Araby by James Joyce | Analysis

Araby by James Joyce | Analysis

Araby James Joyce Analysis


Araby is one of the short stories taken from James Joyce’s collection of sketches and short stories entitled Dubliners. It is one which has received universal praise both for its exposition of matter and for the manner of its presentation. It is one in which the evocation of a mood is more important than the presentation of a neat, round narrative. Its theme is concerned with dream and disillusionment.

Autobiographical Elements

The Story bears some autobiographical elements. It reflects the own childhood of Joyce. It refers to North Richmond Street to which Joyce and his family moved. Again the Joyce lived in a house corresponding exactly to the one described in the story. We further learn that the Christian Brother’s School of the story is the one which Joyce attended during this early years. It also describes the plays in which he took part as a boy.

Topical Allusions

The contemporary scene of Dublin has been finely caught in ‘Araby. It is marked by a realism for which we cannot but have a high praise, In it Joyce refers to ‘flaring streets’ from which we learn that the streets had gas-lit lamps instead of electric lights. Streets around the market were often crowded, and shoppers were pushed every now and then by drunken men and bargaining women. They were also full with diverse kinds of noises. One could hear, for example, the curses of labourers, the shrill cries of shop-boys for the sale of pigs’ cheeks kept in barrels over which they kept guard to prevent their stealing, and the nasal singing of patriotic songs and ballads about the troubles of Ireland under the British rule. The ballad come-all-you through which the nationalist leader O’Donovan Rossa gave a stirring call to the Irish is another topical matter. Another contemporary event was Araby itself, the Grand Oriental Fete which was held in Dublin from May 14 to May 19, 1894.

Sordidness of Dublin

The sordidness of Dublin has been brought to a focus here. It was Joyce’s explicit purpose that his countrymen should at least have one good look at themselves in his nicely-polished looking-glass in the form of this short story. And the picture that was reflected is far from flattering. Possibly the author presented the seamy sides of life so that the Irish could rectify and improve. There is first the reference to the blind street, the narrow passage in a slum open only at one side. We next hear of dark muddy lanes behind the houses where people of despicable character (‘the rough tribes) lived in dilapidated cottages. Finally, the author mentions of the dark dripping gardens where ashpits gave out a foul smell and of stinky stables where a conchman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness. All these help to produce the picture of a poor, foul-smelling, and shabby-looking place which the capital of Ireland was turned into at the time when ‘Araby‘ was written.

The Human Figures

The human figures also produce another picture of Dublin. The author has described how in rows of brown houses lived decent people not capable of being excited. The story presents a fine picture of middle class people who remain contended with themselves and do not usually get involved in any neighbourly matters. The boys here are like those to be found everywhere. Play is to them what lifeblood is to a living being, Home life seems to have no attraction. Old men like the boy’s uncle return late at night and often in a tipsy state. Women go on talking endlessly on small matters over evening meals. Women like Mrs Mercer want to be engaged in pious activities but not at their own cost. Outside they haggle over prices. Elderly men like the boy’s uncle are miserly in nature. They try to dissuade young boys from one recreation that attracts them intensely. Thwarted in their aim, they pretend to be keen in boys’ enjoyment and quote stale proverbs in support of their view. Religion is a strong force in Ireland and the story bears enough proof of that. The boy attended the Christian Brothers’ School run by the Roman Catholics. The girl could not go to Araby because of a retreat to be observed at that time in her convent school. The former tenant of the house in which the boy lived was a priest who had left all his money to religious institutions. The keeping of girls indoors after school hours indicates the conservative nature of the people. Thus, the author succeeds in presenting the contemporary picture of Dublin having mostly middle-class conservative, religious-minded, economically weak, and unenterprising people who singularly lacked dynamism in their lives.

The Boy’s Love for the Girl

In ‘Araby’ Joyce draws an interesting sketch of the boy’s love for the girl. It is entirely platonic, noble and pure in nature. The boy did not know whether he would ever speak to her. What worried him was the thought whether he would be able to convey her adoration in his state of emotional confusion. His body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires. The girl was an object of endless fascination for him. Overtly or covertly he used to look at her. At evening when she stood on the doorstep to call her brother in to tea, he went along with him and stood near their railings looking at her. At the time of going to school he followed her, keeping her brown figure always in front of him. Every morning he lay on the floor in the front parlour and sought to look at her through a slit in the window. One rainy evening when he was alone in an empty and dark room the thought of her suddenly flashed in his mind, and it became unbearable for him to contain the uncontrollable emotions. So he held the palms of his hands tightly together and began to repeat in a low voice: “O my love! O my beloved” sometimes her name sprang to his lips in strange prayers and praises but its cause he did not understand. Sometimes his eyes were full of tears and he could not tell why. Occasionally a flood of emotions from his heart seemed to pour itself out into his bosom. The girl occupied his mind most of the times. Her image accompanied him even in places most hostile to romance. Love to him was like a chalice which he bore safely through a throng of foes. This finely stresses the holy nature of the boy’s love for the girl.

