Main Themes in Araby By James Joyce
James Joyce’s Irish tale, “Araby” describes the recollection of a hopeless infatuation and the desperation behind it. Set in the perspective of a young boy, Joyce portrays a simple town life, while highlighting the complex subtleties of adolescence. Utilizing a lighthearted tone, reverential characterization, a bleak setting, and sympathetic imagery Joyce suggests that even the simplest of obsessions can become detrimental to everyday life.
The main character’s recollection of his past follies is a playful reminiscence of his first look into love. Through the perspective of a young boy, the narrator describes his naivete through many childish observations, for comedic effect. At the start, he is among children “playing till their bodies glowed” (Joyce 1). It is here that the reader is given the idea that the main character is, in fact, a child. In his analysis, “’A&P’: A Return Visit to Araby,” Walter Wells suggests the journey through adolescence is a learning experience. A major component to this idea would be the new feelings associated with this progression through life. Wells highlights this, stating that the protagonist’s attraction to Mangan’s sister “excites him into confusing his sexual impulses for those of honor and chivalry” (Wells 1). This disparity between “honor” and “sexual impulses” is a clear indicator of the narrator’s subconscious need to cater to Mangan’s sister’s wishes, for he is channeling this physical attraction into something that is out of his character: being honorable and chivalrous. For example, with the introduction of Mangan’s sister, the boy suddenly no longer wants to be the same mischievous child, but rather, wants to adopt his own perception of what adulthood really is. The girl is most likely much older than the narrator, given that she is not among the children very often. This inclines the narrator to “rise” to her level, but at the same time changing everything about himself. For example, when he describes the “serious work of life” as “child’s play” (4), he clearly doesn’t know what he is talking about. He feels too grown up for school because Mangan’s sister feels too grown up for school. This difference in age is a motivation for his immediate need to accelerate time; he wants to join Mangan’ sister in any way he can. Another situation where he tries to act older is during the final scene, when he is at the bazaar, trying to make his “interest in her wares seem more real” (5). He made it clear that staying at the bazaar was a pointless endeavor, yet he wanted to look like he was interested just to preserve his personal belief that he was being an adult. Through his delusional chase for Mangan’s sister, he tried to change himself completely. He tried to lose himself through an obsession and that ultimately forced him to become desperate. This desperation has left the narrator overly dependent on her existence.
The most commonly recurring motif throughout the story is the divine characterization of Mangan’s sister. In Margot Norris’s analysis, “Blind Streets and Seeing Houses: Araby’s Dim Glass Revisited,” she emphasizes the voyeuristic nature of adolescence. Being a period of exploration, more sexual feelings become prevalent, and stalking Mangan’s sister is the narrator’s first foray. Norris highlights this by describing that the narrator felt “safe in its blind” (Norris 3); the “blind” being his image of Mangan’s sister. The reverence the narrator holds for this girl shields the reality of his situation, for he probably cannot seduce her, but takes solace in stalking her movements. The main character idolizes her and, as a result, he imagines her as “touched by the lamplight at the curved neck” (Joyce 2). The exact same description of Mangan’s sister appears twice: once in the main character’s observation, and once in the main character’s imagination. The first time he observes Mangan’s sister, it is clear that he is completely dazzled by her appearance. He emphasizes the effect of the lamplight on her skin as merely “touching her curved neck” (2), implying the gentle effect she has on her surroundings. This gives the reader a sense that she is almost an otherworldly presence; a completely pure being. The second time this characterization resurfaces is in the boy’s imagination as he patiently waits to attend the bazaar. The fact that he remembers her in this specific way demonstrates that Mangan’s sister is a divine entity to him. She is no ordinary infatuation, but a manifestation of everything the boy wants. Her existence is fueling the boy’s to watch her and it, in turn, causes him to neglect his own duties. For example, he begins to lose his “patience with the serious work of life” as he continues to fantasize his idol. Here, it clear that he is unable to see anything but Mangan’s sister. His zealous faith in Mangan’ sister is also utter blindness to everything else, as a result.
