James Joyce’s short story “Araby”, whose external storyline is simple to understand, is one of his best. Joyce is known for his deep allegorical stories, which are layered with autobiographical and religious themes. The story may seem like a simple tale about a boy who falls in love with a woman that he barely even knows. However, the narrative is based on a medieval romance, which often features unrequited loves and knightly quests. The story’s final twist reveals that this structure, combined with Orientalist, medieval obsession and devotion themes, is misguided. “Araby”, a fictional story, begins with a long description of North Richmond Street. It is the street on which Joyce lived in Dublin as a young man. This marks the story as autobiographical, but also highlights its imagery. The imagery of blindness, darkness and opacity continues throughout this first section. This first section describes the setting as “silent”, “dark”, “rough”, and “odourous”, with shadows cast all around (Joyce 1), and it is during the “short day of winter”. This anecdote has two important purposes. It creates a darker atmosphere but also sets the larger context for the story. Joyce names the three books found by the boy in the room of the dead priest: The Memoirs of Vidocq and The Devout Communicant. Harry Stone says that these three texts are essential to understanding “Araby”. He points out the “lurking oddities” within these books which help reveal the character’s motives (Stone 352). The first books suggest religious themes. In contrast, the third is a sexualized, deviant memoir. As the boy’s best friend’s sister enters the narrative, this initial scene setting is over and the story can begin. The story is now clearly divided into four sections, as is the traditional structure of medieval romances (Mandel 48). The first section, which is the innocent childhood, is then disrupted by the appearance and presence of the main character. In the next section, the Knight undertakes an adventure to prove his love for the Lady. The quest concludes in the last part of the structure. The best way to understand “Araby”, is by using this genre structure. Joyce’s imagery carries the religious theme suggested by the Priest throughout the story. It creates the impression of Mangan’s Sister as a lady who is both romantic and religious. This divine feminine character is introduced into the shadowy world of childhood blindness. Her figure is often described almost as a halo, just like in Catholic icons depicting the Virgin Mary. It is important to note the nature of this quest. The quest itself is also significant. The boy’s religious devotion (“O love! The boy sets out to visit an oriental bazaar named Araby, which is an older word for Arabia. When he is first told about the exotic destination, he says that “the syllables within the word Araby, in the silence, called my soul to luxuriate and cast a Eastern enchantment” (Joyce, 2:2). As references to Crusades are made, this chapter of the medieval story gains a deeper meaning. Joyce has a tendency to compare the two, and it is clear that the overzealous warriors who travel to the far east are primarily motivated by the desire to bring back a souvenir from the east. Araby bazaars, such as the one that was held in Dublin in1894, were marketed at first to European audiences as Orientalist attractions. The Crusades and their fascination with the exotic East can be viewed in a similar light. Ehrlich points out that the Araby Bazaar in 1894 was remembered as a vibrant festival of music, dancing and a major public event in Dublin, not as “the boy’s childhood misconception” of the Araby bazaar being a place to buy souvenirs, as is depicted at the end. The apparent contradiction between the autobiographical story and the Araby bazaar can be resolved by seeing the Araby as a representation of “Arabia”, “East”, or the Crusader Knights’ quests. The story’s religious references show that the quest for a token is blindly pursued. This means the reader misses out on the vibrant atmosphere of the Near East with its culture and economy. This context can help us understand the dramatic and seemingly absurd final line of the story, where the boy who had reached his objective only to find it empty views himself as an “animal driven by vanity”. (Joyce 5) The medieval romance structure can only be subverted at this moment. The quest fails to achieve its objective, no tokens are acquired at a bazaar and it appears that the protagonist has forgotten about the woman who fueled the story. The whole of “Araby”, though it can be seen as a story about a misguided love story told through the lense of medieval romance, is subverted by the Orientalist parallel to the crusades in the last line. Works Cite
Ehrlich, Heyward. James Joyce Quarterly Vol. 35 No. 1 35, no. 2/3, 1998, pp. 309-331.
Joyce, James. Araby. James Joyce. London: Grant Richards Ltd. 1914. 1-5
Mandel, Jerome. Modern Language Studies Vol. 15, No. 1. 15, no. 4, 1985, pp. 48-54.
Stone, Harry. The Antioch Review. Vol. 71, no. 2, 2013, pp. 348-380.