Although Araby is a fairly short story, author James Joyce does a remarkable job of discussing some very deep issues within it. On the surface it appears to be a story of a boy’s trip to the market to get a gift for the girl he has a crush on. Yet deeper down it is about a lonely boy who makes a pilgrimage to an eastern-styled bazaar in hopes that it will somehow alleviate his miserable life. James Joyces uses the boy in Araby to expose a story of isolation and lack of control.
These themes of alienation and control are ultimately linked because it will be seen that the source of the boy’s emotional distance is his lack of control over his life. The story begins as the boy describes his neighborhood. Immediately feelings of isolation and hopelessness begin to set in. The street that the boy lives on is a dead end, right from the beginning he is trapped. In addition, he feels ignored by the houses on his street. Their brown imperturbable faces make him feel excluded from the decent lives within them.
The street becomes a representation of the boys self, uninhabited and detached, with the houses personified, and arguably more alive than the residents (Gray). Every detail of his neighborhood seems designed to inflict him with the feeling of isolation. The boy’s house, like the street he lives on, is filled with decay. It is suffocating and musty from being long enclosed. It is difficult for him to establish any sort of connection to it. Even the history of the house feels unkind. The house’s previous tenant, a priest, had died while living there.
He left all his money to institutions and the furniture of the house to his sister (Norton Anthology 2236). It was as if he was trying to insure the boy’s boredom and solitude. The only thing of interest that the boy can find is a bicycle pump, which is rusty and rendered unfit to play with. Even the wild garden is gloomy and desolate, containing but a lone apple tree and a few straggling bushes. It is hardly the sort of yard that a young boy would want. Like most boys, he has no voice in choosing where he lives, yet his surroundings have a powerful effect on him.
His home and neighborhood are not the only sources of the boy’s animosity. The weather is also unkind to the boy. Not only is it cold, but the short days of winter make play more difficult under the feeble lanterns. Only the boy and his laughing, shouting companions glow; they are still too young to have succumbed to the decay of their neighborhood. But the boys must play in dark muddy lanes, in dark dripping gardens, near dark odorous stables and ash pits (Sample Essays). The boy cannot expect to have any control over the seasons or weather. Nevertheless, this bitterness contributes to his feeling of vulnerability.
One of the more dehumanizing aspects of the story is that nowhere does anyone ever refer to the boy by name. He is always referred to as you or boy. This could be attributed to the fact that, on the whole, there is relatively little dialogue, and the story is rather short. However, the boy is also the narrator of the story and could have easily introduced himself. After all, in the first paragraph he introduces his setting, it would not have been unreasonable for him to have mentioned his name. It seems likely then that the boy’s name was omitted deliberately.
By depriving the boy of a name, he is denied any sense of identity, consequently alienating him even further. The plot of the story is based around the boy attempting to go to the bazaar, Araby so that he may return with a gift that will please Mangan’s sister. While in some ways Mangan’s sister offers the boy some hope, she is also a major source of the his alienation. He desperately lusts for her attention and affection. His recount of his mourning ritual: When she came out on the doorstep my heart leaped. I ran to the hall, seized my books and followed her.
I kept her brown figure always in my eye (Norton Anthology 2237). The boy becomes so preoccupied with impressing Mangan’s sister that he begins to neglect other aspects of his life he wishes that all the tedious things in his life, such as school work, were done away with so that he could focus only on her. At night in my bedroom and buy day in the classroom, her image came between me and the page I strove to read I had hardly any patience with the serious work of life which, now that it stood between me and my desire, seemed to me child’s play, ugly monotonous child’s play (Norton Anthology 2238).
To make things worse, he can not possibly expect to have any control over the girl’s feelings. As it is, he can barely speak to the girl, and when she finally does talk to him he is overcome with confusion. He is so desperate for recognition and care, that when he concludes that Mangan’s sister is a potential source, he becomes fixated with her to the point of alienating himself from everything else in his life. Throughout the story virtually all adults ignore the boy. Even his uncle rarely pays any attention to him.
