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Wallace Gray's Notes for James Joyce's "Araby"

The title holds the key to the meaning of Joyce's story. Araby is a romantic term for the Middle East, but there is no such country. The word was popular throughout the nineteenth century -- used to express the romantic view of the east that had been popular since Napoleon's triumph over Egypt. And, of course, the story is about Romantic Irony, for the unnamed boy has a romantic view of the world.

Joyce finished "Araby" in October of 1905: the eleventh in composition of the stories that would become Dubliners.

The story is about Orientation: notice how we derive that word from the Orient, from the East, originally meaning that, to orient yourself means to know in which direction the sun rises. The boy in "Araby" is disoriented, but will know the true compass of the world at the end of his journey -- a traditional form in literature (the German term Bildungsroman is so commonly used that it often appears in English dictionaries).

North Richmond Street:
Although there is no explicit mention of it in the story, we know that it takes place on May 19, 1894 and the boy is 12 years old. In 1894 little Jimmy Joyce was 12, and lived at 17 North Richmond Street; the Joyce family lived there from 1854 to 1896. Furthermore, there was a "Grand Oriental Fete" in Dublin that ran from May 14-19, 1894. The theme song of the actual fair illustrates the romantic view of the Orient held by many Europeans at the time:

"I'll sing thee songs of Araby,
And takes of fair Cashmere,
Wild tales to cheat thee of a sign,
Or charm thee to a tear.
And dreams of delight shall on thee break,
And rainbow visions rise,
And my soul shall strive to wake
Sweet wonder in thine eyes ......

Through those twin lakes, when wonder wages,
My raptured song shall sink,
And as the diver dives for pearls,
Bring tears, bright tears to their brink,
And rainbow visions rise,
And all my soul shall strive to wake,
Sweet wonder in thine eyes ....
To cheat thee of a sign,
Or charm thee to a tear!"

(words by W.G. Wills; music by Frederick Clay)

being blind:
Actually, this describes the condition of the boy's relation to reality. Note that the story ends with an image of eyes seeing.

The American English term for this sense of "blind" -- "dead end" -- would work as well for Joyce's purposes, although blind works better for the story's closure. T.S. Eliot once said: "The world was made for Joyce's convenience," meaning that Joyce didn't have to invent or manufacture symbols; they were lying around in the streets of Dublin waiting for him to pick them up.

set the boys free:
Joyce uses this neat phrase to suggest that religion has imprisoned the boys.

uninhabited .... detached:
The street becomes Joyce's presentation of the Irish soul, uninhabited and detached, with the houses personified, and arguably more alive than the residents.

Certainly the most frequently used color in Dubliners, we note how quickly Joyce has been able to set a nearly hopeless and discouraged mood. In Stephen Hero, part of the first draft of the book that became A Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man, Joyce writes: "... one of those brown brick houses which seem the very incarnation of Irish paralysis."

a priest, had died:
As the opening paragraph has prepared us both for a story of particulars as well as for an allegory, the priest carries several messages. Joyce, who hated Roman Catholicism, implies that the Church (represented by the priest) is dead -- the Church as the former tenant of the House that is Ireland.

musty .. waste .. littered .. useless..:
If you make a list of just the adjectives in "Araby" you will be struck by the overwhelming drabness and dullness of the setting Joyce has created. Here in the opening paragraphs, Joyce's technique is not subtle, and he forces even the most optimistic (or oblivious) reader to take note of the lifelessness that surrounds the boy.

The Abbot, by Walter Scott, The Devout Communicant, and The Memoirs of Vidocq:
Joyce always has a purpose in Dubliners, and the selection of these books is not casual and is used to best advantage.

The Abbot, written in 1820, was about Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587). The novel presented her life in a sincerely religious and romantic fashion, in contrast to the usual picture of her as a "harlot queen" in history. The presence of this romantic/religious/sexual complex is central to Joyce's story, as the boy confuses and conflates Romantic Love, Religious Love and Materialist Love. As the story proceeds, we find that he deceives himself about the sexual, spiritual, and the financial.

The Devout Communicant could refer to any one of three works with this title. The one by the English Franciscan Friar Pacificus Baker (1695-1774) is noted for its lush, pious language and could have influenced the boy's couching his sexual feelings for the girl in pious images. William York Tindall, one of the pioneers of Joyce studies in the United States, held that the work Joyce had in mind was one by Abednego Sellar, as the author's name reinforces the materialistic themes of "Araby." Joyce's anti-clerical views also support this choice, as Abednego was a Protestant clergyman -- as was James Ford, the author of a third book by this title in print at the time. More important than specifically identifying which work Joyce had in mind here is the fact of the influence of the devoutly pious language of any of these works on the young boy's vocabulary and outlook.

