“Araby” by James Joyce is a short story whose basic external story is easy to follow. However, typical of Joyce, it is actually deeply layered allegorical story, with autobiographical themes and references to medieval, religious, and classic references. Though when the story is read for the first time it appears to simply be a commonplace tale of a boy’s first obsessive love for a woman he barely knows, many of the details of the narrative locate it in a much broader context the medieval romance story, where unrequited love and the knightly quests often take a central role. This structure, in combination with Orientalist and medieval themes of obsession and devotion, are revealed by the final turn of the story for their misguided nature.
“Araby” begins with an extended description of North Richmond Street, a real street where Joyce himself grew us as a boy in Dublin. This immediately marks it as an autobiographical tale, but the imagery of this opening section is equally important. Starting right off by describing the street as “blind,” and then describing the houses like human beings, which “gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces” (Joyce 1), the imagery of darkness, opacity, and blindness continues through this first section. Setting the story during the “short days of winter” (Joyce 1), the setting is described as “silent,” “dark,” “rough,” and “odorous,” and shadows are cast everywhere (Joyce 1).
In the middle of this opening description is an apparently unrelated anecdote about a tenant at Joyce’s house, a priest who has recently died in his room. But this anecdote, besides furthering the objective of creating a dark atmosphere, has a critical purpose in establishing the broader context of the story. Joyce names three books the boy finds in the dead priest’s room, The Abbot by Walter Scott, The Devout Communicant, and The Memoirs of Vidocq. Harry Stone identifies these three texts as critical to interpreting the meaning of the story the follows in his analysis of “Araby”, noting that “lurking incongruities” of these books serve to unlock the motives of the central character (Stone 352). The first two books can be seen as suggesting religious themes, whereas the third, which the boy notably tells the reader he liked “best because its pages were yellow” (Joyce 1) is a sexualized memoir by a social deviant.
Leaving this introductory scene-setting and beginning the action of the story is the appearance of one of the boy’s friend’s sisters into the narrative. This moment is when there is a clear division of the story into the long-established structure of medieval romance stories, which have four major sections (Mandel 48). First, the naïve childhood section is disrupted secondly by the appearance of the lady whose presence is central to the events of the story. Following this, the knight pledges himself in some form of quest to the lady who has become the object of his devotion, and the fourth section in this structure is the fulfillment of the quest. It is through this basic genre structure that “Araby” can be best interpreted.
Throughout the story, the religious theme first suggested by the priest is elaborated with Joyce’s imagery, creating the impression that Mangan’s sister is to the boy not only a lady of romantic devotion, but even some kind of religious icon. Into the childhood world of shadow and blindness comes this divine feminine figure, repeatedly described as being illuminated almost like a halo as seen in typical religious icons in the Catholic Church, especially in depictions of the Virgin Mary: when she is first introduced with “her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door” (Joyce 1), and when the two first speak, sending the hero on his quest, as “the light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there” (Joyce 2).
The nature of the quest itself is also significant. Not only has the boy’s religious devotion (“O love! O love!”) (Joyce 2) given way to a real-world quest to prove himself to the lady, its real-world situation runs in parallel with the medieval reference it makes. The boy commits to journey across town to an eastern bazaar called Araby, an old word for Arabia. When this faraway, exotic goal is introduced to him, the boy says: “The syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me” (Joyce 2). This phase of the medieval romance story now takes on an additional layer of significance with references to the medieval Crusades.
Overzealous knights, perhaps on the promise of quests to some lady of their devotions, or out of religious devotion (and Joyce appears to intentionally equate these two in “Araby”), would travel a far distance primarily to secure a kind of “token” of the east. The actual Araby bazaar, an even that occurred in Dublin in 1894, was marketed from the beginning as an Orientalist attraction to a European audience (Ehrlich 312). In a similar way, the attraction of the Crusades, or one of its principal effects, can be understood to be the birth of European Orientalism, obsessing over the exotic “East”.
Curiously, as Ehrlich notes, the actual Araby bizarre in 1894, which Joyce was known to have attended, was remembered in Dublin as a lively festival of music and dancing, a “major public event,” rather than “the boy’s juvenile misconception of the Araby bazaar as primarily a place where keepsakes are sold” (Ehrlich 312) as it is portrayed at the end of the story. Yet this apparently strange contradiction with what is otherwise a clearly autobiographical story is resolved when the Araby bazaar is viewed as a stand-in for the “Arabia” and “East” of the crusader knights on quests. Blindly setting out on a single minded quest to secure some token (control of a holy relic, for example, shown by the religious allusions throughout the story), the lively atmosphere of the actual Near East, with its culture, economy, and so on is missed in favor of a “keepsake” to fulfill a quest of medieval unrequited love.
This is the context in which the apparently absurd and dramatic final line in the narrator’s story can be understood, in which the boy, having reached his objective and found it empty sees himself as a “creature driven and derided by vanity” (Joyce 5). It is at this point and only at this point that the medieval romance structure is subverted. The quest’s objective is not achieved, no token is acquired at the bazaar and the maiden that drove the narrative appears to be forgotten. Therefore, though the whole of “Araby” can be analyzed as an autobiographical story of misguided boyhood love told through the lens of the medieval romance tale, the Orientalist parallel with the crusades leads to the final line of the story, which subverts the rest of the form, as the volta of a sonnet provides a surprising “turn” to the rest of the text.