As alluring as Mangan’s sister is, she is merely a stark contrast to the reality of the narrator’s dismal status. Despite the lighthearted tone, many descriptions of the town punctuate the story, almost as a way to remind the reader that the young boy is simply trying to escape the bleak situation of his life. For example, the narrator’s description of the local market was a place “most hostile to romance” (2) with an inundation of “drunken men,” “[cursing] laborers,” and “ballads about the troubles in [his] native land” (2). This hustle-bustle is the first true revelation of the type of place the narrator resides. “Drunken men” and “cursing laborers” often classify a lower class area, because laborers tend not to earn well and many impoverished people turn to a bottle due to deplorable circumstances. The boy’s disgust towards them only gives another reason to use Mangan’s sister as someone to temporarily avoid the seemingly antagonistic nature of his everyday life. The “ballads” are also another subtle clue to the stability of his village. There could be a shortage of crops; after all, the story appears to be set in winter due to the “cold air” (1). Yet, despite this desperate situation, the narrator escapes it all by focusing on his love interest for most of the story. Only once he journeys to bazaar his lifestyle becomes evident as he uses a “third class carriage” that “[creeps] onward among ruinous houses” (4). Here, the reader is given an idea of what the narrator can afford: the lowest quality. In his analysis “’Araby:’ Singing in the Rain,” Gerald Doherty suggests a more hypnotic point of view toward the narrator and his hunger for Mangan’s sister. He suggests that all of the narrator’s surroundings only serve as a distractions to his ultimate motives. His justification revolves around the train ride to the bazaar, describing the “ruinous houses” along the way as “a scrupulous roll call of all those intermediary sightings that come between the boy and his goal” (Doherty 2). To an extent, the narrator’s obsession with Mangan’s sister is given a layer of sympathy with this aspect of the story because it makes the reader pity him. This pity enables a sense of justification for his actions, no matter how questionable.
Even though Mangan’s sister acts as an idol to the clearly enchanted narrator, she, as a character, is an embodiment of vanity. On the surface, she is comforting, warming, and gentle, but looking deeper reveals not a single shred of humanity. In the eyes of the narrator she is free of flaws and abundant in beauty, but those characteristics only make her less real. For example their first and only conversation was about how Mangan’s sister had to “retreat…in her convent” (3), rendering her unable to attend the bazaar. Here, nothing is revealed about her true self and she is still only a pretty face, only this time making small talk. Once again, the adolescent innocence of the narrator surfaces, only in a different angle. To the reader, it harkens back to a childhood attraction, but this time, as opposed to appealing to the utter bafflement to beauty, it refers to the superficiality of such a situation. In Kathryn Conrad and Mark Osteen’s analysis “Light Squares: Framing ‘Araby,’” they suggest that achieving maturity comes at the cost of innocence. When describing the relation between Mangan’s sister and the narrator, they state that the narrator is merely “superimposing his fantasy image upon the actual girl” (Conrad-Osteen 2). On a certain level, the reader can sympathize with the narrator’s clouded judgment because as a child, only the most apparent qualities stand out. The deeper, more human characteristics, such as personality, are an afterthought simply due to the naivete that is prevalent during this time. Even though he mutters “O love! O love!” (3) during his first encounter with Mangan’s sister, he isn’t actually in love, but rather is unknowingly creating his own perception of what “love” is. He doesn’t know enough about this person to “love” them, revealing, once again, that he only knows what he sees. At the very end of the story, the narrator experiences an epiphany when the bazaar closed, seeing himself as a “creature driven and derided by vanity” (5). At this moment, seeing the bazaar close and finding nothing unveils the shroud that has blinded the boy for so long. In seconds he recognizes the lengths went over something so vain: the appearance of Mangan’s sister. This fascination with her was the catalyst to this pointless excursion as well as other pointless distractions to his duties. Yet, this brings a new level of depth to the narrator and grants the reader with another aspect to adolescence: learning from mistakes. The reader can sympathize with this sudden insight because it is representative of the many follies that potentially obscured his or her own path. This transition is what gives the narrator the depth that Mangan’s sister lacked.
Joyce’s seemingly shallow chase for love, manages to unfold into an introspective interpretation of adolescence, revealing hidden truths about the nature of growing up. The lighthearted tone and reverential characterization capitalize on the comedic, yet relatable nature of the narrator’s blindness, whereas, in contrast, the bleak setting and sympathetic characterization loom over the more serious and reflective aspect of his actions. The narrator is clearly overly obsessed with his infatuation, yet he is still significantly changed as a result, despite how trivial it is. His chase of Mangan’s sister led to a darker realization of the effects of obsession, resulting in his maturation and, albeit, sudden glimpse of adulthood.
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