Awakening to Reality in James Joyce's "Araby"

Categories: Short Story

James Joyce's short story "Araby" explores the profound moment of awakening from illusion through the experiences of a young boy's unrequited love. This theme resonates with our own lives, as we often undergo a similar process of self-discovery and realization when we come to understand that certain emotions, such as regret, anger, and unhappiness, stem from our own illusions. To truly grasp the value of what we perceive as valuable, we must first experience its valuelessness.

The Intersection of Symbolism and Realism

"Araby" skillfully combines elements of symbolism and realism, bookending the narrative with strong symbols that serve to awaken a sense of realism in the reader.

The story begins with a poignant symbol of the priest's death, offering a stark contrast between fantasy and reality. The boy's interpretation of the priest's will reflects this contrast:

"He had been a very charitable priest; in his will, he had left all his money to institutions and the furniture of his house to his sister" (302).

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This passage hints at the boy's perception of the priest as hypocritical, suggesting that his wealth may have compromised his devotion to his faith. By bequeathing his furniture to his sister, the priest's actions further underscore his ties to secular family relations, challenging the idealized image of a selfless clergyman. It becomes evident that the priest's fantasy of being charitable and respected is shattered by his choice to leave his possessions to his sister.

One could argue that had the priest truly been charitable, he might have donated his fortune to society rather than keeping it for himself.

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The presence of a wealthy minister in a time of poverty is disconcerting, as it deviates from the expected humility and honor associated with the clergy. Joyce's commentary in the story is further emphasized when the boy discovers old books in the priest's room, such as "The Abbot" and "The Memoirs of Vidocq."

"The Abbot" portrays Queen Mary of Scotland as a devout, serious, religious, and romantic figure, reflecting the boy's confused perceptions of religion, romanticism, and sexuality. Meanwhile, "The Memoirs of Vidocq" tells the story of a double life involving a policeman and a thief, alluding to themes of deception and dishonesty. The choice of the name "Mangan," representing the sister of the boy's unrequited love, suggests a strong allusion to James Clarence Mangan, an Irish poet from the 19th century. This connection symbolizes hypocrisy and misguided emotions, adding depth to the narrative.

The story also delves into the boy's experiences in the back drawing room, where he grapples with confused illusions of sexual fantasy and religious devotion. This highlights the suppression of the boy's desires within the confines of his Dublin Irish Catholic upbringing, as he seeks solace in the shadows of religious mystery and sexual yearning.

As the narrative progresses, the boy's emotions shift from vague abstractions to concrete realities. He comes to realize that his journey to Araby is not motivated by a holy duty, as he had initially believed, but rather by his own imprudence and vanity. His awakening to this truth is facilitated by a few meager coins and the English girl who playfully engages with other boys, ultimately revealing her indifference. This moment of realization serves as the story's epiphany, akin to the manifestation of consciousness in the presence of a divine revelation.

The Significance of Araby

"Araby" is a multifaceted narrative that explores themes of love, sex, religion, and the transition from adolescence to adulthood. The protagonist, a Dublin Irish Catholic boy, struggles to reconcile his suppressed desires with the demands of his faith and society. His journey to Araby symbolizes a rite of passage, a place of growth, and an opportunity to confront his illusions, separations, and the harsh realities of the world.

Throughout the story, the boy grapples with societal expectations and ultimately sublimates his emotional doubts through religious mysticism. His journey to Araby becomes a catalyst for self-discovery, leading him to confront the stark realities of life and grow into adulthood. "Dubliners," the collection in which "Araby" is featured, serves as a moralistic critique of the spiritual paralysis in Ireland, portraying Dublin as the epicenter of this malaise.

James Joyce's ability to evoke the distressing and realistic feelings experienced by his characters resonates deeply with the Irish people, and this narrative technique transcends regional boundaries. Joyce's critique of societal immorality and stagnation serves as a universal commentary on human societies and their collective histories. "Araby" successfully navigates a web of symbolism, politics, culture, and religion through the lens of adolescent infatuation.

It is worth noting that "Araby" avoids the pitfalls of fantastical exaggerations often associated with novels. Instead, it skillfully reflects and influences the real society by presenting a narrative grounded in the gritty realities of human existence. As the boy shares his painful journey to adulthood, he offers insight into the human condition, where adapting to reality and carrying concealed emotional wounds become inevitable aspects of life.


In conclusion, "Araby" by James Joyce is a masterful exploration of the human experience, offering a poignant reflection on the awakening from illusion to reality. Through the boy's journey, we witness the collision of fantasy and truth, the weight of societal expectations, and the transformative power of self-discovery. The story serves as a timeless reminder of the universal struggles faced by individuals as they navigate the complexities of their own emotions and the world around them.

Updated: Nov 10, 2023
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Awakening to Reality in James Joyce's "Araby". (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

Awakening to Reality in James Joyce's "Araby" essay
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