A Short Story by James Joyce (1882-1941)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings.© 2010
.......James Joyce's “Araby” is a short story centering on an Irish adolescent emerging from boyhood fantasies into the harsh realities of everyday life in his country. Joyce based this coming-of-age tale, which he wrote in 1905, on his own experiences while growing up in Dublin in the late nineteenth century. The London firm of Grant Richards Ltd. published the story in 1914 in Dubliners, a collection of fifteen of Joyce's stories.
.......James Joyce based "Araby" on his own experiences as an adolescent resident of Dublin in 1894, when Ireland was chafing under British rule. Like the fictional narrator of "Araby," Joyce lived on North Richmond Street (No. 17) in the central part of the city. And like the narrator, he was undergoing a period of
self-discovery. However, unlike the narrator of "Araby," Joyce was not an orphan.
.......An adolescent boy narrates the story in first-person point of view. He does not identify himself. But to readers familiar with the life and works of Joyce, it becomes clear that he represents the author. Joyce based characters, places, and events in the story on recollections from his boyhood, although he altered reality from time to time. For example, Joyce was not an orphan, as is the narrator.
Narrator: Boy of about twelve who becomes infatuated with the sister of his friend, Mangan. Although she hardly notices him and converses with him only once, he fantasizes about her and tells her he will buy her a gift if he attends a bazaar called Araby. He seems to regard her as noble and pure of heart, like a maiden in a tale of chivalry.
His trip to the bazaar to find her the gift then becomes something of a knight's quest on behalf of his lady fair.
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2010
.......The year is 1894. The place is North Richmond Street in Ireland's largest city, Dublin. The street dead-ends at an empty house of two stories, says the unidentified narrator, a boy of about twelve who lives on the street with his uncle and aunt. A priest was once a tenant in the house they occupy. After he died, the narrator explored his quarters. He reports that
Air, musty from having been long enclosed, hung in all the rooms, and the waste room behind the kitchen was littered with old useless papers. Among these I found a few paper-covered books, the pages of which were curled and damp: The Abbot, by Walter Scott, The Devout Communicant, and The Memoirs of Vidocq. I liked the last best because its leaves were yellow........The narrator says the priest was a good man, for he bequeathed his money to institutions and his furniture to his sister.
.......In winter, the narrator and his friends, including a boy named Mangan, play in the street and in the muddy lanes along and behind the houses. If the narrator's uncle turns into the street, everyone hides until he enters his house. If Mangan's sister comes out and calls her brother to tea, everyone keeps in the shadows. If she stands there and waits, the boys reveal themselves and Mangan answers her call. The narrator always observes her closely, for he is strongly attracted to her even though he hardly knows her.
.......On school mornings, he waits for her to come out, then grabs his school books and follows her until their paths diverge. She is constantly in his thoughts even though they had never had a conversation. One rainy evening in the kitchen of the priest's empty quarters, he presses his hands together as if to pray and says, “O love! O love!”
.......Finally, a day comes when she speaks to him. She asks whether he is going to the Araby bazaar Saturday evening, noting that she herself wants to go but cannot because she must attend a retreat scheduled at her convent. He tells her that if he goes to the bazaar, he will bring back something for her.
.......During the next several days, having received permission from his aunt to attend the event, all he can think about is the bazaar and Mangan's sister. On Saturday morning, he reminds his uncle that he will be attending the bazaar that evening. The uncle, who is in the hallway looking for a hat brush, curtly replies, "Yes, boy, I know."
.......After the narrator returns from school, he sits downstairs staring at a clock, waiting for his uncle to come home and give him money for the bazaar. Irritated by the ticking of the clock, he goes to the highest part of the dwelling and looks out at the Mangan girl's house while neighbor boys are playing in the street. For fully an hour, he stands there thinking of her, imagining he sees her in front of her house—her curved neck, her dress, her hand on the railing.
.......When he returns downstairs, his uncle has still not returned home. But Mrs. Mercer is there sitting at the fire. She is a pawnbroker's widow who collects used stamps for a charitable cause. She is also waiting for the narrator's uncle, but the narrator does not say why. It may be that the uncle owes her money or has promised to give her stamps. While dinner awaits his return, Mrs. Mercer gossips with the narrator's aunt over tea. Just after eight o'clock, Mrs. Mercer says she can wait no longer and leaves.
.......“I'm afraid you may put off your bazaar for this night of Our Lord,” the narrator's aunt says.
.......At nine, the narrator hears his uncle come through the door. He is talking to himself, which means he has been drinking. When the narrator asks him for money for the bazaar, the uncle says people are going to bed by this time. But the aunt presses him on behalf of the boy. The uncle then gives the boy a florin and asks him whether he has heard of "The Arab's Farewell to His Steed." In a hurry, the boy leaves while the uncle prepares to recite the first few lines of the poem to his wife.
