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James Joyce's 'Araby' and the Loss of Fantasy

Updated on April 25, 2013

James Joyce's Araby

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The stories in Dubliners can be seen as a progression towards greater and greater unrealistic thinking, until in the final story, 'The Dead', Gabriel has his fantastical epiphany of the nature of reality. One of the major turning points in the collection appears in 'Araby', when the unnamed boy protagonist has an explosive first crush on his friend Mangan's sister and then discovers that the place of his fantasy - an 'Araby Fair' designed to conjure up the exotic delights of the Middle East in rainy Dublin, is no different and no less drab and grim than the ordinary everyday humdrum Dublin he knows only too well.

‘Araby’ begins at a point in adolescence a little after the preceding story ‘An Encounter’. Although he is young enough still to play games in the street with his friends, the protagonist is making his first foray into the world of sexual attraction, and becomes so fixated by his first crush that he persuades his consciousness that his fantasies of her are real.

The themes in ‘Araby’ – of love, sexual attraction, and the fantasies that surround them, are repeated in many of the stories. In ‘Araby’, they is at their strongest and most vibrant because this tale deals with a first encounter, and the fantasy is imagined with all the vivid force that accompanies a new adventure, but without having the benefit of mature fantasy - which blends desire with reality so that the two become indistinguishable.

Dubliners page numbers refer to the Penguin Popular Classics edition, 1996.

Brugaletta and Hayden

John J. Brugaletta and Mary H. Hayden, "The Motivation for Anguish in Joyce's ‘Araby’,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 15, No. 1, Winter, 1978, pp. 11–17.

Available through JSTOR and other online portals.

Mangan's Sister isn't Real?

Even on the most cursory reading the object of the hero’s affections in ‘Araby’, Mangan’s sister, is a shadowy presence who is hardly there at all. In a deeper analysis, it has been argued by Brugaletta and Hayden (see the grey box on the right for full citation) that in the pivotal conversation between the young narrator and the girl she is nothing but a figment of the boy’s imagination.

One evening I went into the back drawing-room in which the priest had died. It was a dark rainy evening and there was no sound in the house. Through one of the broken panes I heard the rain impinge upon the earth, the fine incessant needles of water playing in the sodden beds. Some distant lamp or lighted window gleamed below me. I was thankful that I could see so little. 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.

At last she spoke to me. When she addressed the first words to me I was so confused that I did not know what to answer. She asked me was I going to Araby. I forget whether I answered yes or no. It would be a splendid bazaar; she said she would love to go.

(Dubliners, pp.31-32)

The above paragraphs mark a turning point in the story. Up until the girl speaks to him, he has only seen her from a distance when she comes to her door to call her brother in for his tea, ‘We watched her from our shadow’ the narrator tells us in first describing her. He spies on her further by following her a little way to school. There is no interaction between them ‘except for a few casual words,’ she is in reality only a connotation to him, the sister of a friend and even referred to as such throughout the story. And yet she dominates his thoughts, and in the first paragraph quoted above, the boy, alone in the back drawing-room, is consumed by unfocused thoughts about the object of his desire who he barely recognises as an individual, but only ‘Mangan’s sister’. And then quite suddenly – in the next paragraph - she’s talking to him, and there is a moment of double-take until we read that the time and place have shifted and he is standing by the railings outside her house.

Araby: Obsession and Fantasy

But there are lots of unanswered questions. Why is she standing outside when previously she has only ever appeared to either call her brother in to his tea, or to walk to school? And why is she suddenly striking up a conversation with the narrator when she never seems to have noticed him before except for ‘a few casual words’ (Dubliners, p.30)? The juxtaposition of the events in the two paragraphs is quite telling: in the first, he is almost prayingto her, and then ‘at last’ she speaks to him. As climaxes and wishful thinking go for a young boy with a first crush, it seems almost too good to be true.

The Passage of Time in Joyce's Writing

Brugaletta and Hayden argue that they read the second paragraph to be happening in the same time and place as the first – that the boy, in the back-drawing room, imagines himself to be suddenly outside the Mangan house, but this seems to be an unnecessarily convoluted argument, and a tortured reading (Brugaletta and Hayden, p.13). In the works of Joyce, like in those of other modernist writers, the passage of time follows the various thought-trains of the characters, rather than acting as a stable backdrop to their lives. In Ulysses time doubles back on itself to show the same event from the point of view of different characters: Father Conmee appears to step onto the tram on Newcomen Bridge twice – once as we follow his journey from his own perspective, and again four pages later as seen by Corny Kelleher (Ulysses, pp. 284, 288). It therefore isn’t a big leap to assume that Joyce would allow the passage of a period of time to happen between paragraphs, and since time has passed without narration between these paragraphs, the juxtaposition in the story of the two events alerts us to a strong link between these in the thoughts of the narrator.

Araby - Imagination of the Protagonist

In one way, at least, Mangan’s sister isn’t real: she lives more inside the mind of the boy, in the shape of how he imagines her and even prays to her, than she lives as a real part of his life. He follows her when he sets out to walk to school in the morning, and he hides from her with his friends when she comes out to call her brother in for his tea. She is a reference point to him and ever-present in his thoughts, but her existence to him is based on imagination, not the girl as a real individual.

