Themes in Araby
Arguably the central theme throughout the story is loss of innocence, both in the narrator’s belief in religion and his understanding of romance. His religious training led him to place all his faith and devotion in Mangan’s sister, but upon the unsuccessful conclusion of his quest for her gift he realizes that the journey and his infatuation were all for naught. Intertwined with this theme about the loss of innocence is the theme of idealism. The narrator is overly-idealistic about his adoration of Mangan’s sister, and this extends further to his idealism about Araby. This idealization only makes the narrator’s imminent fall more painful and highlights the manipulated way he has been taught to view religion and, subsequently, the world.
Themes Examples in Araby:
"Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger...." See in text (Araby)
Disillusioned by what he sees at the bazaar, the boy finally sees himself as readers have seen him for much of the story. He realizes his own vanity and foolishness, his unprofitable use of time, the futility of life in Dublin, that Mangan's sister likely has no interest in him, and that there is no magical "Araby" in Ireland.
"though I knew my stay was useless..." See in text (Araby)
Joyce termed this type of final scene as an epiphany in that it provides a moment of sudden revelation or insight even in a apparently ordinary situation or conversation. Joyce's epiphany shows how the boy acquires an intuitive grasp of reality: he is defeated; he failed his quest to buy a gift, but most of all, his self-deception and ego defeated him by making him believe that his quest was sacred. This epiphany represents the boy's fall from innocence and his change into an adolescent dealing with the harsh realities of life.
"two men were counting money on a salver..." See in text (Araby)
Since Joyce has made the comparison between Araby and a church explicit, then this line provides a very stark image of how money and religion are mixed in this place: The two men counting money inside a church likely alludes to the story of Jesus Christ in Matthew 21:12-13 in which he throws the money changers out of the temple, and a "salver" refers to the plate on which a wine cup sits for communion in church.
"florin..." See in text (Araby)
Florins are a form of currency that originated in the city of Florence during the Renaissance. The coins had a likeness of St. John the Baptist on one side and one of the Virgin Mary on the other. This little fact not only subtly supports the confusion between the material and the romantic in the story, but florins from the late 19th century also depicted the British Queen Victoria on one side with a phrase on the other: "by the grace of God, defender of the faith." Since Ireland was still under British rule, this subtly reminds readers of colonialism, because the young Irish-Catholic boy has to carry around a coin that represents the authority of the Queen and the British (and Protestant) Church of England.
"The Arab's Farewell to his Steed..." See in text (Araby)
Many of Joyce's readers would understand his inclusion of Caroline Norton's poem and its relationship to "Araby." In the poem the Arab boy sells his beloved horse for money. However, in the end he regrets this decision and returns the gold to get his horse back. Such a reference hits on the boy's confusion between materialist and romantic love in "Araby."
"Mrs. Mercer..." See in text (Araby)
The name "Mercer" is derived from the Old French word "mercier" or "merchier," which means a merchant. Joyce chose this name to continue the theme of mercantile love. Notice how Mrs. Mercer is also the widow of a pawnbroker, and she also collects used stamps to sell for money to donate to the church. Again, the material is mixing with the religious similar to how it was in the paragraph about the boy's shopping trip with his aunt.
"Araby..." See in text (Araby)
"Araby" is not only the name of the bazaar (a market in Middle Eastern countries). The boy romanticizes Araby as a symbol of the mystical allure of the Middle East. We've seen how his romantic and religious love have manifested thus far in how he imagines himself as a knight on a holy quest, and this continues when he offers to attend the bazaar in order to purchase a gift for Mangan's sister.
"I will bring you something..." See in text (Araby)
The theme of consumerism and materialism occurs again in this passage. The narrator’s promise to Mangan’s sister suggests that he believes expressions of love can be contained in objects and traded like commodities.
"there would be a retreat that week in her convent..." See in text (Araby)
Joyce builds on the theme of religion in the story here by showing how the girl's religious retreat takes precedence over her desire to enjoy the bazaar. The twirling of her silver bracelets also hints at a kind of nervous, and possibly sexual, energy that her religious obligations have also suppressed.
