Commentary by Karen Bernardo
We generally assume adolescence to be a time of innocence, as yet untainted by the cynicism of society. And yet James Joyce’s “Araby,” which deals with the passion of a teenage boy for his friend’s sister, shows how poverty and despair tarnish even the purest of childhood dreams.
When the unnamed protaganist of “Araby” first mentions Mangan’s sister, he tells us has never even spoken to her, “except for a few casual words”; yet he says that “her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.” He is obsessed as only a young teenager can be.
When our narrator goes shopping with his aunt, Mangan’s sister is still uppermost in his mind, and Joyce manages to combine the sights and sounds of tawdry working-class Dublin with the sense that love has elevated the boy above it all: “We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of labourers, the shrill litanies of shop boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs’ cheeks, the nasal chanting of street-singers, who sang a come-all-you about O’Donovan Rossa, or a ballad about the troubles in our native land. These noises converged in a single sensation of life for me: I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes.”
The chalice evokes the image of the Holy Grail, and Mangan’s sister has indeed become a sort of Grail to the boy; like his new discovery of love, she is not quite of this world. But it also introduces the theme of knighthood, and we soon see that our protagonist has cast himself in the role of the gallant knight, and Mangan’s sister as the worthy damsel. From the legends, we all know that damsels are supposed to ask favors of their gallant knights. Therefore, when Mangan’s sister suddenly asks the boy whether he plans to go to Araby—a bazaar being held nearby—her request that he bring her a gift from the fair doesn’t seem incongruous at all. Her remark seems like something straight out of the King Arthur stories, and our protagonist accepts it in that light.
Getting to Araby therefore becomes his mission, his quest. However, he has several obstacles in the way, the most obvious being money. In the morning he asks his uncle for money to go to the fair that night, but his uncle, presumably dressing for work, seems less than interested. Consequently the boy waits all day for the uncle to return home again. The uncle arrives so late that the boy’s aunt remarks, “I’m afraid you may put off your bazaar for this night of our Lord.” But the boy is undaunted, and as soon as he obtains his small bit of pocket change, he takes off for the bazaar even though it is already past nine o’clock.
But it costs money to take the train to the fair and money for admission, so that by the time he gets to Araby, he is nearly broke. The fair is preparing to close, and the shopgirls pay no attention to him as he pores over the measly trinkets he can afford to buy with the two pennies and sixpence he has left. The boy suddenly realizes that his quest is hopeless because he is poor, and in a larger sense, his life will be hopeless for the same reason. Joyce ends his story with the words, “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”
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