The Knights and the Holy Grail

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James Joyce

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Araby - Chalice, Quest and Holy Grail

The thought of her provides something of a feeling of safety in his life:

‘These noises converged in a single sensation of life for me: I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes’ (Dubliners, p.31).

The ‘chalice’ he imagines, with connotations of the Holy Grail, and of knights’ quests, is a metaphor for his life, his essence, which seems threatened by the ‘throng of foes’ at the Saturday market in perhaps the same way the boy in ‘The Sisters’ feels threatened by the influx of information, connotations and adult gossip that influences his thoughts even before he is able to examine them for himself. Immediately prior to this romantic articulation in ‘Araby’, of the urge to self-preservation, he tells us that

‘her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance’ (Dubliners, p. 30, 31)

he carries her image in his thoughts as a symbol of protection, and imagines her as a part of the quest-story by which he shelters himself from a seemingly threatening reality full of

‘flaring streets, […] drunken men and bargaining women, amid the cursing of labourers, the shrill litanies of shop boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs’ cheeks’ (Dubliners, p.31).

Greater parts of the boy’s thoughts are becoming fantasy, and in turn the fantasy is becoming informed by real life, so his life – his essence – becomes an object – the grail – that he is protector of, and the tawdry world of the streets and the market becomes the foe to be vanquished. Mangan’s sister, in accompanying him in image-form, becomes something of a magical talisman. It is this last that is most important to him, because at this point in his life the narrator is fighting to make the fantasy real, and although in certain passages he is almost desperately trying to prevent the mingling of reality and fantasy from occurring, lest his fantasy become mundane, it is a losing battle:

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 her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand on the railing.

From the front window I saw my companions playing in the street […] I looked over at the dark house where she lived. I may have stood there for an hour, seeing nothing but the brown-clad figure cast by my imagination, touched discreetly by the lamplight at the curved neck, at the hand upon the railing.

(Dubliners, pp.32-3)

The two paragraphs quoted above are mirror images of each other. In both are present the other boys he knows - the mundane and everyday. In the first paragraph he refers to them as ‘her brother and two other boys,’ linking them to her rather than himself. In the second, they are referred to as ‘my companions’. The first paragraph occurs directly before the conversation between the boy and Mangan’s sister; the second paragraph is on the night he is about to go to Araby on his quest, and reality is perhaps already blending with fantasy as the time approaches.

Dark vs. Light and 'Mirroring' in Araby

Both paragraphs contain the imagery of light, a symbol perhaps of the urge to escape the darkness of his life, and the figure of Mangan’s sister; and both contain references to her imaginary nature. In the first paragraph he tells us that he was ‘alone’ at the railings, but the point of this scene to the boy is that she is also there, and is speaking to him. Why, when he is fixated with her and obsessed to the point of assuming prayer-like attitudes when he thinks of her, does he say he was alone? Why does he not say, which might be more immediately important to a love-struck boy, ‘I was alone with her’? He is apart, alone from his friends, as they tussle in the street, but he is not apart, at this moment, from her, if the scene is to be taken at face value.

In the second paragraph, neatly similar to the first, he is watching her house from the window of his own, and tells us that he sees ‘nothing but the brown-clad figure cast by his imagination.’ This ‘nothing’ echoes the ‘alone’ of the first paragraph, and in mirroring it, it also informs: she is not real; she is not there.

Araby - Fantasy Overcome by Reality

The story ends,

‘Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.’ (‘Araby’, Dubliners, p36).

Brugaletta and Hayden argue that the outpouring of emotion is justified because,

‘He had conjured up the spirit of love with an incantation (“O love! O love”) only to have that spirit dispelled by the clumsiness of a physical world. … Nothing remains for him to do; this is paralysis indeed. Anguish, however intense, is a perfectly appropriate reaction.’ (Brugaletta and Hayden, p.17)

But perhaps the ending and epiphany of ‘Araby’ must be seen in the light of the later stories, for in ‘Araby’ the vision of the girl becomes at the end unsustainable: the boy remembers ‘with difficulty why I had come’ (Dubliners, p.35). Fantasy without some reference point in reality becomes inconceivable, and his fervently-held vision of the Araby market that he has held together with his visions of his quest and the girl all crumble together when the market reveals itself to be just a slightly different but just as tawdry version of the Saturday market he goes to with his Aunt. To keep his fantasies means imbuing them with the workaday world, whereas prior to this revelation he has attempted to keep the two separate, even as they interfered with one another in their fight for prominence in his mind:

I wished to annihilate the tedious intervening days. I chafed against the work of school. At night in my bedroom and by day in the classroom her image came between me and the page I strove to read. The syllables of the word ‘Araby’ were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me

(Dubliners, p.32).

It is this ‘silence’ which is threatened if fantasy is allowed to co-exist with reality, the ‘chalice’ and his essence which earlier he bore through the ‘noise’ of the ‘throng of foes’.

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    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 4 years ago from Taos, NM

      James Joyce is such a great writer. You have analyzed this story quite well. I enjoyed reading this. I have not read Joyce since college, so this was a pleasant reminder for me. Well done! Voted up and shared.

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