Depiction of the Girl

In the story both the boy and his beloved remain unnamed. The latter is simply known as Mangan’s sister (obviously Mangan is the name of one of the friends of the boy). In the story the author has not directly stated that she was a beautiful girl; but he has left enough hints that point to her beauty. We are told of her brown figure : this does not mean that her skin was brown; it simply means she frequently wore a brown dress on her body. The boy loved to look at her while he stood by the railings. Her dress swung as she moved her body, and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side. She became a lovely figure at evening when the light fell on one side of her body. The light caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there, and shone on her hand that lay on the railing. The light fell over one side of her dress and caught the white border of her petticoat, just visible when she stood bowing her head towards the boy. Besides her figure, her name was like a summons to all his foolish blood.

Also Read:

Dream and Disenchantment

Araby is concerned with dream and disenchantment. The boy’s love for the girl initiated the dream. It flowered when one day she spoke to him and asked whether he would go to Araby. She encouraged him to go there adding that there would be a splendid bazaar there. Visibly moved, he replied that if he went there, he would certainly bring something for her. The dream began to spread a sweet fragrance from that evening when she first spoke to him. His waking and sleeping hours were spent in innumerable follies. He wished to annihilate the tedious days that must yet pass before he could go to the bazaar. He neglected his studies. His master began to suspect him to be idling. Her image stood before him and his page when he attempted to study. He had hardly any patience with the serious work of life which seemed to him ugly monotonous child’s play. The only thing that mattered was Araby and a gift for his beloved. Here the dream reached its fullest development. Afterwards starts the gradual fading of the dream. On the appointed day his uncle reached home too late. He was also unwilling to let him go. With his aunt’s assistance he at last got the permission but reached there when it was ten minutes to ten. Most of the stalls were closed and a major part of the hall was in darkness. All he could hear was the sound of the counting of cash and of a young lady’s small talk with a pair of young gentlemen. After the examination of porcelain vases and flowered tea-sets when two great jars drew his attention as fit gifts for this beloved, suddenly the young lady asked if he wished to buy anything. Her tone was most discouraging. The boy checked his money and found it too small for the jars. He replied in the negative. He let fall his pences that vocalized his incapacity. Meanwhile the lights in the upper gallery were turned off. His dream of bringing a gift for his beloved came to an end. He was filled with disenchantment and despair.

Symbolic Significance

The boy’s going to Araby has a symbolic significance. On one level it is his quest for beauty in the drab surroundings of his country. On another level it is man’s universal search for the ideal amidst choking realities. This symbolic meaning is suggested by the reference to the ‘chalice’ which reminds us of the Grail Legend. In the end the boy’s quest for beauty is foiled by the rude blast of his unhelpful surroundings and own dependence. This is like man’s search for the ideal universally frustrated by the harsh touch of reality.


The theme of ‘Araby’ is escape the boy’s attempts at escape from the sordid and grim realities of life with the help of love which was like a chalice to him- a chalice that he strove to bear safely through a throng of foes – a group of unromantic men and women who drank and cursed, bargained and cried to the top of their voice for sale, sang or chattered aimlessly for hours’ over the evening meal. Dream and disenchantment the contrast between dream and reality- might also be regarded as one of the themes of this story. An additional theme of the story is the ‘paralysed uneventfulness to which the modern city reduces the lives of its citizens.’