And when he does, it seems that it is only to bore him or recite tired sayings like All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. This is an endless source of frustration for the boy because his uncle has the greatest control over his life. Going to the Araby is of supreme importance to the boy, and while he petitions this to his uncle at least four times, each time his uncle forgets. The boy cannot resist feeling helpless; he has put all of his hopes of happiness on going to Araby. However, he can not even get his uncle to listen to him long enough to remember what he is talking about.
A good example of the boy’s emotional distance comes from his own words: From the front window I saw my companions playing below in the street. Their cries reached me weakened and indistinct (Norton Anthology 2238). It is odd that he uses the word companions to describe his friends in the street. At that point, they are clearly not his physical companions. They are in the street and he is in a high, cold, empty, gloomy room. Nevertheless, the word companions is fitting in a more significant way. It shows the extent of the boy’s alienation.
They are his closest physical ties, yet he can barely hear them, let alone speak with them. The journey to Araby is a lonely one. He spends the entire journey in the bare carriageof a deserted train (Norton Anthology 2239). At one point, it appears the boy’s solitude may be relieved when a crowd of people pressed the carriage doors; but the porters moved them back (Norton Anthology 2239). It is as if the porter is in on some cruel plot to keep him isolated. When the boy finally reaches Araby, more disappointment is to follow.
It begins at the entrance where the boy is forced to give in and pay more than he had planned. He could not find any sixpenny entrance and, fearing that the bazaar would be closed, passed in quickly through a turnstile (Norton Anthology 2239). While at the time this likely does not bother the boy, it is telling of the further coldness that bazaar will provide. Because he had to wait for his uncle at dinner, it is late. By the time the boy gets inside, the Araby is closing, the larger portion of the hall lies in darkness, as if the bazaar would bring him too much happiness and is forced to close.
As always, everyone there ignores him, with the exception of the young lady whom only speaks to him out of a sense of duty. Even when the boy tries to eavesdrop on a conversation he is alienated. While he can make out what the adults are saying, he does not know the context, and the conversation is rendered meaningless. This compounds the disjunction because, even though the conversation is inane, it is obvious that the young lady would much rather be a part of it than try to help the boy.
Finally, the boy realizes that it is unlikely he can afford anything nice to bring back for Mangan’s sister. His fantasies about the bazaar and buying a great gift for the girl are revealed as ridiculous. The bazaar is a rather tawdry shadow of the boy’s dreams (Classic Notes). This sudden comprehension also causes the boy to recognize how futile his attempts have been. This epiphany of the meaninglessness of his actions causes his alienation to be complete. Though his anticipation of the event has provided him with pleasant daydreams, reality is much harsher.
He remains a prisoner of his modest means and his city (Classic Notes). This is also seen in the title, “Araby,” is an indication of a longing for escape. To the nineteenth-century European mind, the Islamic lands of North Africa, the Near East, and the Middle East symbolized decadence, exotic delights, escapism, and a luxurious sensuality. The boy’s erotic desires for the girl become joined to his fantasies about the wonders that will be offered in the Oriental bazaar. He dreams of buying her a suitably romantic gift (Classic Notes).
The account of the boy’s futile quest emphasizes both his lonely idealism and his inability to manage the outside forces that control his life. His hope dies when he arrives at the bazaar and realizes with slow tortured clarity that Araby is not at all that he imagined. It is dismal and dark and thrives on the profit motive and the eternal lure its name evokes in men. The boy realizes that he has placed all his love and hope in a world that does not exist except in his imagination. He feels angry and betrayed and realizes his self-deception.
He feels he is a creature driven and derided by vanity and the vanity is his own (Sample Essays). The story provides many sources for the boy’s animosity. Beginning with his home and overall environment, and reaching all the way to the adults that surround him. However, it is clear that all of these causes of the boy’s isolation have something in common, he has control over none of these factors. While many of these circumstances no one can expect to have control over, it is the culmination of all these elements that lead to the boys undeniable feeling of lack of control.