The Memoirs of Vidocq, written by Francois-Jules Vidocq and published in 1829, was a popular 19th century novel about a Parisian Police Commissioner who was also a thief, and was thus able to hide his crimes (at one point in the novel, he escapes capture by dressing as a nun). Joyce's use of the book here supports the theme of deception and dishonesty in the story. But just as the reader is simultaneously aware of the meaning of the mention of these novels, and that the boy does not understand these meanings, so the theme of deception merely strengthens the sense that the boy is deceived about himself.

liked the last because its leaves were yellow:
In this paragraph we get the first glimpses of the boy's romantic, and naive view of life. Joyce plays on our attention to allegorical and symbolic details, for after the first paragraph we quickly realize that the narrator is a young boy who isn't using figurative language self-consciously. And yet the figurative meaning is where we find Joyce's telling of the story.

. wild garden .... central apple tree:
An obvious reference to the Garden of Eden, and "Araby" is certainly about a young man's fall from grace. Later, we'll note just how many times the word "fall" actually occurs in the story, particularly toward the end. Joyce's adding the rusty bicycle pump here shows that the reference to Eden is clearly After the Fall; Joyce sets the confused and unhealthy mixture of religion and sex with the priest's (thoroughly Freudian) rusty bicycle pump. This phallic pump is one of the treasures in Joyce's work.

a very charitable priest:
The frequent hypocrisy of religion is a familiar theme in Joyce's work. Here the sweet, almost admiring, description hides the disconcerting question: if the priest was so charitable, why did he have such a lot of money when he died? -- "all" suggests a lot of money, as does the idea of amounts that might be left to institutions). And what, after all, is so charitable about leaving furniture to your sister; the only thing less charitable would be to have had it thrown away. Of course, as mentioned earlier, this is the sort of recognition reserved for the reader, rather than the narrator, at least at this point in the story.

The "unreliable" or "unknowing" narrator is a common literary device, invented perhaps by Edgar Allan Poe, and exploited so well by Dostoyevsky in the 19th century; it is extremely common in 20th century fiction. Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier is a brilliant example of a technique like that used by Joyce in "Araby": as readers we quickly realize we know more about what is going on than does the narrator.

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The third paragraph presents a picture of the dreariness of Dublin; note the increasingly gruesome sequence of descriptions: sombre houses, feeble lanterns, silent street, dark muddy lanes, dark dripping gardens, odours from the ashpits, etc.

Note the repetition of "shadow" (three times) in this paragraph ("chiasmus," or the repetition of a single image, is a Joycean technique we will see often in Dubliners). The people of Dublin are not living, but ghosts; the boys, who are very much alive, are surrounded by shades of people. When we read that the boys, who are prominent in the first three stories of Dubliners, "played till our bodies glowed," we know that they are still alive, and their youth and glow tell us that their souls have not yet been smothered by Dublin (although, of course, by the end of each story efforts have been made to tame and even break them).

ran the gantlet:
This is an archaic spelling of "gauntlet". Joyce obviously wanted the association with a medieval world of jousts and holy quests, an association reenforced and developed in later points in the story and foreshadowed in this paragraph as well by the use of "stables.... horses ...harness.

The word gantlet is one of the many Scandinavian words that came into English during the Viking conquests: the practice of "running the gauntlet" involved running between two rows of men who struck the malefactor with sticks.

the areas:
A reference to the areas below the sidewalk level, in front of many Dublin houses (and New York City brownstones as well). Today it is perhaps most familiar to Joyceans because of its role in Ulysses, in the "Ithaca" episode (chapter ), in which Leopold Bloom has left home without his key and must climb over the railing and drop down into the area in order to gain access to his house.