"to veil..." See in text (Araby)
Joyce uses the veil to encapsulate the blinding and stifling nature of religion. The metaphorical veil represents the narrator’s lack of clarity surrounding his feelings for Mangan’s sister due to his religious upbringing that has taught him to suppress those kinds of emotions.
"I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled..." See in text (Araby)
Alone in the house (a classic masturbatory situation), the boy nearly engages in sexual activity. Instead, he presses his hands together and murmurs like he's in church. The culmination of his activity shows how the boy's religious upbringing has so suppressed his sexual feelings, with the religious completely obscuring the sexual in his mind and body.
"These noises converged in a single sensation of life for me..." See in text (Araby)
Joyce combines the story's themes of romantic, religious, and materialist love in this paragraph through a routine shopping trip with the boy's aunt. Notice how the boy imagines this mundane task to be more like a sacred adventure, much like a knight on a medieval quest for the Holy Grail (the "chalice" he mentions).
"I stood by the railings looking at her..." See in text (Araby)
The inclusion of "railings" here is important because Joyce could count on his readers making the connection with the altar rails in Catholic churches. These rails separate the congregation from the altar and serve as locations for the faithful to kneel, pray, and take communion. By standing by these rails to watch Mangan's sister, the boy conflates her with the Virgin Mary as an object of religious veneration. However, he doesn't understand or recognize—perhaps due to repressive, religious influences—his sexual attraction to her. This confusion persists and is elaborated on in more detail.
"NORTH RICHMOND STREET being blind..." See in text (Araby)
Blindness supports one of the major themes in "Araby." In this first sentence, “blind” has two meanings. Literally, it refers to a cul-de-sac or dead-end street. However, figuratively, Joyce refers to the condition of the boy's, and other's, relation to reality, a kind of short-sighted naivety.
"He had been a very charitable priest..." See in text (Araby)
The frequent hypocrisy of religion is a familiar theme in Joyce's work. This description hides a disconcerting question that Joyce uses to point of the hypocrisy of religion: if the priest was so charitable, how could he have had so much money at the time of his death? While the narrator doesn't understand such hypocrisy, readers know that "all" suggests a lot of money, particularly when referring to donations to institutions, and that leaving one's possessions to family, such as the sister here, is not true charity.
"The former tenant of our house..." See in text (Araby)
Joyce uses the house as a representation for all of Ireland. Since the previous tenant was a priest, who has since died, Joyce implies that the Church is also dead. Joyce hated Roman Catholicism, and the influences it had on him and others fuels one of his main themes in this short story as the young boy struggles to separate the secular from the sacred.
"The Abbot, by Walter Scott..." See in text (Araby)
Sir Walter Scott's historical novel The Abbot, written in 1820, presents the life of Mary Queen of Scots in a religious and romantic way. The central character, Roland Graeme, is a young man who becomes involved in adventure and romance, much like the narrator of "Araby," who goes on his own quest. Joyce's inclusion of this text represents the complexity and confusion of romantic, religious, and materialist love that the boy faces in "Araby."
"The Memoirs of Vidocq..." See in text (Araby)
Francois-Jules Vidocq published The Memoirs of Vidocq in 1829. This popular 19th-century novel was about a Parisian Police Commissioner and thief who was able to conceal his own crimes. The book's inclusion here presents and supports the theme of deception in the story. The presence of these three novels further strengthen the deception, because readers can understand their purpose but the boy himself remains ignorant of their meaning and influence.
"Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers..." See in text (Araby)
The narrator’s feelings of love for Mangan’s sister interrupt his daily activities, many of which include religious rituals. Joyce suggests that religion tries to suppress and ultimately confuses the boy’s romantic and sexual feelings. As seen with the earlier comparison of Mangan's sister to the Virgin Mary, the boy's struggle to separate his secular emotions from his religious upbringing continues as a pervasive theme in "Araby."