An Introduction, by Owl Eyes
James Joyce wrote the short story collection Dubliners, published in 1914, as a testament to life and the quest for identity in Ireland at the turn of the 20th century. The collection follows a trajectory mirroring that of the human life, from innocence to experience, ignorance to knowledge, childhood to maturity. The energy which sustains this journey comes from the “epiphany”—each story’s moment of stark realization and disillusionment, which illuminates the world of Joyce’s Dublin and the broader world of human experience.
In Dubliners, “Araby” is the third of the fifteen stories and marks the transition between the sections on childhood and adolescence. Its role in the collection is to depict the passage out of the magical thinking of childhood, a period of change in which some of the harshest lessons of life are learned.
It is the story of a young boy’s disillusionment, out of which arises a self-awakening. The boy develops romantic feelings for his neighbor’s sister. In his desire to please her, he decides to go to the Araby bazaar to find a gift for her. As he proceeds in his quest, he finds his desires unaffirmed by his Irish Catholic culture, by his family, and by the indifferent world he discovers at Araby.
The boy’s emerges painfully but necessarily into awareness. Despite how despairingly he stares into the dark at the story’s end, he has torn away the metaphorical blinders which had so profoundly narrowed his naive view of the world. “Araby” is thus a quintessential expression of the fall from grace, the Judeo-Christian myth first told in Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
Joyce explores these principal themes of disillusionment and awakening through nuanced figurative devices, particularly the juxtaposition of spiritual and monetary imagery and the splicing of allusions from both “high” and “low” culture. Consider the following passage:
“On Saturday evenings when my aunt went marketing I had to go to carry some of the parcels. We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of labourers, the shrill litanies of shop-boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs' cheeks, the nasal chanting of street-singers, who sang a come-all-you about O'Donovan Rossa, or a ballad about the troubles in our native land. [...] I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes. Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand. My eyes were often full of tears (I could not tell why) and at times a flood from my heart seemed to pour itself out into my bosom [...] my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.”
The contrast between the boy’s bland reality and his grandiose imagination reveals the gulf between the romantic dreams of his childhood and the adult world he is about to enter: a shopping parcel is a holy “chalice,” the din of the market a choir of “litanies” and monastic “chanting.” In the image of the medieval romantic quest, the boy sees himself as valiant and chivalrous and the object of his affections both noble and holy.
The boy looks to the medieval romance for structure and meaning in defining his experiences. His passion for his neighbor’s unnamed sister, who has only spoken to him once, spills into his consciousness through religious imagery. Because of his youthfulness and his Catholic upbringing, the boy has no other way to understand the sexual mysteries emerging over the horizons of his life. The overlaying of a romantic quest narrative onto his conversation with the girl, who asks the boy if he will be attending the Araby bazaar, gives him a lens through which he can live out his desires, even if the lens is a childish fiction.
The boy’s rose-colored illusions reach their peak when he visits the bazaar, onto which he projects fantasies of an exotic Orient. The spell of this “Eastern enchantment,” however, is shattered by the indifference of the adult world, driven as it is by rude necessity. When the boy arrives at the bazaar, the only sounds he hears are the “fall of the coins” and the banal banter of the shopkeepers. These cold details of commercial life awaken the boy to the nature of his delusions. His desire to fulfill a romantic quest is unmet by the world he finds at Araby. In this moment of epiphany, the boy’s childish fantasy erodes, and he sees the world in truer colors—a pivotal moment in his identity formation and coming-of-age:
“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’s story remains a convincing representation of an impressionable, naive young boy at a critical moment in his life. Joyce’s masterful use of allusions, symbols, and language craft a world of emotions and feelings that extend beyond the young boy’s adventure, rewarding attentive readers with an immersion into the historical, geographical, and cultural references of life in 1894 Dublin.