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Saturday, January 8, 2011

DUBLINERS, by James Joyce: "Araby"

only darker -- and Irish
I have read "Araby" at least six times now (I haven't carefully kept track), and I think I'm finally ready to write up my thoughts, though I am not going to do so the same way I've done the previous two entries.

My understanding of this one--such as it is, and as it did with the other two, of course--came incrementally, but also revealed a second potential interpretation--or, more likely considering it's Joyce (a fact one must always bear in mind), an additional interpretation.  In order to make this all make sense--at least for me, as I struggle to bring cohesion to my many, many thoughts here--I'm going to first list the points of discussion, interest, and question that all occurred to me while reading, then go back and fill in my interpretations.
  1. the uninhabited, two-story house, which never seems to come up again, at least not directly, anywhere later in the book -- and it's gotta be there for more than just context/setting and perspective's sakes;
  2. another dead priest;
  3. brown;
  4. the third story of three so far in the collection built on childhood, but this time verging on maturity--at least physical maturity;
  5. Sir Walter Scott makes a second appearance, this time with specific works ascribed to him and no competing authors, as was the case in "An Encounter";
  6. the swinging dress and other physical descriptors of the girl, Mangan's sister;
  7. the leaping of the heart, the unbidden tears, the soft chanting ("O, love!  O, love!"), and all the solitude;
  8. "All my senses seemed to desire to veil themselves;"
  9. O'Donovan Rossa;
  10. the chalice;
  11. "Araby," as a title, a symbol of exotic romance, as a word;
  12. the day-dreaming allocation of his fantasized girl to a convent;
  13. "fighting for their caps;"
  14. the appearance of the second non-familial adult, Mrs. Mercer;
  15. "who collected used stamps for pious purpose;"
  16. the tardy and indulgent uncle;
  17. "The Arab's Farewell to his Steed;"
  18. the lonely train ride, its purveyance of continued solitude, and the zombie-like fervor of the pressing crowd at the stops on the way to the bazaar;
  19. "silence like that which pervades a church after a service;" 
  20. "the fall of coins;"
  21. "remembering with difficulty why I had come;"
  22. the English girl and her beaus; 
  23. the vases/jars and how she turns one of them; 
  24. Eastern guards;
  25. her rejection/his denial;
  26. looking up into the darkness;
  27. "[burning] with anguish and anger."
1, 2 -- The house threw me off on the first go-through (it's not too encouraging to be so thwarted in the first paragraph of so short a story), because I couldn't see any reason for it being there.  Speaking literally, it was not the home of the narrator nor that of the priest, as he was a border of the narrator's family.  As I dug in, however, solitude rose as one of the dominant themes of this particular story, and what says solitude more than a house so lonely as to be empty-- "uninhabited" --despite its occupants' physical presence?  The dead priest, as former tenant of the empty house, only elevates the solitude, as his absence may very well represent (additional to what I'll mention next) an absence, or leaving by the wayside, the morality or moral code of religion, especially where it overlaps with the primary theme (just above that of solitude, and hand-in-hand with it) of newly discovered sexuality.

2, 3 -- There are numerous similarities between this third story and the first two of the collection, color scheme being one, religious undertones as points of internal conflict being another.  Like the first two stories, the brown here serves as a a fairly derogatory descriptor for Joyce's hometown.  But there's an additional use of the color that comes up later in the story, as he uses it for the color of the girl's dress.  To me, this could indicate the publicly-recognized dirtiness of the boy-narrator's fantasies, though he alone knows what those fantasies truly are.

4, 5 -- Not that big a deal.  These--the boy's age and the author's presence--are motifs, and I'm curious to see if they will persist through the further stories in the collection.  I have a lingering question regarding the authors, however, Walter Scott here, but also the others from the "An Encounter," which I haven't been able to answer yet.  There are potential religious applications, of course, but without familiarity with a greater portion of these men's collected works, I can't really dig into it.  Even without this particular answer, however, I think I've got a pretty good hold on this story.