Evocation of a Mood

In ‘Araby’ the author has put more emphasis on the evocation of a mood rather than on the smooth narration of a story. Indeed the plot of the story is very simple-a boy’s desire of bringing a gift for his beloved from a bazaar and its frustration. But the story finely realises a poetic mood through which he passes. It is seen in the description of the winter evening sky with its colour of ever changing violet, the boy’s looking at the swing of his beloved’s dress, the tossing of her hair from side to side, and the white curve of her neck, his imagining that he was bearing his chalice safely through a throng of foes, that his body was like a harp on which played her words and gestures and that she was uttering the syllables of Araby to him through the silence of the night, the dark rainy evening with no sound in the house, the fall of raindrops on the sodden flower beds, the uncontrollable emotions making him tighten his palms and cry softly ‘o love ! O love!’ and the perceiving in the bazaar a silence that prevails in the church after a service. It is to be noted that the mood serves various functions: it sheds light on the nature of the principal character, it helps the story to move on; and but for it the disenchantment and despair that take place in the end would not have been so telling

Araby Epiphany

The author has characterized all the stories and sketches of Dubliners as ‘epiphanies’. In that sense Araby which is included in Dubliners is also an epiphany. By this religious term Joyce made most clear what he was after. By an epiphany he meant, as he himself stated in his Stephen Hero, ‘a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself.’ He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments’. It was in this epiphany that the author found “the supreme quality of beauty.”

In ‘Araby’ Joyce mentioned such a moment of epiphany. It was when the boy in his nurture of love amidst drab surroundings and harsh sounds imagined himself bearing the chalice safely through a throng of foes.

Araby as A vivid waiting

It is well-known that when Joyce’s Dubliners were being rejected by publishers for his outspokenness, Ezra Pound the American poet and critic came to his stout support and praised his book in high terms. Regarding Araby he remarked : ‘It is much better than a “story”; it is a vivid waiting’. By this remark Pound wanted to emphasize that ‘Araby’ is not like an average story in which all the problems are happily solved before it inevitably reaches its expected conclusion. For example, many issues in ‘Araby’ remains unresolved : We do not know what finally happens to the uncle or the aunt or Mrs Mercer, nor do we know what happens to the boy’s love for the girl. But the story’s superiority lies in enkindling a clear sense of waiting in us. We wait to see what happens to the boy’s love for the girl even after the bursting of his dream. We further wait to see whether Dublin whose grim realities and stereotyped figures that are responsible for the frustration of the boy’s dream can overcome these and help once again in the matter of the blooming of his love.

Self-awareness of the Boy

The most important aspect of ‘Araby’ is the sudden self-awareness of the boy. Before his arrival at ‘Araby’ he was leading as it were a curtained life. Nothing mattered to him except love and romance. Though there remained the odours of ashpits and stables, the rough treatment at the hands of cottagers who lived in dark muddy lanes, the harsh and unpleasant noises near markets, Mrs Mercer’s long and tiring talk over the evening meal, and the uncle’s non-cooperative attitude, the boy did not take them seriously as he imagined himself bearing his chalice safely through a throng of foes. But his sensitive and romantic nature received a severe jolt when the young lady rudely asked him if he wanted to buy anything thereby reminding him of his cash position-a poor position that did not permit him to buy the jars even after his selection of them as fit objects of gift for his beloved. As the light went out, he realized for the first time that it was his vanity-his high notion about himself that he would be able to buy a fine gift for his beloved–that brought him to the bazaar. This vanity proving empty was also responsible for his humiliation. He suffered from anguish–the cause of his great mental pain being his inability to buy the thing he promised to his beloved. His eyes also burned in anger at himself at his dependence on others, at his powerlessness in giving a present to one whom he loved best.

Joyce’s Manner of Story-Telling

In Araby Joyce used a method of narration different from others. While most stories have sensational events that make up the main point of their interest and entertainment, ‘Araby’ is mostly free from such events. Its author applied the open structure in the presentation of the narrative. According to it, the story moves along with the flow or experience of the main character of the piece-the boy’s looking at the girl, his following her at school time, her name sending a summons to his foolish blood, her talk to him regarding Araby, his promise to bring something for her, his final going to the bazaar and shocking disillusionment. When required the author could make close observation of a particular situation the sordidness of Dublin, for example. Harry Levin who has studied his manner of narration remarks: As the part, significantly chosen, reveals the whole, a word or detail may be enough to exhibit a character or convey a situation. For example, the word ‘chalice’ conveys that the boy’s love is noble, pure and platonic; without this our knowledge about him would be incomplete. Again the word ‘humbly-his looking humbly at the great jars suggests a situation in which the boy felt humiliated (obviously for his incapacity to buy a gift for his beloved). An analysis of his sentences will also convince us that Joyce is a master artist in his use of words with which he evoked such moods as he liked.


4 thoughts on “Araby by James Joyce | Analysis”

  1. This is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read by James Joyce. It takes the reader in a long deep journey into the mental world.


Leave a Comment