn from Irish teachers. The whole premise of the performance hall is a tribute to the Irish Revival, as Ireland saw so many new theaters and performance halls in Dublin gain in popularity with the renewed love of everything distinctively Irish. I found Mrs. Kearney to be distinctively Irish. She struck me as not being a person that goes with the flow, but rather blazes her own trail – even if it upsets others, she presses on, because she seeks truth and justice. Her detractors try to derail her, but she has her eye on what she wants and is steadfast in her belief that she is right. That pride was such a tremendous part of the Irish nationalism at that time, and I can’t help but view Mrs. Kearney as an embodiment of this emerging zeal.
For my last point, I felt that the scene in the dressing room at the end was significant in regards to Joyce’s references of Ireland. The room is split into two: Mr. And Mrs. Kearney, Mr. Bell, Miss Healy and another young lady are standing together, and everyone else is on the opposite side of the room. The two groups are at odds at that point, and although Joyce doesn’t directly mention it, the reader can infer that tensions are running high and a few nasty looks are being thrown. For me, this was directly symbolic of the struggle between the Irish Catholics and the Protestants. The Catholics are being oppressed and told that they will be outcasts if they don’t conform to the new “way.” This is their faith, however, and though it is not binding like a legal document, it is more or less set in stone. It is a nice microcosm of religious struggles; both sides think they have it right. In this sense, I believe Mrs. Kearney is a loose representation of Mother Ireland; she is seen as crazy and overly emotional, and like Joyce’s Ireland in “Ireland at the Bar,” she seeks validation from those around her.
Finally, there is a feminist slant to the story. Most critics agree that Joyce demonizes his title character, advising by the end of the story that women need to be “put in their place.” Suzette Henke argues, “Mrs. Kearney…is so obsessively motivated by greed and financial ambition that she compromises her daughter’s musical career for the sake of bolstering her own ego and maintaining a self-righteous principle.”1 However, I believe he accomplishes something far different. First of all, Mrs. Kearney is portrayed from the get-go as a smart and business-savvy woman. She is much more outspoken than her husband, and is involved in negotiating the terms of a contract, which historically has been a man’s responsibility. In this sense, she is portrayed as a provider for her child by ensuring that the correct payment is made. She stands up to Mr. Hollohan and Mr. Fitzpatrick, who repeatedly claim that it’s not their responsibility to know all the details and stipulations should the circumstances change. These men, then, are depicted as ineffectual and unprofessional. Next to them Mrs. Kearney assumes the more dominant, masculine role, demanding justice. Later, as I mentioned in my first point, the men gather together to drink. They must navigate through dark quarters to reach the room. Again, colors paint pictures for Joyce; the darkness and the images of black and brown in the room are negative and symbolize corruption. Toward the end, the people orchestrating the show and the people in the actual performance point out how ridiculous Mrs. Kearney is, mocking her and telling each other that she doesn’t deserve a single dime. Even Joyce as the third person narrator notes (through the mother’s point of view), “They thought…they could ride roughshod over her” (99). Joyce touches on gender roles and stereotyping when Mrs. Kearney asserts that “They wouldn’t have dared to have treated her like that if she had been a man” (99). That is a very austere indictment of the other characters in the story; if only in her mind, it is brought to light that the reason why she is being treated so poorly is because she is a female.
An aspect of my argument worth noting is Mrs. Kearney’s refusal to actually state her problems with how she is being treated. As I said before, the story is in third person so that the free, indirect discourse is as much reflective of Joyce’s thoughts as it is Mrs. Kearney’s. Also, when talking to Mr. Fitzpatrick after the Friday night performance is canceled, she learns that he will not be able to help her and refers her to the Committee. Mrs. Kearney has to hold her tongue to suppress the audacious and somewhat sarcastic remark, “‘And who is the Cometty pray?’ But she knew it would not be ladylike to do that: so she was silent” (94). Of course, silence was a virtue often impressed upon women at that time, so she was unlikely to lose all instincts about gender roles. She shows great restraint, which is admirable, but she feels as if she has to do it to be “ladylike.”
This segues into my last argument for feminist symbolism. As I said, the mother knew her place and she knew when to be silent. Usually it is the husband who is outspoken and demanding in the relationship, but Mr. Kearney seems incredibly meek and demure compared to his wife. The whole setting of the auditorium is metaphorical for the importance Joyce lends to Mrs. Kearney. Usually a story about performing on stage will actually focus on the performers, but in “A Mother’s” case, all the action and the story are focused behind the scenes: in the dressing rooms, in the back of the hall, and behind the curtains. To me this seems clearly symbolic of the woman in the marriage relationship. But instead of the male assuming control of the situations and problems, Joyce focuses in on the backdrop, behind the scenes: where Mrs. Kearney operates. He is attributing significance to her character; Mrs. Kearney, like Catholics, has power, but at the same time is considered wild and threatening if she tries to use it openly.