6 -- The swinging dress is a beautiful description and suggests there's more going on here than strictly sexual attraction.  The narrator finds the girl beautiful and elegant.  Joyce's line reminds me of another's, which author I've discussed here at The Wall at length already (and I expect some will tire of it).  The line is Hulme's fragment, "The flounced edge of a skirt // recoiling like waves off a cliff," which, if it were intentionally applicable, would add a great deal of support (though ultimately unnecessary) to the general distance and behavior of the girl, not to mention the falling of the boy for her.  While this description (Joyce's) is potentially clean, pure, and forever distant (except for what I mentioned earlier about the brown--but I think Joyce has no problem with dualities), there's an immediate sensuality to that of the girl's neck, which holds sway over the boy's "other" eyes and is repeated twice through the story (three times?).

7, 8 -- The paragraph that holds these lines heavily indicates the extent the discovered sexuality, not to mention (as it's coming more thoroughly later) the loneliness of it.  I don't think it's necessary to explicate thought for thought, impulse for impulse what's passing through this boy's mind, heart, and body.  More importantly are his feelings of shame, isolation, and confusion.

9 -- check out Rossa at Wikipedia. I think this somewhat supports my second interpretation (coming up -- but don't get excited; it's not earth-shattering nor in anyway expounded).

10 -- While I was aware of the narrator's youthful infatuation from the arrival of the girl, the chalice was the lens that really began to bring everything else into focus.  The narrator describes his regular trips to the market with his aunt as jostling, distracting affairs--a lot of stimulus--but he carries his fantasy's name with him like a chalice.  The chalice, of course, is one of many ancient symbols for the womb.  This boy is utterly obsessed with Mangan's sister.  This symbol, repeated later, emphasizes the sexual undercurrent (of course, the more I read and review and think it over, the less under- it seems, and more blatant; in fact, keep reading and the "unmentionables" from 7 and 8 become more and more dominant), as well as maybe an additional point of internal conflict as he is perhaps split between the desire to ravish her and protect her.

11 -- "Araby," the name of the bazaar, comes from an archaic English name for Arabia.  There's a lot of interesting stuff here.  At it's most superficial, the word evokes distance, beauty, and the mysterious and exotic (and commonly used as such in literature--and likely so by inspiration from Joyce's usage here--by a variety of authors, including "S. Morgenstern" (William Goldman) in his The Princess Bride).  That's a pretty heavy task load already for a single word, and Joyce, of course, chose wisely--brilliantly.  But even more than that, and phonetically and scriptologically, he taps into both our psyche and our ancient roots.  The sounds are the first sounds of not just our, but many, alphabets.  There's a newness and youth connoted by As and Bs, as well as, at least with the A, something ancient and agrarian, and therefore earthy and visceral--inevitable.  I'm not an expert, but I've read a bit about it from various sources (Wikipedia touches on it here): the beginnings of the letter A include the image of a bull's head and, more than just this shape, indicates the repeating path the bull makes with the plow, up one row, turn, back another row, and so on, ad infinitum.

12, 13 -- Religion and the shame that accompanies the failure to adhere to communal religious zeal crops up in spades right here.  The first (12) is obvious: Mangan's sister (and I love that she remains nameless!) is so pure that she can only exist--and upon the tallest of metaphoric pillars--in a convent, forever far away and untouchable.  Like Timbuktu, only pure.  (This allusion is adequate to nullify any once-potential need for some like Hulme's fragment.)  "Fighting for their caps" is a little more elusive, and I think I've got the connection right via the appearance of the spikes of the fence mentioned just a sentence later, and the girl's upon them.  Put the religiosity together with spikes and you get Christ's crucifixion.  Go back and supply a fight for--or over, perhaps, in our vernacular--caps, and perhaps these are the crown of thorns.  And while this is very unlike me, let me say that I don't think it's entirely necessary to understand what Joyce intends by this (more than his usual brown distaste for the Catholic church), because these are the very sort of obscure images that would accompany confusion like that of the narrator, who is very unlikely to understand his own impressions, and thus emphasizing the pervasive loneliness here.

