By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Araby’ is one of the early stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners, the 1914 collection of short stories which is now regarded as one of the landmark texts of modernist literature. At the time, sales were poor, with just 379 copies being sold in the first year (famously, 120 of these were bought by Joyce himself). And yet ‘Araby’ shows just what might have initially baffled readers coming to James Joyce’s fiction for the first time, and what marked him out as a brilliant new writer.
‘Araby’: plot summary
In summary, then: ‘Araby’ is narrated by a young boy, who describes the Dublin street where he lives. As the story progresses, the narrator realises that he has feelings for his neighbour’s sister and watches her from his house, daydreaming about her, wondering if she will ever speak to him. When they eventually talk, she suggests that he visit a bazaar, Araby, on her behalf as she cannot go herself.
The boy plans to buy her a present while at Araby, but he arrives late to the bazaar and, disappointed to find that most of the stalls are packing up, ends up buying nothing.
‘Araby’ is marked by dead-ends, anti-climaxes, things not going anywhere. The street on which the young narrator lives, North Richmond Street, is ‘blind’: i.e. a cul-de-sac or dead-end street. The narrator does go to the bazaar, Araby, but ends up turning up too late and doesn’t buy anything. His feelings for his female neighbour don’t lead anywhere: this is a romantic story in which boy and girl do not get together. Disappointments, dead ends, everywhere.
Like many of the stories in Dubliners, ‘Araby’ is marked, then, by plotlessness, by ordinariness, by describing mood and setting over action or exciting plot developments. As with the other early tales in Dubliners, ‘Araby’ is narrated in the first person by its principal character. Joyce arranged the 15 stories in Dubliners so that they move from childhood to late middle age, progressing through the human life span more or less chronologically.
We might ask what advantage the child’s-eye view here creates. Like the narrator of the opening story from the collection, ‘The Sisters’, the narrator of ‘Araby’ lives with his aunt and uncle. (Where are the parents? Have they emigrated, leaving the children to be looked after by relatives while they go to America in search of money and a better life? Have they died?) But he is our voice through the story, and the other characters – with the notable exception of the girl he is infatuated with – are kept at arm’s length. There is a simplicity and innocence to his voice, describing what it feels like to experience the pangs of first love, but there is also a knowing voice at work too.
One of the most remarkable things about ‘Araby’, and one which deserves closer analysis, is the style. Style is, in a sense, everything with James Joyce: every word is used with care and towards the creation of a very deliberate effect, and no two stories in Dubliners use quite the same style or for identical reasons. As the critic Margot Norris has observed in an analysis of ‘Araby’, the narrator describes his disappointments (failing to talk to the girl he likes at first; then, once he has spoken to her, failing to get her a gift at the Araby bazaar) in such a way as to compensate for the frustrations of real life by offering, in their place, the beauty of language.
This is there in the exoticism of the story’s title, ‘Araby’, and what it describes, a bazaar: both ‘Araby’ and ‘bazaar’ being terms which conjure the otherness and excitement of the place (based on a real travelling bazaar named Araby, which visited Dublin in 1894), in stark contrast to the more usual English-language term, ‘market’. (Note how the narrator refers to his aunt going ‘marketing’ at one point: ‘marketing’ is what people do when they need to perform household chores like shopping for groceries; but going to Araby or the bazaar is an event, a treat.)
Consider, in this connection, the narrator’s description of the impact seeing his beautiful neighbour has on him:
Her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance. On Saturday evenings when my aunt went marketing I had to go to carry some of the parcels. We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of labourers, the shrill litanies of shop-boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs’ cheeks, the nasal chanting of street-singers, who sang a come-all-you about O’Donovan Rossa, or a ballad about the troubles in our native land. These noises converged in a single sensation of life for me: I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes. Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand. 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. I thought little of the future. I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.
This is a true but also heightened in its romanticism: true because it captures what it is to be in love with a special person, especially when in the first flushes of adolescence; but romantic in the extreme because of the religious and courtly idea (nay, ideal) of love present in that idea of being the girl’s cupbearer (‘I bore my chalice’), the crying (but then, the disarmingly direct parenthetical admission of not knowing why), and the romantic idea of Old Ireland inscribed in that harp, which also carries a frisson of the erotic (with the girl’s words and gestures acting like the finger’s touches all over the boy’s body).
There are many such moments in this shortest of short stories which repay close analysis for the way the young narrator romanticises, but does not sentimentalise, the feeling of being in love, perhaps hopelessly. ‘Araby’, then, is a story about frustration and failure, but it ends on a note of ‘anguish and anger’, without telling us what will befall the narrator and the girl who haunts his dreams. Like many a modernist story, it is open-ended even when, like the street where the narrator lives, it appears to have reached its dead end.
About James Joyce
James Joyce (1882-1941) is one of the most important modernist writers of the early twentieth century. His reputation largely rests on just four works: a short story collection Dubliners (1914), and three novels: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Ulysses (1922), and Finnegans Wake (1939). Each of these works represents a development from the last, with Joyce’s writing becoming increasingly experimental, obscure, and challenging.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.