James Joyce and Araby

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Authors and their themes/British

James Joyce


Ralph Maltese

Literature of innocence

James Joyce and “Araby”

To members of Joyce’s generation, the word “Araby” stood for all that was exotic and romantic.  Is there a similar word for your generation?  The name and its implications add to the young protagonist’s disappointment and disillusionment.  “Araby” connotes the mysterious; dark nights, beautiful women, drifting sands.  The contrast of this romantic image with the squalid bazaar would naturally lead to his disillusionment.

The world of childhood is often in conflict with the authoritarian structure of the adult world—the image of children playing and hiding as soon as any adults come near expresses the dichotomy between their two worlds in the opening of the story.  As the story progresses, we see that the narrator is caught up in the wonders of love and the oriental bazaar as none of the adults in the story are.  The narrator’s disillusionment at the bazaar causes him to begin to see the world and himself in an “adult” way.  The resulting vision makes him regard himself as a “creature driven and derided by vanity.”

What childhood values does Joyce imply should be preserved in the adult world?  (Joyce feels that the adult world is a world of drabness and inertia.  The drunken uncle who teases the narrator by holding back permission to go to the bazaar, the unimaginative school teacher, the sordidness of the bazaar are symptomatic of what happens to a world which forces people to leave their ideals with their childhood and assume the “serious work” of being adults).

The speaker in “Araby” is affected by the paralysis of the adult world in Dublin—the lack romance and mystery at the bazaar, in the life of the aunt and his uncle, even in his own life.

Anthony Burgess has said of the stories in Joyce’s Dubliners, “Nothing seems to happen in them; there are no plots; they are not really stories at all..there is no denouement, no resolution, no twist.”  Do you agree with Burgess?

There are the two thematic levels to explore in this short story.  First there is Joyce’s theme which is in “Araby” but also a theme in his novel, Portrait of an Artist As a Young Man.  Joyce, in my view, wants to remind his Irish countrymen that they have a rich artistic literary heritage, but the culture has fallen into an artistic paralysis, and inertia.  Joyce lays the blame for much of this at the altar of the Catholic Church which, in Joyce’s view, stifles creativity.  In “Araby” the boy sleeps in a room in which a priest ahd died.”

On a higher level that students can buy into, my take on “Araby” is that it is almost a buldinroman story.  It is a tale of maturation, the moment when a young person realizes that life is not, as my Dad used to say, “on the level.”

I share a humorous story about my own tale of maturation---a moment when I realized that the adult world does not always tell the truth.  Then I ask students to relate theirs.



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