14, 15 -- I don't have Mrs. Mercer figured out.  I've got some thoughts, but only that.  First, in my mind, she pairs up with the dead priest (and since we're dealing in repetitions one story to the next, and we're at three-for-three along that line, perhaps--and I'm going out on a limb here--she is his sister) as a non-familial visitor to the narrator's "empty" home.  She seems to have little to do more than be a piece of the setting when regarding the first interpretation of sexuality.  However, her name fascinates me and seems to indicate the latter (together with Rossa) interpretation: mercer shares root with mercantile which comes from trading in fabric, specifically, if memory serves, plaid, which, of course, connects directly to Scotland (but not Ireland!).  (Rossa was Irish, but Sir Walter Scott, who has a higher point reference in "Araby," is a Scott.  This side of the interpretation is difficult--at least for one who, like me, is not an Irish/Scottish/English scholar and historian.)  Also, her name connotes mercy, which also shares root with that of merchandise and mercantile and perhaps draws further connection to the priest--or to religion.  Second to this, however and regarding the woman: the issue of piety in philately totally eludes me, particularly as the dominant fictional text I associate with the use and study of stamps is The Crying of Lot 49, perhaps the least pious book of literary significance I know.

16 -- The uncle, likely a drunk and certainly a point of earthy, unholy contrast to Mrs. Mercer, manages, in his clumsy forgetfulness and mildly hedonistic generosity, to both facilitate and frustrate the narrator's trip to romantic, dreamy, and beautiful Araby.

17 --  http://www.babsonarabians.com/Readers_Corner/Arabs_Farewell.htm  Goodbye civilized restraint and piety; hello utter animal freedm, even bestial (issue of connotation more than denotation).  Escape to Araby, your good uncle sets you free and sees you off.  Release your civilized inhibitions!

18 -- There is a distinct phallic power, independence, and ego to the lonely train ride, particularly as it inevitably enters the station and delivers its pubescent payload.

19 -- Interesting the comparison here between church service and sexual activity.  A chapel is indeed a lonely place after the meeting has finished and all but the stragglers are gone.  Of course, this being Joyce, the question becomes is he condemning the type of sexual activity that's already at subject here (at least via the morally conservative context of the time and place), or is he condemning the church and its patronage by labeling them prudish?

20 -- I'm probably tending toward the over-thinking of this one, so I'll leave it at two simple allusions: the dropping of two coins is a little like the toll paid to Charon at the river Acheron, for admittance to Hell--the payment or, more enigmatic and broader, the price, for/of sex.

21 -- Is the presence of the girl and her boys, not to mention the other distractions (but mostly the first, as we'll see in a second), so distracting that he forgets why he's come?  Literally he came to get a gift for the girl--his object as much so as a transitive verb requires an object--which he likely imagines as the gate to opening the mystery of a possible relationship with her.  Figuratively, however, he's come to Araby for the romance, mystery, and, well, sex of it.  He's forgotten her--or having a hard time remembering her--because he's left her behind.  Perhaps she is indeed pure, and by his descent into the dirt and hell of something more, again, earthy (which, in reality, and by context of the church, is most likely the dark loneliness of masturbation), he's truly left her behind, alone in her convent, where he will never arrive, unless he joins her brothers, fighting for their caps.

22, 23, 25 -- The narrator is jealous of the boys talking to the girl.  He sees her.  He sees her.  She comes over to see him, but she doesn't see him, and she turns one of the jars, or vases--really, just like a chalice, only less pure (vases and jars are everyday items, while a chalice has that lofty beauty and sanctity to it, especially if we go as far as the Cup of Christ, the most noted of chalices) --away from him.  Clearly, this jar is unavailable, maybe even already spoken for.  Finally, and in support of the sub-theme of loneliness, the exotic, and the foreign, there's really nothing more foreign and strange and exotic, and therefore lonely, than sexuality to someone just discovering it.

24 -- Maybe this is a slant against those of the East, but I don't think comparing these two young men to anybody is any kind of a compliment.  More likely, this is just further emphasis for the tone of the setting of Araby and the sad realization that it's not all it's cracked up to be.

26, 27 -- In the end, Araby has had nothing for him.  It's an ugly, dirty place--not beautiful, not exotic, and utterly frustrating, just like the sexual development of any young teen.

My second interpretation, which really isn't an interpretation at all because I've got virtually no way of justifying it and no time to do the otherwise required research is that this story is really (or additionally) about the politics--religious and civil--of Ireland at the time.  There are several things present here that indicate the socio-political while pretty much leaving alone the dominant issue of puberty and sexuality.


Additional thought:  If you haven't watched Disney's Pinocchio lately, I recommend picking it up or pulling it out and watching it.  "Pleasure Island" is a euphemistic representation of the bazaar, Araby.  While I haven't read it yet (I realize that this is a seriously pathetic admission, especially considering my love for all things Italian), Collodi's translated text is HERE.


