From a quick read through James Joyce’s “Araby,” one may think that it is a simple story about a boy and his first infatuation with a female. Upon a closer inspection, the religious symbolism becomes clearer as Joyce uses symbols throughout the story to reflect upon his own experiences and his own view of the Irish Church. As told in the text’s prologue, Joyce saw Ireland to be in a sort of spiritual paralysis during his early years, and an argument could be made that “Araby” was his way of expressing his views on this stagnant Irish Church. Due to different events that occurred in his childhood, James Joyce was turned off to and let down by the Catholic Church, causing him to take this resentful viewpoint of the church. Through different forms of symbolism in “Araby,” Joyce shows his disappointment and lack of faith in the Irish Church.
Before delving into the symbolism contained in “Araby,” the question of why Joyce feels so resentful toward the church must be raised. The prologue of the text states that “Joyce spent his adolescence in the 1890s hoping to get away from what he saw as Dublin’s spiritual, political, and intellectual paralysis” (“James Joyce” 140). Certain events of Joyce’s early life are also detailed in the prologue, such as James Joyce’s father, John Joyce’s close relations with Charles Parnell through the Irish nationalist movement. The Roman Catholic hierarchy pressured Parnell out of his position as leader of the faction following a controversial divorce, causing the faction to split into irrelevance. This event, and the death of Parnell, led young James Joyce to compose his first literary work, a poem, at the age of nine. This clearly shows the influence that this event had on his life. When the Irish Church repressed Parnell’s movement, John Joyce fell into alcohol and debt problems, causing chaos and upheaval in James Joyce’s adolescent years. This could be considered a main attribute to Joyce’s stagnant view of Irish religion and politics.
Now that we have speculated on the origins of Joyce’s views of the Irish Church, one can draw parallels with this viewpoint and the symbolism used in “Araby.” In the opening paragraph, Joyce paints a picture of the street on which the narrator lives. There stands a single, uninhabited house, separated from all the rest, at the end of the dead end street. Down the
street, the brown houses symmetrically facing each other are described as being calm and impassive. The first symbol of the church can be found here, as the street literally mirrors an image of a church, with the large isolated house at the end being the pulpit, and the brown houses being the pews down a center aisle. The vocabulary used in this opening paragraph should be closely noted. Looking at this parallel image, the “pulpit” is described as being uninhabited and empty, with the congregation in the “pews” being unmoving. Also, the word “blind” serves a double meaning in this context, first as a dead end road, but also literally as being without sight, signifying his view of the blind leadership in the Irish Church. Joyce begins this story with imagery to push his views of the Irish Church and the downfall that he believes it has taken.
Continuing into the story, one can see even more symbolism in the second paragraph, but this time, it is much less abstract. The narrator tells that the former resident of this house was a priest who passed away, leaving behind “old useless papers” in a back room. Among the papers were three books. From the narrator saying that he likes the third book due to its yellow leaves, one can conclude that this book has been read many more times than the other two. The footnotes reveal that one of the books that is not very worn is a religious book, whereas the worn in book is secular. This shows that even priests in this time have stooped to the level of finding more satisfaction in secular things than in their own religion. Later in this paragraph, the narrator notes that the priest was charitable for leaving his money to institutions. Contrary to the narrator’s view, this action can be taken as being the opposite of charitable. Being dead, the priest would have no use for these belongings anyways, but it could be seen as inconsiderate to leave his useless belonging to his sister. Joyce uses this act and the worn yellow pages as symbols of the flaws in the leadership of the Irish Church.
In this same paragraph, another religious symbol can be found. While describing the backyard, the narrator says “The wild garden behind the house contained a central apple-tree and a few straggling bushes under one of which I found the late tenant’s rusty bicycle-pump” (Joyce 142). There is an
obvious connection between the central apple tree in this story and the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. In the Bible, when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge, they were cast from the garden, which then without caretaking would have become overgrown. This initial sin represents the downfall of man. In “Araby,” the central tree overgrown by straggling bushes is a parallel to the tree of knowledge in the Bible, and where the tree of knowledge represented the downfall of man, Joyce represents the downfall of the Irish Church through the overgrown central tree. Joyce even takes it a step further with the rusty bicycle pump; something that used to have a purpose has now become useless. With these mechanisms, Joyce uses parallels between “Araby” and the Bible to bring to light what he sees as the downfall of the Catholic Church in Ireland.
Though it is difficult to say if Joyce originally intended this of his story, a large parallel could also be drawn between the narrator’s desire for Mangan’s sister and the way Joyce desired religion in his adolescence. As told in the prologue, Joyce initially desired to go into priesthood as a young boy. Through this story of “Araby,” the narrator copes with the feeling he has toward this girl in the only way he knows how; he tries to buy her something. After arriving at the bazaar, he is disappointed in many ways. Not only does he have no remaining money to buy a gift, but the bazaar also is not even an authentic Arabic bazaar (as he concluded from the worker’s British accents) as its name suggested. In the last sentence of the story, the narrator recalls his feelings: “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger” (Joyce 145). This feeling could very well be the same feeling that Joyce felt about his religion in his early years. The narrator’s desire for the girl led him to be utterly disappointed, just as Joyce’s desire to become a priest was stifled by his disappointment in the Irish Church.
After a closer analysis of this story, it is clear that this seemingly simple story of a child’s first infatuation with the opposite sex has many hidden symbols that relay the author’s feelings toward his church and religion. The turmoil in his childhood caused by the church led James Joyce
to perceive the church as being in a spiritual paralysis, a view that he makes clear through imagery and symbolism throughout the story of “Araby.” Not only does Joyce use symbols, but he also draws parallels between the life of the narrator and his own as a child, and uses this desire and disappointment felt by the narrator to express the desire and disappointment that he felt toward his religion.
“James Joyce.” The Longman Anthology of World Literature. Ed. David Damrosch. 1st ed. Vol. F. New York: Longman, 2004. 139-41. Print. Joyce, James. “Araby.” The Longman Anthology of World Literature. Ed. David Damrosch. 1st ed. Vol. F. New York: Longman, 2004. 142-45. Print. “Selected Essays on James Joyce’s “Araby”” The Literary Link. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2012. .