Mangan's sister :
Joyce could count on readers making the connection with the popular, but sentimental and romantic 19th century Irish poet, James Clarence Mangan (1803-1849). Mangan was himself fond of writing about "Araby," and even though he knew no Arabic he claimed that some of his poems were translations from Arabic. Joyce's use of "Mangan" is one of the strongest supports for the theme of romanticism in the story, while at the same time it serves to strengthen previous instances of hypocrisy and false sentiment.

by the railings :
Here too, Joyce could count on Irish readers making a conscious or unconscious connection with the railings in front of the Catholic Church. Since the boy stands by the railing, the image of Mangan's sister becomes one of the Virgin Mary (an image that will be played on and expanded a few pages later). The girl is, in his mind, the object of religious veneration; the boy does not recognize, and perhaps has repressed under religious influence, that he is sexually attracted to her. That recognition will come at the end of the story, and is the cause of the boy's anguished tears.

soft rope of her hair:
Appropriately, the young girl's last name (her first name is never given) is Mangan, which comes from the Gaelic word meaning abundant hair.

The young boy is, in effect, a peeping tom. At the same time the color brown appears again, a color associated with the drabness of Dublin that is already affecting the girl.

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accompanied me:
The major themes of Romantic Love, Religious Love, and Materialist Love are combined wonderfully in this paragraph (as they will be again and again in the development of the story). The boy goes on a routine shopping trip with his aunt, but in his mind he turns it into a sacred adventure in the manner of a medieval quest for the Holy Grail.

These were street songs that were sung not only on the streets but in pubs; they dealt with current popular events and heroes. Jeremiah O'Donovan (1831-1915) was a revolutionary who advocated the use of violence in the struggle against British rule (his nickname was "Dynamite").

Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand:
When the boy thinks of the girl he does so in religious terms; note how the religious undertone is established by words associated with religion, like "image", "litanies", "chalice", "adoration", etc. As readers we again feel we know more than the narrator himself, for in this paragraph, even as the boy repeatedly confesses to things he doesn't understand, we have a deeper sense of all that the he doesn't understand about himself and his situation.

The boy's confusion about love and sexuality is conveyed brilliantly here. His choice of language is maudlin and even ridiculous, as when he here defeats the destroys the mood of the fingers on the harp by calling the strings "wires". Joyce's control of language is particularly clear in sentences like these, in which we recognize the young, confused voice of the boy.

One evening:
Note how Joyce moves from one significant scene to another without providing transitional paragraphs; the narrative does not try to represent continuous time. A 19th century (i.e. pre-Modernist) would likely have spelled out specific passages of time, but Joyce moves from point to point without doing this -- note how the beginnings of the previous paragraphs, and the next, fail to indicate the passage of time.

We don't know how many days or weeks have transpired during "Araby"; it is not important, as it would be to a 19th century writer. The pre-modernist sought verisimilitude by providing specific details about weather, clothing, food, views, houses, etc.; the modernist is not particularly interested in this. The modernist moves from one intense emotional moment to another, and of course this is one of the features that makes a modernist work more difficult than, for example, a Victorian novel.

into the back drawing-room:
This paragraph presents the classic masturbatory situation for a young boy: he is left alone in the house on a rainy evening. But his religious training has so suppressed his sexual feelings that his "senses seemed to desire to veil themselves" (note the religious term -- veil -- associated with nuns taking orders) and, "feeling that I was about to slip from them" (slip, obviously, into sexual activity) " I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled" (this apparently is a substitute for pressing his palms around his penis) and, "murmuring" (again, an association with murmuring prayers in church) "'O love! O love!' many times." The ejaculation here is a confused mixture of the religious and the sexual, with the religious totally hiding the sexual in the mind/body of this Dublin Irish Catholic boy.

she spoke to me:
Here is a good example of an important modernist technique: "Show, don't tell". The boy is stunned and confounded because she speaks to him; instead of stating that the boy is stunned, the prose itself becomes stunned, i.e., fragmented. This technique is used extensively in Joyce's Ulysses to indicate Leopold Bloom's states of feeling.

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there would be a retreat:
Joyce continues the religious strand of the story here, as the retreat triumphs over the girl's desire; the twirling of the bracelets nicely hints at the nervous sexual energy that is also suppressed by the religious obligation.

fighting for their caps:
What is being suggested here is the biblical scene of the Roman soldiers deciding a fight over the possession of Christ's clothes by throwing dice. The crucifixion image is furthered by the image of spikes (in Christ's hands and feet) and the recollection of the picture of Mary bowing at the foot of the cross.

light from the lamp:
Here Joyce continues the religiosity of the passage of suggesting both a halo and a light streaming from heaven.

falling, lit up the hand upon the railing:
This sentence strikingly melds the boys confused feelings of religiosity and sensuality. Note particularly the use once more of "railing" to suggest a church, surrounded by the words "falling" and "fell" -- a suggestion of the fall in the Garden of Eden that we have seen earlier and that will be used numerous times throughout the story to suggest the boy's fall from innocence. Note also the mixture of religious and sexual imagery ("white border of a petticoat"); a combination that will reappear with the girl from now on.