"Araby," the story, I think is the strongest of the three stories so far, but this could just be for reason of my understanding it more thoroughly than the previous two.  While none of these stories is bounding with heart and soul, number three seems to have a bit more than the others.  This boy is truly aching, and I feel sorry for him, but my sympathy is more because I'm terribly grateful I'm done with that part of my life.  Regardless of the general sterility of passion here, however, the genius of Joyce, once again, cannot be denied.  In just four or five pages, he effectively takes us through months of this boy's tortured infatuation and struggle (indulgence versus abstinence) until he pretty much gives it up in the dark of his disillusion.  Hale the mighty pen of the master, but I'm still craving the spark of life.  It makes me really want to pick up some Salinger with all its crackling vitality.



  1. I read this today at the airport, but looking at this, I realize I'm gonna have to read it at least once again before I can get it at nearly the level that you have. The dang guy at the terminal kept giving us obvious advice like, "Line up when I call you, which is coming soon, I promise!" Hard to figure out someone like Joyce at any time, but especially with a loud and officious guy with a microphone in your ear.

  2. Officious voices.... My kids are very officious. That must be why it took something like a week and a half to get it all put together.

  3. Hahaha, everyone in the city of Midland's voice is officious.

  4. Alright, I finally got a chance to read it again. You're definitely right on the theme, and most of the things I caught, you wrote down, almost all actually. One thing I found interesting was the scene where he's waiting, and he sees the boys playing outside, further emphasis that he's grown past them. I do wonder if you're reading into things a little too much on 18 and 19. It's hard to say because Joyce does have a notoriously dirty mind. I can see the phallic symbol in the train, but is it the first thing that occurred to me? Probably not. I look at it as time dragging us forward with us being powerless to stop it. 19, I'm just wondering if you could explain the analogy a little more.

    Finally, I think the religious/political commentary is a little interesting. We have a dead priest. There's an empty sanctuary. What's worse? There are ENGLISH accents in the sanctuary, or, in other words, religiously and politically very anti-Irish. The story is also about a loss of innocence. Finally, there's the title. Arabia: not the most Christian of places. Is the Church dead/corrupt? It's hard to say for sure what Joyce means, but I think that you're onto something.

  5. TRAIN: I think the loneliness of the train is an additional suggestion of masturbation. But thinking further, I think there's a more apt--or, again, additional--metaphor. The train and the train station are classic metaphors for transition (have you read "Hills Like White Elephants," by Hemmingway? excellent). I think the transition in the story is obvious, and interestingly, again, he's on the train alone, which is exactly how he feels about everything from within and because of this transition: alone.

    THE EMPTY CHURCH -- what I find compelling here, and this particularly against the stridently "traditional" morals of the time period and place, is this: 1, sex--the "right" way--is something sacred, intended and even exclusively (depending on time, place, and faith) for the procreation of children and families, and, if families are of God, brings a husband and wife closer to Him, as he created us and we're involved in the creation of our children; 2, church is a sacred and beautiful place which also nears us to God and provides a means even for serving Him; and if church service is implemented fully, may be a moment of intimacy between man and God. However, the first, sex, can be abused and made an abomination, in which case the practitioner distances himself from God. In Joyce's brief description of the place (which, by the way, is for the boy a vessel for sexual interest and thought and, he maybe even hopes, practical introduction) as an empty church (and after, as you say, the death of a priest and the presence of the English (oo!)), it has the distinct feel, to me, of an absence of God and the godly, not to mention the fact that such bazaars were already havens for a community's slimy underbelly.

    Funny, him alone, not playing with the boys, didn't even occur to me. Maybe because I was always the one, like him, away. I think you're right on. Also, the connection of Arab[ia] being a distinctly non-Christian place lends a whole extra twist on the place being compared to a church after service. The foreign is exotic, the exotic is attractive.


  6. Yeah, I have read "Hills like White Elephants". Agree with you, very good. I'm still not completely convinced on the train, but it's also possible that I just don't want the image in my head.... That's a problem with Joyce, or maybe a problem with me. There's literally no morality in anything of his that I have ever read. Yes, everything that he describes is the way humans are, but it's not all that we ever are. I'm reminded of one of Steinbeck's quotes about human nature, even though it's too long to post here. It's not like Joyce's characters are evil. They're just never good. He must have lived in a very gray (not even in the sense of good vs. evil, but just uninspiring) world.

