Escape From Reality in Araby By James Joyce

Categories: Araby

Disillusionment and Escapism in Joyce’s Araby

James Joyce’s story "Araby" can easily be seen as a story about a young boy’s unrequited love. From gazing at his friend’s older sister from afar, to whispering her name in silent prayer, it is easy to see how the thought of her occupies the protagonist’s mind. However, the boy’s infatuation is only a small part in the deeper meaning of the story. The true meaning behind "Araby" is that growing up can be a painful experience.

As one grows older, inevitable disillusionment will occur. Everything that brought joy in childhood will become dull, and the realities of life will become painfully clear. In "Araby", the protagonist is unaware of the dreary reality around him. The reader can see how he turns a blind eye to his reality through the use of fantasies of quests and far-off lands. He also uses an infatuation for Mangan’s sister as a means of escape, using her as the reason for his journey.

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The reader can also see how those around the protagonist use a different means of escaping their reality, one that involves religion. As the story progresses the protagonist gives up his dreams and fantasies in exchange for a religious albeit dark way of viewing the world around him. The overall story is not one about first love, but the disillusionment and attempts of escape from a dark reality everyone encounters as they grow older, shown through a young boy’s attempts to cling to the dreams of romance and adventure.

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The setting in which the protagonist lives is casually described throughout the story. Every detail of the neighborhood can be seen as a symbol of the hopelessness of life in Dublin. These somber details play a large part in the meaning of the story as a whole. The protagonist lives on North Richmond Street, a dead-end street which symbolizes the futility of attempts of advancement in the child’s life. Just like the street, the protagonist’s hopes and dreams will eventually reach a dead-end as he grows older and more aware of the world around him. The houses on this dead-end street are described as sporting “brown imperturbable faces,” (Joyce, 321) which helps add to the image of a very dull, unexciting neighborhood. With houses such as these, it can be difficult for a child to find interest in the world around him. The protagonist found this reality too boring, and sought a more interesting life through his imagination. He does not see these houses as part of his current reality or his future. Instead, he sees his future in more colorful and interesting neighborhoods far away from Dublin. The air in the protagonist’s house is described as being “musty from having been enclosed,” (Joyce, 321). The depressing setting is not limited to the outdoors, but is also in the protagonist’s own home. Growing up with such somber scenery, the protagonist is not initially affected by it. Instead, he is so uninterested in his mundane surroundings that he becomes oblivious to them. Occupation with play and imagination allows him to ignore the negative aspects in his life. All the protagonist and his friends need to worry about are which games they will play. In the line “the career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses” (Joyce, 322) the act of the children playing is described as a career, indicating that having fun is the children’s main concern in life. The dark muddy lanes add more to the scenery. The word dark is repeated throughout the story, describing all the children come across as they play. “Dark dripping gardens where odours arose from the ashpits, to the dark odorous stables.” (Joyce, 322) Everything around them is described as being dark, but they do not let this darkness faze them. Concerned only with enjoyment they are able to ignore everything depressing around them. Even the gardens are described with bleak diction, suggesting that any attempts of merriment are futile in adulthood.

The scenery changes from describing the landscape to describing the characters that inhabit the protagonist’s country. While traveling to the market with his aunt, the protagonist is encircled by “drunken men” and “bargaining women,” and he hears “the nasal chanting of street-singers, who sang a come-all-you about O’Donovan Rossa, or a ballad about the troubles of our native land” (Joyce, 322-323). These images show how the despair that permeates the country affects its inhabitants. The drunken men use alcoholism as a means of escaping their reality. The bargaining women struggle to survive, unable to rise above poverty. The street-singers bring to light in a more direct way the struggles in the country. Karen Smith discusses the inconsistencies with the protagonist’s imagination and the actual world around him. “’Pig’s cheeks’ and ‘the curses of labourers’ comically undermine pretenses to a mystical experience of love, reminding us… of Dublin’s unromantic reality” (Smith, 71). Once again, all of this is lost on the protagonist. All of the sights and sounds mixed together and became for the boy a setting for an adventure. He states “I bore my chalice through a throng of foes” (Joyce, 323), comparing his journey to the marketplace to a quest. He trades in his poverty-stricken and dull reality for a more fantastical one, one where he can be a hero. According to Professor John Freimarck, this scene and the entire story itself “raises echoes of the Grail quest story-pattern” (Mandel, 48). The protagonist’s view on his life is very similar to the patterns found in medieval romances novels. It is almost complete with enfance which “defines the hero’s youth before his coming to… knighthood” followed by the “introduction of the lady who becomes central to the hero’s life” (Mandel, 48). The protagonist sees his journey through the marketplace as part of another step in this medieval romance. The fourth step being a perilous quest. It is not until he is told of Araby that the boy returns to the third step, a commitment to the quest. The boy’s dreams of quests are also hinted to in one of the books he finds in the back drawing-room of his house. One of the novels found was The Abbot by Sir Walter Scott. It is a romance that tells the story of a brave knight and the escape of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots from her imprisonment. It has close similarities to the protagonist’s imagination. Him being the knight, but also the queen, escaping from imprisonment in a dreary neighborhood and sailing away to greater opportunities.

