I'll sing thee songs of Araby, And takes of fair Cashmere, Wild tales to cheat thee of a sign, Or charm thee to a tear. And dreams of delight shall on thee break, And rainbow visions rise, And my soul shall strive to wake Sweet wonder in thine eyes ...... *(words by W.G. Wills; music by Frederick Clay)
The short story “Araby” was written by James Joyce in 1904, when he was 22 years old. Ten years earlier, when he was twelve, a fair similar to the one in this story came to Dublin. It was called the “Grand Oriental Fete.” The song above was one that was actually played at this bazaar *(Gray). Being somewhat autobiographical, Joyce recounts one rite of passage that many 12 year old boys experience: a first crush on a neighborhood girl. As is the case of many boys this age, the unnamed narrator is obsessed with girls but in a romantic, pure way.
This young boy hides and stares at a friend’s sister: “Every morning I lay on the floor in front of the parlour watching her door...When she came out on the doorstep my heart leaped. I ran to the hall seized my books and followed her.” He would walk until they walked together but he would always pass her like he was not interested. The reality was however “her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.” In this journey that every boy takes, the narrator wants this girl but fear and passion stop him. So he lives in his head, somehow satisfied with inaction where she is concerned, content just to look at her, to follow her and to pass her day after day.
This character that Joyce creates is a young boy of passion and intense romance. He exists in this dreamy world of fantasy, in love with a girl whom he can barely speak to but in his mind--she is everywhere, “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. I thought little of the future. I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.” In this passage, the emotions of this boy pour out in all the anxiety that is boyhood. The reader can really feel the mass of feelings whirling within him.
But if this is indeed an autobiographical story as many Joycean scholars believe it is, what we are also getting a glance of is not a normal boy but a boy who will take that angst and passion and force it through a pen on paper. Before the writer is born, the boy must suffer the failings of his own heart. The boy believes in the magic of the girl’s presence. He escapes in a fantasy world where he is the champion of her cause.
Because the story has many references to religion the reader can see that in many ways Joyce is placing this “love” above and beyond the sanctity of the church. The Church becomes a symbol of deadness and barrier for the boy, who sees this girl as something that makes him feel fresh and alive! In one passage Joyce describes her in angelic terms. “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.” In the repeated language descriptions of light, lamps, white, the reader almost gets a vision of this girl as a Byzantine saint with glowing halo.
When the girl finally speaks to him, \he is beyond responding. But somehow he tells her that if he goes to Araby--the bazaar, he will get her something. The magic of the girl and the enchantment of Araby consumes the boy, to the point of not concentrating on anything. “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.... I could not call my wandering thoughts together. I had hardly any patience with the serious work of life which, now that it stood between me and my desire, seemed to me child's play, ugly monotonous child's play” In his distraction, the boy does become focused with one goal: to go to Araby. It is his quest. It is his Crusade. It is his journey to find the Holy Grail and drop it at the feet of this love. In his mind, he lives this mission. Such a romantic notion bolsters his courage to ask his uncle to go.
Like any spiritual quest there are trials and tribulations that the boy must endure for his beloved. As the hour comes and passes his uncle has not arrived. The boy becomes tense. His aunt says that he may have to sacrifice this night to the lord. The boy however buoys up his courage and asks at the late hour when his uncle returns. This quest for Araby and the gift have become more to the boy...they have become a dream. He is sure that many magical things will happen when he gets there. It will be heaven, a spiritual awakening....something, he believes, something will happen there.
In another context this journey is of a writer discovering himself. On the one hand he knows that all the mundane things of life are useless to him and he to them. But still he is looking outside himself for the answer. The Araby bazaar could represent the political, and educational system that Joyce was enmeshed in at the time. Perhaps this is where his hopes laid when he began his education.
The boy is given two shillings and by the time he makes it to the bazaar he only has a small amount to spend there. The question then becomes is this why he fails to buy something? What is the reason for his disillusionment? Is it with himself? The text is ambiguous about why he fails.
“Observing me, the young lady came over and asked me did I wish to buy anything. The tone of her voice was not encouraging; she seemed to have spoken to me out of a sense of duty. I looked humbly at the great jars that stood like eastern guards at either side of the dark entrance to the stall and murmured - No thank you.”
The boy could have not had enough money to buy something. He could have been intimidated by the woman and the men behind her--this is possible because she was not friendly. The fact that they were English and he was Irish could have made him reticent. He could have decided that what ever he bought, the girl wouldn’t like. Or perhaps he saw the fake glitter and false glamour of the place and decided there was nothing for him here. For offering dissertations at PhDify click here
If one examines this last passage, it can be seen that it is saying more about Joyce’s disappointment in the place he lived, Dublin, and the country that owned it--England. “I lingered before her stall, though I knew my stay was useless, to make my interest in her wares seem the more real. Then I turned away slowly and walked down the middle of the bazaar.... I heard a voice call from one end of the gallery that the light was out. The upper part of the hall was now completely dark. 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’s “Araby” is an excellent coming of age story. It tells the tale of a young boy who is consumed with his friend’s sister but that is not enough to give him courage to express it in words or a present. On a deeper level, this is the story of Joyce’s awakening as an artist and his discovery that Dublin under the shadow of British rule offered him nothing - that he would have to create his own Araby - his Dublin would come from within his heart.
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