.......The narrator takes an empty third-class train across the river to the site of the bazaar. When he walks down the street to the bazaar building, it is nearing ten o'clock. He pays his way and walks through a turnstile only to discover that most of the stalls are already closed. In front of a curtain at one stall, Cafe Chantant, two men are counting money. When the narrator finds a stall that is still open, he goes inside and looks over a display of tea sets and porcelain vases.
.......A young lady is talking with two gentlemen. All have English accents. She comes over and asks the narrator whether he wishes to make a purchase. Her tone is perfunctory; she exhibits little enthusiasm. “No, thank you,” he says. He lingers a moment, then walks away. The lights of the gallery in the upper part of the building go out. Of this moment, the narrator tells the reader:
.......“Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”
.......James Joyce grew up a Catholic and attended Clongowes boarding school, operated by priests of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits. But his father's heavy drinking and incompetence in home finances plunged the family into debt. Consequently, Joyce had to
withdraw from school and return home, where he kept up his studies with the help of his mother. Two years later, Jesuits at Belvedere school admitted Joyce free of charge. He flourished academically, rising to the top of his class.
The former tenant of our house, a priest, had died in the back drawing-room. Air, musty from having been long enclosed, hung in all the rooms, and the waste room behind the kitchen was littered with old useless papers . . . He had been a very charitable priest; in his will he had left all his money to institutions and the furniture of his house to his sister.Here, the boy attaches no special meaning to the condition of the room or the “useless papers.” Nor does he look down on the priest, for he notes that he had been a charitable man. However, it appears that the author himself—in looking back on his adolescence—intended the musty air and the useless papers to suggest that the church was an outdated institution with effete rules and doctrines. Like the priest, it would die. As to the generosity of the priest, Joyce seems to be raising the question of why he had money and property in the first place.
.......One may argue that Joyce felt conscience-bound to criticize the Catholic Church in "Araby" and other short stories, as well as in novels such as Ulysses. But his unfair generalizations about the church and the mean spirit in which he delivers his criticism bring into question the reliability and objectivity of his criticism.
.......The narrator contends with environmental forces that inhibit and oppress him and other Dubliners. These forces include adverse economic, social, and cultural conditions arising from British dominance of Ireland. He also struggles against lustful feelings toward the Mangan girl, feelings that his religion tells him
he must control. These feelings are most obvious in the following sentence at the end of the sixth paragraph: "All my senses seemed to desire to veil themselves and, feeling that I was about to slip from them, I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled, murmuring: `O love! O love!' many times."
Awakening to the Humdrum Life of Dublin
.......The working-class street on which the narrator resides is a dead end, suggesting that he and his friends are going nowhere. They will grow up to live in the same dreary Dublin, with its dreary weather, dreary people, and dreary houses. In the third paragraph, the narrator describes the depressing atmosphere:
.......When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street. The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses, where we ran the gantlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odours arose from the ashpits, to the dark odorous stables . . . ........Nevertheless, the narrator bears up. He has friends, keeps active, and nurtures a dream: to win the attentions of the Mangan girl. After she speaks to him one day about the Araby bazaar, his spirits soar; he can think of nothing but her and of the gift he will buy her at the bazaar. For him, she is an exotic, lovely creature, foreign to Dublin. And the bazaar—Araby, as it is called—represents a distant, mystical land to which he will travel on behalf of his beloved to obtain for her a splendid keepsake. He is like a knight planning a quest.
.......But when he goes to the bazaar late one Saturday evening, the third-class train he rides to the site of the bazaar, the nearly empty bazaar hall, the English accents of the saleswoman and her men friends all disillusion him. In this moment, he suddenly awakens to the bleakness of the humdrum life around him.
.......As a young adult Joyce turned hostile toward Roman Catholicism and its clergy, believing that they had been a negative influence on Ireland over the years. Consequently, he makes the priest (paragraph 2) part of the dreary, decaying Dublin environment.
The Abbot: Novel by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). Its central character is Roland Graeme, a young man reared by relatives (like the Araby narrator). Graeme becomes involved in romance and adventure, as the narrator of "Araby" dreams of doing after meeting Mangan's sister and then going on a
knightly "quest" to the bazaar.
My beautiful! that standest meekly by,At the end of the poem, the former owner returns the money and reclaims the horse.
Araby: Name of a bazaar (“Araby: a Grand Oriental Fête”) held in Dublin May 14-19, 1894, to benefit a local hospital. In Joyce's short story, the young narrator views Araby as a symbol of the mystique and allure of the Middle East. When he crosses the river to attend the bazaar and purchase a gift for the Mangan girl, it is as if he is crossing into a foreign land, like a knight-errant, on a mission on behalf of his lady fair. But his trip to the bazaar disappoints and disillusions him, awakening him to the harsh reality of life around him.
Ashpits: Perhaps symbols of the hellish life of many Dubliners.
