Symbolism in "Araby" by James Joyce

Categories: Short Story

Araby by James Joyce is a wonderfully executed short story of an Irish boy that becomes infatuated with his neighbors sister and seeks to impress her with a gift. Joyce utilizes many elements that allow it to go smoothly and despite the dreary atmosphere that’s been expressed through the writing, it’s a piece that leaves a lingering effect on the reader. While the plot is small and quite anticlimactic at face value, leaving the main theme a puzzle, the style of writing makes the story interesting because of the demand to dig deeper into the sentences meaning due to the word choice and what he chooses to describe.

I analyzed Araby by its symbolism of blindness and religion, and point-of-view, how the narrator shares his tone towards life and other characters to better understand the overall theme of how the world corrupts the pure by destroying idealism. The writing is interesting due to the choices of adjectives in the story that tend to repeat themselves throughout, creating a theme.

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A big symbol is introduced at the beginning of the story, the narrator in Araby ( a nameless boy) makes blindness an important clue in order to figure him out. He describes his street as blind, an unusual choice to describe a street, “North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers' School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two storeys stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbors in a square ground” (Joyce 125).

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Blindness is mentioned twice within the introduction of the story. The empty house is at the blind end of the blind street which first gives the idea that it’s in an area that is shadowed, conveying a gloomy picture of his street. He mentions that it’s separated from the rest the neighborhood, coupling blindness with loneliness and seclusion. This could serve as a look inside to how he views himself, but it’s obvious how he views his surroundings by using words such as “detached”, “musty”, and “brown” - he’s in a lonely and dull place, where children can’t really flourish. In English professors, Ms. Rokeya and A.K. Zunayet Ahammed analysis, A Shattering Epiphany in James Joyce’s “Araby”, they confirm the tone of the narrator, “By ‘North Richmond Street, being blind’, Joyce wants to mean the dull lives of the adults and the innate futility of the boy’s romantic quest” (Rokeya and Ahammed 141). The boy continues the blindness when watching Mangan’s sister, his neighbor and who he becomes infatuated with, “The blind was pulled down to within an inch of the sash so that I could not be seen,” this time he associates blindness as an advantage to hide from someone, he chooses to hide in the dark, only speaking casually to her instead of confessing his feelings to her (Joyce 126). The most important display of blindness is the boy being blind to his own feelings and choosing to be blind. He escapes his dull reality to the thoughts of Mangan’s sister while he walks through the noisy streets filled with drunkards and street-singers, and whenever he says prayers that he doesn’t even understand. This is up for interpretation, Rokeya and Ahammed’s other analysis Joyce’s “Araby”: Love and Disillusionment, describes the boys thoughts of as a haunting, “Her image haunts him in the crowds and noises of the streets of Dublin as well” which can explain the boy being overwhelmed with his emotion to the point of crying (Rokeya and Ahammed 86).

The admiration for her leaves the boy confused, he’s blind of what his real feelings are, “My eyes were often full of tears (I could not tell why) and at times a flood from my heart seemed to pour itself out into my bosom” (Joyce 126). Despite this, the narrator seems happy to be ignorant when he retreats to the backroom on a rainy evening and light from below shines through, “Some distant lamp gleamed below me. I was thankful that I could see so little. All my senses seemed to desire to veil themselves and, feeling that I was about to slip from them” (Joyce 127). The lamp can represent the truth the narrator is refusing to see; he’s content with his blindness. He doesn’t want to know what he’s feeling even though it makes him confused and overwhelmed. Donschikowski, an English professor, wraps up the theme of blindness in his analysis Literary Analysis Using James Joyce’s “Araby” A Thematic Approach, “...The boy’s inevitable disappointment and realization. In such atmosphere of ‘blindness’ - the aunt and uncle unaware of the boy's anguish, the girl not conscious of the boy’s love, and the boy himself blind to the true nature of his love…” (Donschikowski 7).

The fantasies the boy creates of the girl proves his immaturity and validates his character as described by Florence L. Walzl writes in his analysis Pattern of Paralysis in Joyce’s “Dubliners”: A Study of the Original Framework, “All are bookish, imaginative introverts who feel their idealism threatened by the prosaic world. All seek assurance of the reality of their dream world…) (Walzl 223). In his boring, dull life, he would rather relish in his love and fantasies of Mangan’s sister. In this case, blindness is an example of how one can be happy in their own make-believe, their ignorance. This symbol sees to the end of the story when the boy travels to the market (known as the Bazaar) to buy a gift for Mangan’s sister as a token of his affection towards her. However, he ends up empty-handed and as the lights of the market go out due to closing, he realizes something of himself, “Gazing up into the darkness, I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity…” (Joyce 128). The narrator comes close to reflect himself towards closing hours of the market, after he sees the young girl and the two men talking, hearing money hit a salvar, his fantasies of love dissolved, “The end of their quest confronts them with corruption, materialism, and loss of values, represented by images of darkness, decay, blindness, and sterility” (Walzl 223).

