Religious Symbolism and Use of Light in "Araby"

Categories: Short Story

Sometimes we get caught up in our expectations and beliefs that when we come to the realization that what we believed isn’t true, it can lead to disappointment or a feeling of defeat.

Araby by James Joyce is a short story about a young boy who has a strong crush on his friends older sister and has an epiphany that helps him to realize the harsh realities of life. The setting and use of language in Araby show the religious symbolism and use of light and darkness to show the narrators emotions and how he struggles to differentiate religious love and romantic love.

Through the use of religious symbolism, light, and darkness, the narrator realizes the harsh realities of secular life and how it was portrayed to him through the church.

Araby takes place in Dublin, Ireland where the narrator attended the Christian brother’s school. Catholicism plays a big role in the narrators life and the community around him.

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Religious symbols and language are used to associate the narrators life and with the church and describe the narrators crush, Mangan’s sister. The narrator had a huge crush on Mangan’s sister and always had her on his mind when he was trying to do everyday tasks like reading and praying. Before ever speaking or meeting his crush, the narrator would sit at the window and watch her door to see her leave everyday and follow her without being noticed. The narrator mentions how his crush’s image is always on his mind, even on his trips to the market place with his aunt where he would hear the noises of street singers, drunken men, and bargaining women.

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He explains how the noises from the marketplace are insignificant to him through a metaphor: “these noises converged in a single sensation for me: I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes” (Joyce). This is significant because the narrator is saying all the noises do not hinder his perspective/ vision of love. A chalice is the large wine cup used in Christian Eucharist and holds lots of religious significance in Christianity. The “throng of foes” are the other people in the marketplace making noise and by this metaphor, the narrator is trying to say that his image of Mangan’s sister will stay the same no matter what, holy and pure. The narrator also mentions how his crush’s name came up in times he didn’t understand. The narrator says, “her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand” (Joyce). This is significant because Mangan’s sister is constantly on the narrators mind and religious symbols like prayer and praise are used to explain his emotions and feelings towards her. Through her showing up during everyday instances in his life, it shows how much he really likes her and how he has a pure view of her and somewhat worships her. Because of this familiar religious love the narrator is taught throughout early childhood, its hard for him to differentiate his romantic love or lust for Mangan’s sister with his love for God and his faith.

The narrator begins the story with very dark and mysterious characteristics of the town he lives in to create the mood of the story, then changes to brightness and light when referencing his crush, Mangan’s sister and in turn leads to his epiphany. The narrator says, “the career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odors arose from the ash pits, to the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoother and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness” (Joyce). This quote is significant because its shows the depressing nature of his town and the darkness that overwhelms the narrator in his daily life. This darkness shows his feelings of how little hope he had of change in his life. The narrator didn’t expect much out of life and his use of language represents his reality. When he first encounters the girl, he begins to see light and says, “her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door”(Joyce). He only sees her silhouette and this encounter marks the beginning of his infatuation with her. He cant get her out of his head and she shows up in randoms times of everyday obligations. After finally speaking to Mangan’s sister, they discuss going to Araby, the bazaar in their town. While talking to her, there narrator describes what he sees: “the light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing”(Joyce). This quote is significant because he uses light to describe his encounter with her and after this encounter, the narrator feels like life is monotonous child’s play because it got in the way of his desire, going to the bazaar to get something for his crush. All he wants to do is go to the bazaar and please his crush with a gift but his daily tasks in life feel useless. The use of light leads to his epiphany and realization of secular life outside of his religion.

The narrator finally goes to the bazaar after waiting what seemed like forever for his uncle to come home and give him money to go. As he finally arrives at there bazaar, he notices all the stalls are closed, the halls are dark, and its pretty much silent in the bazaar. The narrator overhears a conversation with two Englishmen and a woman. As the lady leaves the conversation and asks him if he was interested in anything with a sense of duty, the narrator realized that there was nothing there for him and the bazaar wasn’t a magical place he thought it to be, but instead was a profit-oriented place to buy things. As he walked away he explains how he feels after realizing this reality: “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). This is significant because it shows the epiphany the narrator has at the end of the story and he begins to realize the harsh realities of life. He realizes that this magical place is now just a commercialized market and understands how vain it was to believe his encounter with Mangan’s sister was more than just small talk. This epiphany marks a change in the narrator, from a young idealistic boy who is infatuated with a girl he barely knows, to a pubescent boy who is learning adulthood and the realities of life.

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Religious Symbolism and Use of Light in "Araby". (2021, Aug 17). Retrieved from

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