In conclusion, I believe there is more to Joyce’s “A Mother” than merely what we read on the surface level. Joyce includes allusions to death and the Irish Revival, and also comments on the role of women in society through Mrs. Kearney’s character. Many of these allusions are interwoven, and I saw patterns regarding elements, for example: life and vibrancy, Ireland, and the woman are all seen in a favorable light. These juxtapositions cement in my mind the argument Joyce is trying to construct: a progressive and hopeful outlook for his homeland.
Life and Death in “Dubliners” by James Joyce
Much of Dubliners revolves around the weary contemplation of mortality, the apex of which appears in the novel’s endpiece, “The Dead,” which serves as the perfect counterpart to “The Sisters,” bookending the collection of stories with a cyclic emphasis on the intersection between life and death, recapitulating the central recurring themes of poverty, political division, paralysis, religion, and human transience. The novel opens with the macabre image of a dead priest in his coffin and closes with a thick blanket of snow falling over all the living and dead. Death has progressed from the individual to the universal, demonstrating the inescapability of the final human end.
Despite bleak imagery of “crooked crosses and headstones” there is a somber delicacy and sentimentality to the dark scene; the “beautiful death” described in “The Sisters” reaches a pinnacle in the melancholic beauty of the dark flakes of snow falling over the lonely land, and Gabriel’s “soul swoon(s) slowly” as he mediates upon the poignantly silent night. The certainty of death unites all mankind – the snow is “general all over Ireland” and falls “upon all the living and the dead,” removing all divisions between human beings as eventually, each and every one will reach the same fate.
The final paragraph of “The Dead” opens with a recurring gnomonic image of a figure gazing through a window; framed by uncertainty, watching, voyeuristically, his own life from the outside. The idea of the gnomon – a ghost of a missing form, an image incomplete – is a concept that anchors much of Dubliners, reflecting on the modernist sense of the unknown, of being lost in contemplation without quite understanding the hallucinatory world around. The stories are marked by a missing piece of information, an ellipsis in understanding, and the result is an esoteric sense of incompletion, a story left inconclusive, often both to the protagonist and to the reader. Gabriel experiences such a realization in “The Dead” as he stumbles upon a missing segment of his wife Gretta’s life, discovering that he was not in fact her first love, but rather she has been hiding a tragic romance, and he reflects that even now “perhaps she had not told him the whole story.”
This challenge to Gabriel’s self-assurance emphasises the failures of communication that recur throughout Dubliners and particularly “The Dead,” precipitated throughout the Morkans’ party through the awkward exchange with Lily and the argument with Miss Ivors, culminating in a realization of the distance between Gabriel and Gretta. While Gabriel spends the ride back to the hotel musing warmly about his wife and growing increasingly enraptured at the idea of spending a night alone with her, his illusionary romance is soon shattered by the discovery that she has in fact been harbouring thoughts not of Gabriel, but of Michael Furey. This creates an immense distance between the couple, a sense of being in two different worlds, which forces Gabriel to reflect on his role in Gretta’s life, reaching a sobering conclusion of “what a poor part he had played.”
Staring out the window at the silently falling snow, Gabriel experiences an epiphany, suddenly able to see his life with disheartening clarity. He recognizes himself as merely a shadow of a man, a lingering ghost that sifts through life without really living, and realizes that those who live passionately and die young – the Michael Fureys of the world – live more fully than muted silhouettes such as himself. He is, in a sense, more dead in fact than Michael Furey, who remains a shining memory in his wife’s heart, continuing to exert an impact over the living. Gabriel understands in this moment that the distinction between the living and the dead that he proclaimed earlier is indeed false. The dead are very much a part of life, and Michael Furey in particular lives on more profoundly than he ever will. He too will eventually join the dead, become buried beneath the cold white blanket of ice, but he will be forgotten.
The passage reads with a distinctly soft Irish voice – a hushed breath, slurred together with slow, delicate movement of language and whispering sounds that emulate the falling of snow. This results in a sense of intense quiet, all action and thought hushed and dulled. The snow is illuminated only by diffused “lamplight” falling in “light taps,” with everything happening “softly” and “faintly” in a diluted reality that he watches “sleepily” in that muted consciousness floating somewhere between wake and sleep. The nighttime setting of this moment underscores this surreal sense of nomadic reality, hovering in the ephemeral state of darkness that separates the life of one day from the next, the crevice between life and death. This darkness is emphasized through repetition of gloominess – “the flakes, silver and dark,” “the dark central plain,” and “the dark mutinous Shannon waves.” The darkness above the ground seems to mirror the darkness below the ground, meditating on the intersection between the living and the dead; the universality of human fate.