The boy only falls back to the lack of sight, “My eyes burned with anguish and anger” indicating he’s crying yet again, blind, but now by the disappointment of the real world (Joyce 129). In addition, another conventional symbol that has stayed consistent and strong throughout the story is religion. The narrator's tone shows his unimpressive views of religion, but his narration shows how embedded it is in him when he describes his adoration for the girl. Religion works concurrently with the blind theme because religion could be the reason for the boy’s confusion and suppression of his emotions, “...He always tosses between passion and religious beliefs. His confusion and the sense of guilt made by the religiosity are inflicted upon him by his elders” (Rokeya and Ahammed 141).

His first references of religion that stood out are found when the boy explores the backroom of his house where a priest had died, “The wild garden behind the house contained a central apple-tree and a few straggling bushes…,” the wild garden is Eden which encompasses the boy’s innocence and the apple-tree represents the temptation that foreshadows his desire for Mangan’s sister (Joyce 125). The second reference is when the boy walks through the busy streets filled with drunkards and street-singers thoughts of Mangan’s sister when doing errands with his aunt on a Saturday evening, “I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes. Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers...My body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires” (Joyce 126). The chalice is the girl and in his imagination, he’s the hero that protects her from all the villains. He’s compared his body to a harp, an association to angels, but his tone is confusion when calling the strings of a harp “wires” instead. Because “wires” sounds harsher than “strings” it appears intentional; this control of language serves as a reminder that the narrator is still a boy that doesn’t know how to handle his emotions. In addition, the wires are a representation of the mundane, unpleasant life he seeks refuge of and the girl’s a light that runs on the surface of the staleness, solidifying her image as holy to the narrator. The boy is comparing his infatuation with divine love. The third reference to religion is again when he sees the girl as a divine image when she speaks to him for the first time, “The light from a street lamp illuminates the girl’s figure, highlighting the white curve of her neck and white border of her petticoat, and it touches upon her hair and her hand so that she appears to the boy as a Renaissance painting of the Madonna” (Rokeya and Ahammed 142).

The boy associate's light with the girl as he thinks of how it defined her figure and contoured her skin magnificently; she’s a saint in his eyes. However, because of religion, he suppresses these desires, “The boy’s feelings for the girl are a confused mixture of sexual desire and of sacred adoration…” (Donschikowski 9). At the market, when the boy arrives near closing, he compared the silence “that which pervades a church after service” as he hesitates to walk to the center as if he’s walking up an altar, about to be judged for his ridiculous thoughts of intimacy by either a priest or maybe even God (Joyce 128).

Another way of understanding Araby is by looking at the point of view. The narrator is a young nameless boy that speaks in first-person, making it inviting to look into his life and experience it. Through this, it’s noticed that he isn’t close to any other character, he’s alone which is fitting for a detached and gloomy neighborhood. He plays with his schoolmates but doesn’t ever call them friends, rather he uses the pronouns “we” when he interacts with them in the dark streets. The boy is an orphan, but he isn’t close to his Aunt or Uncle nor are they close to him, especially when the Uncle calls his nephew “boy”. Even his fair maiden is nameless, she’s only known as Mangan’s sister. This could be intentional for the reader to submerge and perhaps even morph into the characters to make be more relevant, to make them more universal. The tone in the narrator is found within the style of writing, he is using a lot of adjectives to show what he likes and doesn’t like. Take for instance the names that are present in the story, the only names that are given is Mangan, who is his neighbor and the sister of his crush, but Mangan herself doesn’t appear in the story.

This could be because he doesn’t really know the girl he likes, his feelings for this girl are superficial, even though this impacts him deeply. The way he describes the girl’s figure, dress, her hair, and her skin contours, it’s very sensual, but never describes a personality, only what how he views her. This emphasizes how immature his view is of love. Mrs. Mercer is another named character, which the boy calls an “old garrulous woman” that collected stamps “for some pious purpose” (Joyce 128).

This characterization made by the boy shows one of his many tones of religion because the woman embodies religion - its old, but the way he uses “garrulous” sounds harsh, giving off his view of religion as excessive in itself, never-ending blabbering. Finally, it can be agreed that the theme is not obvious when first reading Araby due to it it’s elusive meaning within symbols and diction, but because of it, it allows the message to peek through after careful analysis which is how idealized love is in itself pointless to attain. With the dissection of Araby’s symbols, the narration, and the tone, it can be concluded that the main theme is of how one's ideas are going to be crushed one day.

The boy’s innocence was broken when fantasies of love blinded him, and he shielded his ideas by hiding himself because not only was he confused by them, he didn’t think they were appropriate to express due to the oppression of religion; however, it was futile because, in the end, reality decimated his world. The small anticlimactic plot is a shared experience by many because everyone has had a school crush growing up and it usually never worked out the way people wanted them to. However, this is a timeless theme that can reach out to generations because the boys' crushed ideas of love can be an indirect lesson to not have high expectations, to not get too comfortable wearing rose-colored glasses. The symbols of blindness and religion deepened the narrator's character and foreshadowed the future of his adolescence while the tone of uncertainty gave enough room to sympathize with his overwhelming emotions only to pity him of facing the inevitable: reality.

Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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Symbolism in "Araby" by James Joyce. (2021, Aug 10). Retrieved from

Symbolism in "Araby" by James Joyce essay
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