Blind Street: Street that dead-ends. In the story and in real life, Dublin's North Richmond Street is a dead end, as Joyce points out in the first four words of "Araby"—perhaps to suggest that the boys playing on it are going nowhere. They will grow up to live in the same dreary Dublin, with its dreary weather, dreary people, and dreary houses. In the third paragraph, the narrator describes the depressing atmosphere:
When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street. The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses, where we ran the gantlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odours arose from the ashpits, to the dark odorous stables . . . .Brown: Color that Joyce uses in "Araby" to draw attention to the plainness and dreariness of Dublin. (See the first paragraph.) He also uses it to describe the figure of the Mangan girl, for she conjured up for him images of the Middle East, in particular the people of Arabia. But after he attends the bazaar, he no doubt begins to associate the brownness of her figure with the dreary brownness of Dublin.
Café Chantant: In Europe, a café in which singers, dancers, and other entertainers performed for patrons. Sometimes bawdy performances were featured. In "Araby," the presence of a café chantant at the Grand Oriental Fête suggests that the bazaar is actually less than grand.
Devout Communicant: Abbreviation of a book title. The full title is The Devout Communicant, or Pious Meditations and Aspirations for the Three Days Before and Three Days After Receiving the Holy Eucharist. The author was Pacificus Baker (1695-1774), an English Franciscan priest. Joyce mentions the book in "Araby" perhaps as a hint that the narrator equates his attraction to the Mangan girl to a religious experience. Mention of the book also obliquely foreshadows the narrator's trip to the bazaar to obtain a gift for the girl—a trip that to him is a like a quest for the Holy Grail.
Empty House: Two-story dwelling at the end of North Richmond Street. Joyce mentions it perhaps to suggest an empty future awaiting the boys playing on the street.
Gantlet: Military punishment in which an offender was forced to run between two lines of men who beat him with clubs when he passed.
Garden of the Priest: Garden of Eden, from which the priest and his religion emerged to labor in a less-than-perfect world.
Mangan: James Mangan (1803-1849), whom Joyce read and wrote about. Mangan adopted a middle name, Clarence, when he was a teenager. Mangan wrote poetry on romantic and patriotic themes, notably poems supporting Irish nationalism. He also translated poetry from German and other languages, including Ireland's Celtic language (sometimes referred to as Irish Gaelic). Some of his translations include his own original writing, and some of his original poems are presented as translations from Oriental languages. By giving the name Mangan to the girl with whom the young "Araby" narrator is infatuated, Joyce links her with an author who sometimes wrote about exotic eastern locales—in other words Araby.
O'Donovan Rossa: Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa (1831-1915), a revolutionary who worked to overthrow British rule in Ireland.
Florin: British coin worth two shillings. Circulation of it began in 1849 and continued until 1971. In the late nineteenth century, the coin bore the image of Queen Victoria on one side. The florin was a bitter reminder to the Irish that they were under British rule.
Retreat: In Roman Catholicism, a period of seclusion for praying, meditating, receiving advice, and discovering ways to improve one's moral life.
Spike: Perhaps a phallic symbol. Joyce uses the word in the ninth paragraph. Here is the paragraph:
.......While she spoke she turned a silver bracelet round and round her wrist. She could not go, she said, because there would be a retreat that week in her convent. Her brother and two other boys were fighting for their caps, and I was alone at the railings. She held one of the spikes, bowing her head towards me. The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing. At fell over one side of her dress and caught the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease.Westland Row Station: Train station in South Dublin. Today it is known as Pearse Station.
Vidocq, Eugène François: Celebrated French adventurer. Between his adolescence and age twenty, he was a thief, traveling entertainer, duelist, prison inmate, prison escapee, soldier, and forger. After later being imprisoned again, he spied on inmates for the police. When he was thirty-six, he founded a police unit in Paris that later became the national security police, or Sûreté Nationale. He left police work in 1827 to operate a paper mill, but the business failed. He went back to work for the police as a detective but in 1832 was accused of theft and fired. He then founded a detective agency. He was an acquaintance of great writers, including Balzac and Victor Hugo, and served as a model for many fictional characters. He wrote his memoirs with the assistance of other writers. Entitled Mémoires de Vidocq, chef de la police de Sûreté, jusqu'en 1827, it became a best seller. The reference to Vidocq in "Araby" appears to suggest that the dead priest had escaped from the austerity of his clerical life and the drabness of Dublin by reading about the adventuresome Vidocq. The reference also foreshadows the young narrator's "escape" across the river to the Araby bazaar.
.......The climax occurs when the narrator, disillusioned by what he finds at the bazaar, realizes that life in Dublin is humdrum and that the Mangan girl probably has no romantic interest in him. Belief that she was attracted to him was a result of his vanity, he believes.
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in "Araby."
Paragraph 3: the back doors of the dark dripping gardensIrony
When the Araby bazaar darkens, the narrator "sees the light," realizing that his perception of reality has been distorted.Metaphor
Paragraph 3: shook music from the buckled harness (comparison of music to an object that can be shaken from something)Personification
Paragraph 1: The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces (comparison of houses to persons)Simile
Paragraph 5: But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires. (Comparison of body to a harp and of words and gestures to fingers)Study Questions and Essay Topics
1...Write an essay that speculates on what the narrator's life will be like when he is in his early thirties.