The boy’s delusions soon come to an end when visits the famed bazaar known as Araby. When he is told of the bazaar Araby, the protagonist is filled with excitement. He is not only excited to extract more attention from Mangan’s sister by buying her a gift, but to see all his fantasies come to life at the exotic bazaar. The protagonist over-romanticizes the bazaar in the line “the syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me” (Joyce, 324). Throughout childhood the protagonist had used imagination as a means to escape his reality. At Araby he will no longer need to rely on his imagination to create a fantastical situation. The bazaar offers to the protagonist and opportunity to bring his dreams to life, not only with a gift for his crush, but with the promise of far-off lands waiting to be explored that will promise a better life. However, when the protagonist arrives at Araby, he realizes that there is no promise of a better life full of adventure there. Just like the neighborhood where he has spent his entire life, Araby is engulfed in darkness. It is then the protagonist realizes that his fantasies have no base in reality, and could never come true. The dreariness of his country could no longer be ignored, he is left alone in the darkness forced to accept the futility of his endeavors. It becomes clear in the ending that it wasn’t Mangan’s sister’s love in particular that was truly important to the boy. The line the protagonist says as he enters the bazaar “remembering with difficulty why I had come” (Joyce, 326) shows that his infatuation with Mangan’s sister was fleeting, only a small portion in his bigger dream. His infatuation was only a catalyst that brought him closer to his epiphany. It’s important to note that this is a gross misinterpretation of the actual Araby bazaar that occurred in 1894. As Katherine Mullin had stated in her essay, “Something in the Name of Araby,” the bazaar was very crowded, as advertising had lured many to the event, possibly looking for the same means of escape from the reality of Dublin that the protagonist was. Mullin points out a detail described in The Freeman’s Journal concerning transportation to the bazaar. So many people were traveling to the bazaar that the express tram lines that went directly to Araby were so busy that “from seven o’clock to half past eleven tram after tram travelled in unbroken succession” (Mullin, 61). The transportation is also mentioned in the story, when porters prevent people from boarding “a special train for the bazaar” (Joyce, 325). It is also stated that the protagonist arrived at the bazaar at 9:50 pm, even though The Freeman’s Journal states transportation to the bazaar ran until 11:30 pm (Mullin, 61). It is also stated that “18,000 people [frequented] the various restaurants and stalls, [shopped] at the stalls, and [awaited] the midnight fireworks finale” (Mullin, 61). At the actual Araby, half of the bazaar was not shrouded in darkness at ten o’clock, and there was more than one stall open. Joyce added these details to further present the theme of disillusionment. The details, though incorrect, draw a connection between the bazaar and the protagonist’s everyday surroundings. This grounds the bazaar in reality for the protagonist, and shows him that he cannot find a means of escape through fantasies of brave knights, damsels in distress, and enchanting journeys. There is another means of escape for the protagonist, however. It is a method of escapism that, just like the scenery and the reality of life, had eluded the protagonist through the majority of the story.

