The short story “Araby” by James Joyce could very well be described as a deep poem written in prose. Read casually, it seems all but incomprehensible, nothing more than a series of depressing impressions and memories thrown together in a jumble and somehow meant to depict a childhood infatuation. Like the sweet milk inside a coconut, the pleasure of this story comes only to the reader who is willing to put forth the intense effort necessary to comprehend it. Or like an onion, peeling off one layer reveals yet another deeper, more pungent level.
Practically every insignificant detail becomes vitally important and meaningful as the plot progresses, until it becomes apparent that this story is not about romance at all but rather the “coming of age” that marks everyone’s passage into adulthood. This is especially apparent in the point of view, the symbolism of the first paragraph, and the character of the narrator himself. Crucial to an understanding of this story is a solid grasp of its point of view. It is important to recognize that the story is written from an adult perspective.
This is revealed in at least two ways: the style and tone or air. The style of writing-its technical construction-is probably the most obvious. From the opening sentence on, the writing leaves no doubt that the author is mature and highly experienced: He uses an exceptional vocabulary, he has a propensity for figurative language, and his sentences are full and well-developed. No child would have written the following sentence, exemplary of the entire story: “The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces” (178).
That is the work of a polished artist. The tone of the story lends credence to this view. The narrator has matured and put the affair behind him. Looking back, he shakes his head and gently ridicules himself in a nostalgic and sad manner: “her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood” (179); “What innumerable follies laid waste my waking and sleeping thoughts . . . !” (180). In so doing, he disengages himself from the emotions of the infatuation, subtly giving the story a detached air entirely in keeping with the adulthood of the narrator.
The boy’s are portrayed accurately enough, but little ardor is infused into the narration. Despite its colorful, even picturesque language, it is matter-of-fact. There is little of the breathtaking, exhilarating beauty associated with romance. The author seems to expect the reader to rely on his or her own experience of first love to fill in the gaps. Even before the final paragraph, the story exudes an air of disappointment and futility. Establishing the point of view of “Araby” all but eliminates the possibility of interpreting it literally.
While this story depicts a childhood romance, it is not a story of a childhood romance. Had it been the intention of a narrator merely to relate in the first person a winsome tale of infatuation, he would almost certainly have written it from the child’s perspective. Such a story would have not only conveyed far more power and emotional impact romantically, but also been more appealing–even with the crushing disappointment of the conclusion. More passion and tenderness would have been infused into the narrative. As it stands, the story is often dismal, dark, and unpleasant.
The narrative opens with the enigmatic paragraph: “North Richmond Street, being blind [i. e. , dead-end], was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two stories stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbors in a square ground. The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces” (178). Ostensibly this is straightforward enough, though perhaps irrelevant, verbose, and uninviting for an opening to a story.
The average reader might be inclined to skip over it, since it seems to violate the fundamental rule of the short story: ensure that the main character is doing something in the first sentence. In actuality, this paragraph holds the key to the entire story. The fact that this story does appear to violate protocol for short stories is fascinating because, as I pointed out above, the imagery of the first paragraph is the work of a master craftsman; it is difficult to believe that the paragraph could be truly flawed.
This raises an intriguing question: is it possible that the street itself is in a sense the main character? Such a thought seems to fly in the face of the rest of the story; after all, we are introduced to the boy in the second paragraph, and it is his experiences that are related from then on. In fact, however, it fits in well. The dead-end street is a very important symbol, depicting graphically the harsh life of the boy, and it forms the backdrop for all of “Araby. ” The paragraph is entirely symbolic.
The next sentence says, “An uninhabited house of two stories stood at the blind end . ” (178). This “uninhabited house” is the culmination of the dead-end street. In a powerful way–though this is not apparent until the conclusion–the author foreshadows the entire story in just two sentences. Lining the street are “other houses . . . [which gaze] at one another with brown imperturbable faces” and are “conscious of decent lives within them” (178). The irony of this statement is quite profound, given the hopelessness of the boy’s situation illustrated by the drabness of the houses. Clearly, the boy lives a meaningless life.
Consider the bitterly ironic statement “North Richmond Street . . . was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free” (178, emphasis added). Outwardly the boy’s lifestyle is proper, upstanding, and wholesome, but it is devoid of life. The school is a daily ordeal, a confining prison from which to be set free–after which the street becomes silent and dead again. The boy spends a great deal of time in the library of his house (which, by the way, is not livened by the love of parents; he lives with his aunt and uncle).
This library is the room in which the priest, the former owner of the house, died; and for reasons not entirely clear, the boy regards it with a peculiar, morbid fascination. Perhaps the dead priest, who figures prominently in the first part of the story, is linked in the boy’s mind with the imprisoning school he attends, and therefore for him the library typifies the sterility and closeness of his life. Yet the room is also his refuge from heartbreak: in one poignant moment he says, “. . .
I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled, murmuring: O love! O love! many times” (179). The boy escapes from the unbearable reality by dreaming and romanticizing. He sees ordinary things others might not find: he likes one of the books in the library “because its leaves were yellow” and finds “the late tenant’s [priest’s] bicycle pump” (178). When “Mangan’s sister” makes her appearance, he idealizes her beyond all recognition; she becomes an ethereal creature without name or identity, an angel with the key to his prison door.
His head is full of grandiose images of chivalry: her name beckons to him like the trumpet call of a herald, even in the most incongruous situations: “. . . I bore my chalice safely through the throng of foes” in the filthy market streets of Dublin (179). Once he associates the word Araby with her, he embarks with it on the most elaborate flights of imagination; it becomes a symbol of everything he is living for. During the week preceding the day he plans to go to Araby, faint fissures form in the foundation of his fantasy.
Formerly a model student, he loses all interest in school. His perceptions–and this is key to the story–begin to mature at an astonishing rate, until “. . . 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” (180). But it is on Saturday morning that the crevasse opens: “I left the house in a bad humor . . . . already my heart misgave me” (180, emphasis added). In only a few days, something has changed radically in the boy’s soul.
By the time he finally arrives at Araby late Saturday night, the quest has lost all meaning for him. He walks into “a big hall girdled at half its height by a gallery. Nearly all its stalls were closed and the greater part of the hall was in darkness” (181)–powerfully recalling the image of that mysterious, uninhabited house of the first paragraph. The boy has reached the end of his street and come up desperately empty. Those imperturbable brown houses have betrayed him. He feels shattered. The journey James Joyce portrays in “Araby” is one we all embark on at one time or another.
Though we have our own unique ways of attaining adulthood, eventually all of us taste from that forbidden tree, and the awareness that accompanies the loss of the idyllic view of childhood is often traumatic to the extreme. At the same time, this story provides a sober warning. It is too easy to flee, as the boy did, into the realm of dreams to escape the harsh realities of life. True, the pursuit of beauty is important in its place. But beauty of itself can never bring meaning to life. If we choose with the boy to make it our reason for being, we will soon find ourselves gazing up into the awful depths of an empty, uninhabited house.