James Joyce’s short story “Araby,” centers on a young boy, who mistakes obsession with love. The narrator, an unnamed adolescent, lives with his uncle and aunt in Dublin. He believes that he is in love with a girl, Mangan’s sister, but all of his actions and thoughts show that it is in fact infatuation. Joyce is illustrating the danger of confusing infatuation with love, through characterization, symbolism, and setting, in order to warn the devastation that it could bring to an innocent boy.
Throughout the story, the narrator’s doomed obsession and worship of Mangan’s sister are made evident throughout the story by way a variety of devices Joyce employs. Notably, his obsession and worship of her get in the way of his everyday life, typified as the narrator tells the reader that “every morning I lay on the floor in the front parlour watching her door. When she came out on the doorstep my heart leaped. I ran to the hall, seized my books and followed her. This happened morning after morning.” (Joyce 1). This is clearly marked as an obsession rather than a healthy romantic interest as Joyce makes clear that the narrator is a young boy, who has more experience playing out on the street with his boyish friends than with getting to know a woman. In what is typically described by literary critics as a “young romantic’s bitter first taste of reality” (Coulthard 97), the central surface level story in “Araby” involves an eventual realization by the boy that his obsession was a foolish waste of time, described in the final lines as a “vanity” (Joyce 5).
Furthermore, his infatuation for her is demonstrated to the reader by a contrast between the boy’s inexperienced “attempts at beauty, love, faith, and belonging” (Collins 84) and the ways in which his longing is clearly interrupting his normal life. The boy seems to unwittingly reveal to the reader how his obsession has created a distraction in both his school life and also his home life: “I chafed against the work of school. At night in my bedroom and by day in the classroom her image came between me and the page I strove to read” (Joyce 2). The reader sees that this is not really love, and that his longing is in vain, but the narrator fails to see this until the very end. As Collins summarizes this contrast: “In short, the symbols which are clear to the reader have not yet revealed themselves to the lad” (Collins 84).
These symbols are explicitly used by Joyce to heighten the sense of worship for more an ideal than an actual person through the use of religious symbolism to resemble the boy’s desire for Mangan’s sister. Seeming to act as an idol, Mangan’s sister is completely idealized into a religious symbol of love and romance rather than any realistic attempt at a relationship. When the narrator says “I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled, murmuring: `O love! O love!’ many times” (Joyce 2), it is obvious that symbolism of prayer and worship, as of a priest, is being used to heighten the contradiction between the actual reality of the boy’s experience with the girl and his hopes and perceptions.
In the scene when the boy heads to the market with his aunt, the image of Mangan’s sister is with him in his mind, and the religious imagery is continued, as Stone notes “The image of Mangan’s sister becomes his sacred chalice; he guards it as he makes his way through the alien marketplace” (Stone 388). This only further confirms that the boy’s object of desire and worship is in fact merely the image of Mangan’s sister, which exists only in his mind, rather than the living person, flesh and blood. It is notable that the narrator appears to be concerned with keeping the image of her safe “through a throng of foes” (Joyce 2), while the real supposed object of his affections is presumably somewhere else. It is, therefore, the idea of love that the boy worships, rather than actually being in love.
As the story closes with the notable lines: “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 5), the narrator finally understands what has been signaled clearly to the reader all along, and the hopelessness and hollowness of his obsessions, which was not genuine love, is revealed to him. This is the representative turn that has often been interpreted as the autobiographical disillusionment of Joyce himself (Coulthard 98). Indeed, the language of “darkness” and even “eyes” is a deliberate reference the imagery that dominates the opening section of the story, when North Richmond Street is described as “blind” (Joyce 1) and the world of the boy’s childhood is riddled with shadows and darkness. It is now clear to the narrator as well as the reader that this darkness was in fact ignorance, from which the boy has been rudely awakened. He sees as the close of the story that what he took for love, the pure concept of love that he even worshipped, was a hollow trick, much as the bazaar Araby itself was a disappointment and ingenuine reproduction of something grand and beautiful.
“Araby,” therefore can be most confidently read as a cautionary story regarding innocence and the dangers it can bring to romantic concepts like love. In the context of ignorant innocence, what is seen as love can become an unhealthy obsession which interferes with a normal everyday life and is ultimately empty and without meaning.