Religion is a major theme in the story. It is an important aspect in every character’s life. The first religious reference in the story is the mention the protagonist’s school, the Christian Brother’s School. The protagonist describes the end of classes for the day as being set free from the school, indicating that he, like many of boys of his age, see school as confining and a waste of time. As previously mentioned, the boys who see playing as a career see school as an obstacle keeping them from their more important duties. The religious teachings that take place in the school are not taken to heart by the children. It is because of this neglect of the teachings that the protagonist does not find escapism in pious dedication to his religion, but through fantasies. It is not until he is older that his fantasies mature into religious devotion as a means to escape his discontentment with life. Another connection to religion is made through the mention of the priest who had died in the protagonist’s house and the belongings he left behind. Even the most trivial items hold religious meaning. “The apple tree in the garden behind the house, along with the nearby bicycle pump, suggest the Garden of Eden and the serpent,” (Trudeau, 1) which foreshadow the temptations romance and the exotic bazaar are to the young protagonist. Like Adam and Eve, the protagonist will give into these temptations, ignoring his religious studies in order to attempt to win the love of a girl. This idolization of Mangan’s sister is an act seen as sinful in his society. A.R Coulthard, in his literary criticism titled “Joyce’s Araby”, gives another meaning to the musty air that occupied every room in the house. He states that the air is “one more closely linked with religious devotion” (Coulthard, 98). He also mentions the books found in the waste room, one of which has a direct relationship to religion. He states that two of the books “suggest that the priest attempted to lighten the load of the Catholic discipline signified by the third, The Devout Communicant, a pamphlet by a Franciscan friar” (Coulthard, 98). Later on in the story the protagonist hears the “shrill litanies of shop-boys” (Joyce, 322) on the busy streets. Prayer is so common in the protagonist’s country that it is commonly sung on the streets. The protagonist doesn’t pay any mind to these prayers, however. But, the religious influence is not entirely lost on him.

His infatuation to Mangan’s sister is likened to a religious experience. “Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand” (Joyce, 323), in this line the name of Mangan’s sister is compared to a prayer. In another line, “I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled, murmuring: O love! O Love! many times” (Joyce, 323), the act of the protagonist pressing his palms together closely resembles the act of praying, caused by the thought of Mangan’s sister. The protagonist seems to be aware of the adults around him using religious as a way to cope with their living situation. It’s unconscious knowledge that he is not fully aware he has. By living a pious life the people in his life do not have to worry about their situation currently, because the afterlife will be much better. The protagonist attempts to find this religious escape in Mangan’s sister. Like a child pretending a plastic toy phone is real, the protagonist pretends Mangan’s sister is like a religion. He finds that this infatuation is far more interesting than Christianity itself. There is more indication of this in the meaning behind Mangan’s name. The name Mangan references the Dublin-born poet James Clarence Mangan. Mangan’s sister is an allusion to James Clarence Mangan’s poem, Dark Rosaleen. In line 31 of the poem, “My life, my love, my saint of saints” the speaker indicates that he worships Dark Rosaleen like a saint. Line 51, “your holy delicate white hands” also refers to Dark Rosaleen as someone with saint-like qualities. Line 63, “Oh, I could kneel all night in prayer” is similar to the protagonist moment of prayer in the back drawing-room. Additionally, just like in line 19 in the poem, “for there was lightning in my blood,” the protagonist states that Mangan’s sister’s name “was like a summons to all my foolish blood” (Joyce, 322). This is described in Strohmer’s work as “the transformation of pious devotion to earthly desire” (Strohmer, 2). However, this transformation could be seen as a change from earthly desires to religious devotion. The protagonist’s thoughts soon turn solely to religion at the end of the story. At the end of the novel, the boy finds himself “a creature driven and derided by vanity” (Joyce, 326). Vanity, being one of the seven deadly sins, points directly to religion. The protagonist sees his dreams of adventure and love, his physical attraction to Mangan’s sister, and the attraction to allure of Araby as sins he had committed. A.R. Coulthard points out in his criticism, “anguish and anger are merely emotional reactions, but the admission of vanity, which reflects the oppressive Catholicism in the story, is a severe moral judgment” (Coulthard, 97). At the end of the story, the protagonist adopts the same beliefs as those around him about religion. He is consumed by “a repressive Dublin culture, which renders hopes and dreams not only foolish but sinful” (Coulthard, 97). He turns to religion and the promise of a peaceful afterlife, embittered by the realization that this peace and happiness cannot be achieved while he is alive.

James Joyce’s Araby calls to light the disillusionment that occurs when one grows older. It is easy for the protagonist and his friends to believe in the illusion of a life full of adventure and romance when the only thing they need to concern themselves with is play. Attempting to escape from reality does not disappear when one grows older, it only changes form. For the protagonist, his escape from his dreary reality was his dreams of adventure and his infatuation with Mangan’s sister. For the adults around him, their escape was through religion. Their dedication to asceticism allowed them to live their lives with hope, despite their inability to improve their lives.

Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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Escape From Reality in Araby By James Joyce. (2024, Feb 06). Retrieved from

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