The persistent repetition of the term “falling” throughout the passage – “falling obliquely,” “falling softly,” and “faintly falling” – creates a sense of relentlessness and almost suffocating deposition. Although the individual flakes rain down to earth gently, a sense of heaviness is suggested through the accumulation of soft patters that build up to create a blanket that “lies thickly” over the land The coldness of the scene reflects on the numbness of Gabriel’s character, yet seems to suggest that everyone is in fact as numb as he; this frozen state reaches everyone, uniting the living and dead, despite images of isolation, forlorn descriptions of “treeless hills,” a “lonely churchyard” and “barren thorns,” that create the impression of wrenchingly solitary experience. All individuals, Joyce suggests, are inherently alone and yet paradoxically united in their shared isolation.
Although Gabriel passively accepts the epiphany that he is already dead, there remains a fleeting glimmer of hope as he reflects that perhaps “the time had come for him to set out on his journey westward,” an ephemeral hint at the possibility of changing his attitude, embracing life and disencumbering himself from the deadening routines of the past, immortalized in the Morkans’ party, the monotonous rituals repeated year after year, like the horse circling around the mill. The snow, unusual even in January, cannot last forever – it, too, is as transient as life itself.
“The Sisters” and it’s Source of Mystery
In “The Sisters” James Joyce creates an elusive mystery surrounding the death of James Flynn by withholding narrator insight into the events of the story. He achieves this by selecting a young boy as the narrator, whose age is not specified but is hinted at in the condescending tones of the adult characters towards him. Thus, we get the picture of a boy who is somewhat sheltered by a protective cast of adults and naive to the ways of the world. As a result, he is unable to fully process the clues that the story drops as hints about the dark nature of Father Flynn’s past, and the reader must piece together many elements of the puzzle himself, resulting in a more personal interpretation.
In the first dramatized scene, Old Cotter’s “unfinished sentences” provide the first evidence of strange circumstances surrounding the preacher’s death and prior mental state. He utters half clues and incomplete speculations, such as “I think it was one of those… peculiar cases… But it’s hard to say….” The narrator’s age-appropriate response is to rebut with childish rebelliousness, and thus he is too busy calling Cotter a “tiresome old fool!” to consider the implications of his statements about the Father. Thus, the reader must undertake the speculation for him.
The dream sequence provides the starkest example of a lack of narrator insight in illuminating the shrouded mystery of the priest’s affliction. The ghoulish face in the dream, with its moist lips and eerie smile, represents a dark side to Father Flynn that the boy had not previously met with. Confused as to how to confront this manifestation, he finds himself “smiling feebly as if to absolve the simoniac of his sin”. Even upon seeing a nightmare-skewed representation of the Father, the boy fails to react to his dark side with the repulsion that we as readers feel towards the face. His naivete prevents him, even subconsciously, from grasping the dark symbolism that we plainly see.
Many hints about the Father’s past are included in the dialogue-heavy last scene, in which the narrator’s commentary recedes almost completely, indicative of his overwhelmed, confused state. The “crossed life” of the Father is alluded to, and we hear of the incident with the goblet. This incident is speculated to be the priest’s final breaking point, but we do not know for sure whether this is merely a superstitious explanation. We hear of the confession booth incident, which suggests that the Preacher’s breakdown comes as a kind of repentance for his past, and seems closer to a real explanation of his cause for mental breakdown. Eliza confirms that he received last sacrament, and the fact that she feels the need to explicitly state this hints that there was a possibility of him being turned aside by the Catholic church. This suggests a major transgression, religious or moral, on the part of Father Flynn. Again, we as readers must pick up on each subtle clue, because the narration is oblivious to them.
While we never get more than hints as to what sin may have been eating at the priest, the story does suggest that it is the religious burden of piety that makes sin unbearable for Father Flynn. This is hinted at by his emphasis on the volume and gravity of Catholic religious protocol in his lessons to the narrator, which suggests a heavy religious burden weighing on the priest’s mind and soul. We can speculate that such a burden arose from the hypocrisy of maintaining Catholic piety and protocol in the face of a past somehow tarnished with sin. The nature of this sin, we must imagine, based on our own experience. Thus, Joyce inadvertently pushes the reader to think critically about how his own transgressions would hold up under the weight of Catholic piety. The effect is to guide the reader towards a critique of an institution that as a whole is burdened by hypocrisy and is thus subject to the same kind of internal conflict and breakdown that ends up paralyzing Father Flynn. Delivering such a comparison straight from the narrator would no doubt come off as preachy rhetoric. Joyce sidesteps this problem ingeniously, guiding us to make the parallel ourselves by withholding narrator insight and forcing us to substitute our own. The effect is a personal and unsettling resonance to the story that is both troubling and thought-provoking.