`It's well for you,':
The expression carries overtones of envy and bitterness which the boy seems not to notice, so wrapped up in his own fantasy is he.

I will bring you something.:
This is the foundation of the climax of the story; the boy has made a sacred vow which he will be unable to fulfill. Again, the quest of a medieval knight is suggested, even as the language demonstrates again the boy's maudlin view of the situation.

laid waste my waking and sleeping thoughts:
The romantic quest has taken precedence over everyday reality for the boy, and is destroying his ability to function. There is a hint of a new understanding here, as the boy seems critical of his past; at the same time he seems to condemn his own feelings, which he still juxtaposes with the serious work of life. He will be pulled down to earth at the end of the story. Joyce again makes use of words suggesting the romantic enchantment of the Orient.

Freemason affair:
Freemasonry, primarily a Protestant organization, is feared and mistrusted by the Roman Catholics of this time and place. The Aunt, by the way, is mistaken: the bazaar is a benefit for a Roman Catholic Hospital. (Her error may be caused by the fact that a few years earlier there was a bazaar sponsored by the Masons.)

I left the house in bad humour:
Joyce communicates beautifully the confused turbulence of the boy's feelings; we know he is upset, and that he knows he is upset, yet until now he has externalized all his anguish, speaking of the mood of the house, the unpleasantness of the air and the deceitfulness of his heart (as if it were an object outside himself). Here he first speaks of an "I" in anguish, and we sense from the repetition of "I" in the next paragraph that a realization is coming.

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brown-clad figure:
This is the third time in the story the word "brown" appears, and we have an echo of the earlier image of the girl as a religious figure (bathed in lamplight, but note that the familiar railing has disappeared!) as well as a sexual one ("the border below the dress").

Mrs Mercer:
Joyce selects this name to continue the imagery and theme of the mercantile and the mercenary, in the story. This effect is further supported by making her the widow of a pawnbroker, as well as the fact that she collects used stamps to sell for money to be given to the church. Again, money is being associated with religion, as it was in the paragraph in which the boy's shopping trip with his aunt is presented as a religious quest. The ultimate irony at the conclusion of the story is that what the boy thought of as a holy quest, to get a gift for the girl, was actually a sordid mercantile affair based on the sexual rather than the spiritual.

this night of Our Lord:
The time is Saturday evening, and the Saturday evening church service is dedicated to veneration of the Virgin Mary (in this story, the girl).

I could interpret these signs:
As mentioned before, the modernist works by suggestion: by showing rather than telling. Instead of saying that the uncle has had too much to drink, the reader is left to deduce this along with the boy as he interprets "these signs" (i.e. the uncle talking to himself and clumsy handling of the hall coat stand). But Joyce also uses this technique to show how the boy has begun to interpret signs correctly, and this foreshadows his final interpretation of his trip to Araby.

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told him a second time:
Another indication that the uncle's mind is somewhat clouded by alcohol

The Arab's Farewell to his Steed:
"The Arab's Farewell to his Steed," by Caroline Norton (1808-77), was so popular that Joyce could count on the association that the reader of Araby would (consciously or unconsciously) make with the story he is reading: the Arab boy sells for gold coins the thing that he loves the most in the world, his horse. However, as the horse is being led away the boy changes his mind and rushes after the man to return to money and reclaim his love. The final stanza reads:

Who said that I had given thee up? Who said that thou wast sold?
'T is false! 't is false! my Arab steed! I fling them back their gold!
Thus - thus, I leap upon thy back, and scatter the distant plains!
Away! who overtakes us now shall claim thee for his pains.