  7. The imagery is not nice. And about the lack of good characters or good in characters, I may have found, even just in the next story, one who is good or has some good.

    I believe I remember the quotation you're referring to from Steinbeck.

    The amorality of Joyce is nearly as interesting as his ability as a writer. I wonder what's going on his mind and heart. I wonder if writing for him was a catharsis, like it is for me. Does his writing reflect who he is, or is it just a blast of chops? I don't know.

    He seems to so bent on reflecting humanity as it is that he forgets there's a spiritual element, whether we like it--admit it--or not.

  8. Amen to your last comment.

    Can writing ever not reflect the author? How can you ever write anything good without pouring your soul into it? Even if the main character doesn't reflect the author, the themes and motifs have to, at least I would think. I don't know. You're much better read than I am. Can you think of any examples?

    Arg, Joyce, I don't know. I feel like an old scout looking back at a baseball player who had all the physical "tools" and just didn't pan out for some reason. I just can't find any soul in this, which is a terrible shame because he is an absolutely brilliant writer. There's no denying it. It could be my fault, too. I just can't fully appreciate something that doesn't move me one way or another. Maybe I need to practice reading more jadedly. But if I wanted to feel jaded, I would be fine just living in Washington without reading. I'm probably being harsh, but I completed the mammoth task of reading through "Ulysses", and I never once felt any kind of emotion for the characters. And now I'm seeing the same thing here. Now's probably the time where someone should tell me, "You know James, no one's forcing you to read this," but it's not that I don't like it; I think that it's very good, just with lots of unmet potential.

    /End of Joycian stream-of-consciousness

  9. I'm mostly with you on the disappointment issue from the lack of emotion. But, you know, the brilliance of it--the staggering genius--is keeping me in. "Evaline" impressed me. I'll be writing about it probably over the weekend. It's got some heart, if only a piece of a broken one. And, at least so far, there are far fewer layers. He seems clearly less bent on brandishing chops than he is in showing a part of this girl's, well, morality and, good or bad, compromise.

    I think it's possible the remove self from writing, but generally it's never anything worth reading. I can't think of specifics right now, but I'm pretty brain-fried right now.

    (Backing up) I think one of the biggest reasons I'm so interested in examining Joyce is that I'm jealous! There's nothing artistic I want to be able to do better than write. I've got a long way to go. I think I'm often guilty of the other end of the spectrum and crank too much heart into the text (which never seems to be able to adequately hold the fervor of my emotion (caps, italics, adverbs, blah, blah). If I could write like Joyce, technically speaking....

  10. Yeah, technically speaking, there is no one better that I've read at least.

  11. You might like "The Dead," if you haven't read it yet. It's by far my favorite story by Joyce -- and maybe my favorite short story, period. (All of Dubliners is good, of course, but "The Dead" is, to me, a masterpiece.) I know people who absolutely love it and other people who absolutely hate it, though, so who knows. And now I want to go off and read it again.

    I pretty much gave up on Jane Eyre (sorry about that), but I've already read it and it was over the holidays, so...

  12. Hey SARCHAPP! Good to see you again. I'm slowly -- oh so slowly -- working my way through Dubliners. You can check out the other line notes if you want and join in the discussion. I've heard all about "The Dead" and am looking forward to it. I'm really enjoying the stories so far (three down -- fourth coming in the next few days, depending on my time and schedule).

    No worries about Jane Eyre. Did you like it? I've had pretty mixed feelings until just these most recent chapters -- 24 and 25.

  13. I liked it. It wasn't one of my favorites. I don't know -- part of my ambivalence about Jane Eyre might be the fact that Charlotte Bronte disliked Jane Austen -- and I love Jane Austen -- and I've always felt like I had to choose between them. And Jane Austen absolutely wins that dead writers' cage match for me.

    I have no idea how to actually sign in with my name and have my picture appear (although it's listed under Followers), so...sarchapp's as good as it will get for now.

  14. Austen is certainly the more skilled writer, but I can't say I have a favorite. For me they're both pretty overwrought.


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