James Joyce’s “Araby” is a story short in length, but long in impact. The unnamed narrator in the story is on the verge of some great discovery, betwixt and between childhood and the world of adults. The playmates with which he interacts, the aunt and uncle that hold dominion over him, and the crush he develops on the pretty sister of a friend are all described through his eyes. While he describes the action, he does so in a wisdom that seems beyond his years, being idealist and innocent and at the same time knowledgeable and jaded.
Though the journey the protagonist makes is real, simple, and common, the way the journey is portrayed makes it verge on the mythic and the main character garners many heroic attributes in the tradition of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. American writer Joseph Campbell was well known not only for his defining of the hero and the hero’s journey, but also his appreciation and admiration for the work of James Joyce.
In the work of Joyce, he saw many of the critical elements that comprised the hero’s journey or the monomyth, which added impact to an otherwise simple coming-of-age story.
Instead of being just a simple trip to the bazaar, the protagonist of Joyce’s “Araby” is forced to endure many of the trials and events that befall all heroes. Campbell helped define what makes a hero in his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by stating: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (30).
In other words, Joyce’s protagonist in “Araby” has enacted multiple parts of the mythic initiation of the hero-redeemer, who, according to Campbell, undergoes separation, initiation, and returns with a boon for his people. According to Martha Fodaski Black, “In ‘Araby’ the boy separates himself from the other Dubliners, undergoing the trials and tests of the often hostile environment of the Dublin streets at night; the main character has his moment of ironic enlightenment at the bazaar…although the boy does not return to his people, the story is itself the boon that Joyce brought to the Irish” (129).
Even despite not fitting Campbell’s definition of the hero’s journey to the letter, there remain many aspects of it that are too glaring to ignore. The narrator in “Araby” personifies youthful idealism, fantasy, and confusion, which at first seems to negate the status as a hero embarking on a hero’s journey. However, when viewed through the eyes of Campbell, the trip to the bazaar for the young man, as well as the overwhelming desire that precedes it, are parts of the hero’s journey. The call to adventure is put forth by Mangan’s sister, who originally places the idea into the head of the young man about the bazaar.
While she cannot go to the bazaar, he promises that he will go and return with something from the bazaar, which is very similar to the concept of the boon for the people. With his intense feelings, adolescent and confusing as they may be, the narrator is presented with a task that he feels obligated to complete, no matter the costs. This becomes his all-consuming passion, and every other aspect of his life in the story takes on a whole new meaning, becoming a mythological quest for something magical and transcendent.
Even in his everyday tasks the narrator creates something fantastic, and making his way through the crowded streets carrying groceries he sees a different romantic reality: “I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes” (Joyce 31). The way he romanticizes his friend Mangan’s sister goes far beyond the realm of reality, though he has little idea why he feels like he does. When she finally becomes reality and speaks to him, he is overwhelmed by it. Yet, he confronts adult reality with full force, following the urges brought on by his burgeoning sexual awareness.
By, going on the quest to Araby, his idealism and fantasy are replaced with the cold realization of adulthood and the reality of the world around him. All of the other characters in Araby simply support the narrator’s rising consciousness and often fit the Campbell’s definition of helpers, and sometimes as tests and enemies to be overcome. The narrator’s aunt and uncle act as surrogates for authority figures, and their contradictions, but he still appeals to them after he receives his original call to adventure.
Their authority comes to bear on the narrator when he waits for his uncle to get home to go to the bazaar with him, only to be let down when he fails to show up on time. The waiting could be a test for the narrator, and he manages to pass despite the anxiety and trepidation it caused. The pious and fair aunt is complimented with the partially irresponsible but benevolent uncle, and though their help is limited and largely debatable, their gentle support finally allows the narrator to make it to the bazaar.
However, unlike the supernatural helpers in many myths, the helpers in “Araby” are very human, and it is collectively the fault of the narrator’s uncle and aunt that he got to the bazaar so late; though they are also the reason he was able to go, showing the control that authority has over all and their important position in his life. Once the boy is allowed to go on his journey alone, more elements of the hero’s journey come into play. The train ride that the boy embarks upon can be seen as Campbell’s crossing of the threshold to adventure.
The ride itself is something that the boy must endure in order to get to the world he wishes to find, yet another test in a series of tests. However, once at the bazaar, the boy’s heroic journey takes a disheartening turn, as he realizes that much of his youthful excitement and anticipation for the journey were misinformed. He finds more tests and trials in the special environment of the bazaar, contending with ignorant clerks that do not merit his respect or business, though this is nothing more than a statement of childish innocence being replaced with the harsh reality of adulthood.
In the end, the most important part of the narrator’s hero journey is not actually making it to the bazaar, nor retrieving the item he promised to Mangan’s sister, but it is the actual knowledge he gained because of the journey. Despite the help of some characters and the opposition of others, the narrator was able to grow in his knowledge and appreciation of the adult world. In initiating the boy’s hero’s journey, Mangan’s sister is the most important character in the story, not so much for who she is but what she is.
She is the symbol of the narrator’s idealized view of life. She is everything romantic to him, while she most likely has no idea that he feels this way. Other than the narrator, all of the characters view the world as it is, realizing the obligations of life are more important than idealized fantasies; Mangan’s sister cannot go to Araby because of her convent’s retreat, the uncle tends to his own affairs before the narrator’s, and the aunt only wants to see him safe and happy.
When the bazaar turns out horribly for the narrator, he realizes that his romantic view of the world was not only wrong, but may have even been vain because of he failed to see the world like everyone else did. He realizes that the reality of his life and the people in it were far more simple than he imagined, a sentiment that clearly marks his transformation from child to man: “From the vantage point of maturity the narrator can realize that the aunt and uncle perhaps once possessed an awareness of the romantic, and awareness that has since been clouded by the drabness of North Richmond Street” (Cockelreas & Logan).
The ultimate irony of the boy is that to finally achieve adulthood, he was robbed of his joy and his imagination and received only painful revelation in return. Joseph’s Campbell’s heroic journey can be seen in many works of literature, from the common myths of ancient times to the modernist writing of James Joyce. Whether it is the complex story of a human fighting supernatural elements or the simple story of a boy going to a bazaar, any character can be construed as a hero and the journey heroic.
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