(A further irony here, that contributes to the theme of dishonesty and deception, concerns the author of the poem. Caroline Norton had an affair with the British Home Secretary to Ireland, Lord Melbourne, and her husband in a sense "sold her" to that diplomat by his silent complicity in the arrangement for his own professional gain.)

a florin:
A florin (at the time equal to two shillings, or twenty-four old pence) was a considerable amount of money for this boy; he is going to spend it foolishly. The florin originated in Florence during the Renaissance and had a likeness of the Virgin Mary on one side and that of St. John the Baptist on the other. Not only does this historical fact subtly support the spiritual/financial theme of the story, but the late nineteenth-century florin the boy carries has the image of the British Queen Victoria on one side and the legend on the other: "by the grace of God, defender of the faith." The odor of colonialism is pervasive here, as the Irish Catholic must carry around a coin proclaiming the Queen as defender of the British (Protestant) Church of England and as ruler over Ireland.

onward among ruinous houses:
In many medieval tales, the knight errant journeys through a wasteland in his search for the Holy Grail. T. S. Eliot makes distinctive use of this and other aspects of the Grail legend in his poem The Waste Land. s

a special train:
The boy is on quite a long journey for one his age: the fair is on the other side of Dublin, a distance of about two miles. The paragraph is full of indications that this is a special journey for him; that it ends with his seeing the lighted dial supports our expectation of the boy's coming realization (enlightenment?).

magical name:
Joyce spells out the mystical nature of the final goal of this quest.

a shilling:
The boy's determination and urgency causes him to be extremely rash in spending a shilling when he could certainly have found a sixpenny entrance.

like that which pervades a church:
Here it seems that Joyce doesn't quite trust his reader to make the connection that the interior of the bazaar is being compared to a church (e.g. "stalls", "darkness") and goes on to make the comparison explicit. But it is a church "after the service," and so we're not sure what to expect; the mention of a curtain confirms the mystery.

Café Chantant:
A French coffee house where entertainment is provided -- not exactly a high-class sort of establishment.

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counting money:
The men counting money, in what is effectively a church, certainly recalls Christ throwing the money changers out of the temple in Matthew 21:12-13. Note also the reappearance of the familiar term in "fall of the coins," which continues to suggest that the story is about the boy's fall.

a salver:
The plate on which sits the chalice that holds the wine for the mass; the term comes from the fact that the plate served as a savior for spilled wine. Here, it provides a particularly stark image of the mixing of money and religion.

Remembering with difficulty :
The brief scene is the turning point of the story, as everything goes downhill for the boy from here. First, this special place he has come to turns out to be enemy territory for the young Irishman, as the British are running this bazaar. Note further that this brief snippet of conversation is commonplace, ordinary, even vulgar in tone: the British are vulgar, Ireland is vulgar (we have seen this in the character of the boy's uncle and Mrs. Mercer), and the boy is vulgar in the sense that his quest was not the spiritual journey he thought it was. Joyce further stresses the theme of deception (including self-deception) in the story, by having the woman deny the accusers three times, thus recalling Peter's denial of his association with Christ. (see Matthew 26:69-75, as well as Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:54-62, and John 18:16-27).

Given the significance of accent in Joyce's story, the account in Matthew is particularly relevant in that one of the accusers says to Peter, at verse 73, "Surely thou art also one of them, for thy speech betrayeth thee."

I knew my stay was useless:
This scene is of the type that Joyce termed an epiphany. By that, he meant a showing forth of mystical meaning or revelation in a seemingly ordinary event or scrap of conversation. The Joycean epiphany, no matter how seemingly insignificant the actual details, results in an alogical, intuitive grasp of reality: a fragment of conversation or narrative description reveals -- illuminates -- the soul or essence of a person or event. (The term Epiphany comes from the Biblical scene is which the Christ Child is revealed to the Magi, traditionally celebrated on January 6th.)

I saw myself:
The boy is totally defeated: his quest has failed and he has not achieved his aim, which was to buy a present for the girl. But society has defeated him too, in the form of British condescension toward the Irish. His own rashness has left him with too little money for the purchase of a gift, even if one were available, but most of all his own ego and self-deception have defeated him in allowing him to think that his quest was a spiritual one.

A final accounting of the boy's financial standing proves ironic: he began with a florin (two shillings, i.e., 24 pence). The round trip ticket to the fare cost four pence in 1894. He spent one shilling (12 pence to enter the fair), he thus has eight pence left (the two and six in his pocket), which is all he would have had to spend for a present in any case.

Perhaps the mundane sexual overtones of the woman's flirtation with her accusers allows him to realize that the bazaar is a place of sexuality and materialism rather than spirituality. He realizes his own vanity, i.e., the futility of life in Dublin, his own worthlessness, his own foolishness, his unprofitable use of time, and the ridiculous high opinion he has of himself. He sees himself as the reader has seen him for some time, and he realizes that there is no Araby in Ireland.

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