I am currently teaching an on-line course that includes reading James Joyce’s Dubliners. As part of that work, I want to offer here an examination of Joyce’s writing that I think will be instructive for both my students and for me. I hope you all enjoy it.
Joyce, James. “Araby.” Dubliners. Ed. Brenda Maddox. New York: Bantam, 1990. Print.
This story, the third of fifteen, is one of the most anthologized from the collection. It offers a first person point of view account from an unnamed boy experiencing the first keen pangs of romantic love. His friend Mangan’s sister asks him if he is going to a bazaar called Araby and expresses her desire to go there. He suddenly offers to bring her something from it. When he finally gets there, he is disappointed both with the bazaar and his own weaknesses, so he does not buy her a gift. It is one of the shortest stories in Dubliners.
Though many readers and scholars have written about Joyce’s “hate” for Dublin, at the beginning of this story it is replaced with a feeling bordering on nostalgia. The description of Dublin as the evening is coming on has genuine beauty. “The space of sky above us was the colour[sic] of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns”(18). Some readers might see the word “feeble” as critical, but it has the effect of a certain delicate beauty. Just as the children playing in stinging cold air “till our bodies glowed”(18) bring together the pleasant extremes of winter weather and the metaphoric Spring of youth. Into this world of evening play and adventure comes Mangan’s sister. “Her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side”(19). For some mysterious reason, that Joyce never explains, on a whim the narrator offers to buy Mangan’s sister a gift at Araby. For those who have experienced a true romantic fascination, this offer does NOT have to be explained. That lack of explanation is part of what makes this story work. Another less noted element of Joyce’s writing that works is his humor. In the narrator’s frustration and anticipation of the bazaar, he makes comments about the non-romantic world. Little comments often miss notice that are pointedly funny. “She was an old garrulous woman, a pawnbroker’s widow, who collected used stamps for some pious purpose”(21). Our narrator is so young it does not occur to him that this woman might once of have been young and lovely. No, there is no time but the present and no beauty by the boy’s love. The real shock of icy water thrown on the boy, and the reader, is at the end. When he arrives at the bazaar, and realizes he does not have the money or the courage to buy any silly little item for the girl, he re-organizes his thoughts in an instant, “and my eyes burned with anguish and anger”(23). It seems both he and the world are now vacant, silly, and pointless.
This effect that Joyce achieves feels more accurate to the age of the boy than almost seems possible. How many of us can recall that first devastating crush with such accuracy? Not many. Fewer still have the courage to describe the fascination in an accurate way. Who wants to appear as desperate and mercurial as this narrator? I believe Joyce creates this effect by allowing the details of the world to be given to us without the softening edge of good judgement. The narrator acts impulsively, as young people in love must. Joyce allows us to see the world through his eyes and avoids explaining, or even trying to explain, the sudden changes and paradoxes of the world the narrator occupies. Most of all, he does not give us enough clues about Mangan’s sister for us to judge her motives at all. Some say the girl manipulates him, but the evidence is pretty thin. She too is young. She too is self-involved and romantically minded, at least to some extent. We do not even know if she realizes the narrator’s affection. She might well guess it, but she might not. Joyce does not give us enough to know, not because he is incapable of doing so, but because his focus is entirely on the boy’s experience, the boy’s coming of age. I will further explore how Joyce handles this technique in a point-of-view character more unlike him.
Joyce has stories that seem true, sometimes too true. The brutality of the everyday is here for us to admire, if we can bear the insight.