"Araby" A Short Story About Love and Circumstance from James Joyce's "Dubliners"


This short story from James Joyce, written in 1905 but published in the collection Dubliners in 1914, has the feeling to me of a certain autobiographical nature, as though the details and sensory feelings that come across the page are memories of childhood. We all have these memories from being a kid which are enhanced with a certain magical aura about them. This is how I feel as he describes life in Dublin, even in these few pages of Araby. I don't know if this is actually true, but that is certainly what Joyce evokes here. 

The story itself is ostensibly about that young love which when first evoked is so powerful and idyllic. The narrator is captured by his neighbor, and yet so many things are out of his control. These circumstances ultimately leading to his failure, at least in this little instance in the story, and a relatable frustration with life when we want something to go a certain way, but it fails to happen. I'm sure there is so much more to be drawn from the story, as well as Joyce's rich prose, but that is the basic gist of my first reading. 

The Story
In the story, our narrator is young kid in a quiet neighborhood. He and his neighbors play and explore as young boys do when they are out of school. He describes the house in which they lived, and artifacts of times and people gone by. "When the short days of winter came dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. 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 gauntlet 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 where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness."

The drama of the story enters as the narrator's neighbor's sister is introduced, only called, "Mangan's sister." The narrator is clearly infatuated by her. "Her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side." And so he becomes a bit obsessed with her, and so he watches and waits for her to leave her home each morning. When she leaves for school he too leaves and walks such that they will cross paths before they part directions. This at least gets him an opportunity to share a few basic words with her. "I kept her brown figure always in my eye and, when we came near the point at which our ways diverged, I quickened my pace and passed her. This happened morning after morning. I had never spoken to her, except for a few casual words, and yet her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood."

He continues to think of her as he suffers through the chores of the days and weeks, hoping that in some way, shape, or fashion he is able to convey to her his love. "...my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires." One night he is in a back room by the window and is overcome by his love, and so calls out, "O love! O love!." Mangan's sister who could hear him spoke back to him surprisingly. She asks him about the bazaar, Araby, that is going on in town, and says she would like to go to it but she cannot due to an event at the convent (presumably where she goes to school?). And so the narrator says that he will go and bring he back something from the bazaar. 

"What innumerable follies laid waste my waking and sleeping thoughts after that evening! 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." 

And so he asks his guardians (aunt and uncle) if he can go, and they seem to reluctantly agree. And so when the day comes he is waiting anxiously for his uncle to return and allow him to go out. He waits and waits, but his uncle seems to be delayed in coming home from work. The narrator's anxiety begins to turn to anger as it gets later in the evening. Finally, his uncle returns at 9pm and admits he forgot about it. They see how serious he is about going and so they let he go. He takes to the streets rapidly as he needs to make it to the bazaar before it closes. 

When he finally arrives it is almost 10pm and most of the stalls in the bazaar are closing or closed, save a few. He approaches one booth, but the workers are neither friendly, nor is there much to buy. And so he turns away, without really any other options. The story closes thusly: "Then I turned away slowly and walked down the middle of the bazaar. I allowed the two pennies to fall against the sixpence in my pocket. 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." 1
1 - Joyce, James. Dubliners, Araby. http://cola.calpoly.edu/~pmarchba/TEXTS/SHORT_STORIES/James_Joyce/1905_Araby.pdf