Ugliness in Araby, by James Joyce


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"Araby", a short story by James Joyce, is a despondent memory of adolescence narrated by a now grown man. The narrator recalls his first love, the older sister of his friend Mangan. He relates to us how he waited for her to leave her house for school before he would leave his house, trailing behind her until their ways parted, then passing her and going on his way. They had not had a conversation, until one day she asked him if he was going to Araby. Araby was the name of a bazaar that took place in Dublin in May 1894 (Beatty et al. 397). The narrator then, due to Mangan's sister's insistence that it would be "splendid" and that she would love to go (Joyce 397), decided to go to Araby, and to get her something there, because she could not attend. Once the idea was in his head, the narrator could think of nothing else, and the syllables of the word Araby grow to envelop the narrator and "cast an Eastern enchantment over [him]" (Joyce 397). The Saturday night of the Bazaar, the narrator's uncle, with whom he lived, returned home late. He was still allowed to go to the bazaar; however, he arrived shortly before it closed, and, as a result was unable to buy anything before it became dark. The setting in "Araby" is described in detail, and is important to the story: it sets the tone, and it helps us understand the characters.

The description of the neighborhood, in which the narrator and Mangan and his sister live, is where we begin to see the development of setting. The narrator describes the neighborhood as a quiet, dead end street, where the houses (except the uninhabited two-storey house) "gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces" (Joyce 395). It doesn't sound like it was an exciting neighborhood; in fact, we get the feeling that nothing happens in this kind of neighborhood at all. The lack of anything happening in their neighborhood helps us understand why the idea of Araby as something exotic and exciting was one that captured the narrator and Mangan's sister.

The setting of the neighborhood is described not only as boring, but also as dark, as almost foreboding. In winter, the neighborhood consisted of "dark muddy lanes behind the houses", "dark dripping gardens" and "dark odourous stables", where even the street lamps were feeble (Joyce 396).

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This darkness suggests an almost sad tone. It gives the sense of a bleak life, immune to happiness, a sense that nothing good will or can happen there. Even when spring came, "the air was pitilessly raw" (Joyce 397); this neighborhood was abysmal not only in winter, but in spring when we think of things as beautiful and happy. The bleakness of the neighborhood helps us to understand why life seemed so bleak to the children who lived there; they give the impression they would rather be anywhere else.

The neighborhood in general is just the beginning of the setting; the house the narrator lived in also helps to set the tone. The house had a musty air that hung in all the rooms (Joyce 395), which were themselves "high, cold, empty, [and] gloomy" (Joyce 398). We get the feeling that the house was very large, as it had a front parlour, a hall (Joyce 396) and a waste room (Joyce 395), in addition to all the rooms you would expect to find in a house (bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchen, etc.). The suggestion of the size of the house gives us the feeling that these are well off people, living in a well off neighborhood. We tend to imagine that people who are well off live extraordinarily exciting lives and are quite happy, but this story suggests that these ideas are just utopious, and have no bearing on reality. The narrator does not get what he wants in the end, as we may expect someone in a well off family would.

Even though Araby seemed to hold everything his world was lacking, the narrator found out that it could be even more bleak than home. The setting at the bazaar was no better than the setting in the narrator's own neighborhood and house. He arrived at the bazaar to find an improvised wooden platform (Joyce 398). The narrator was then faced with a "big hall girdled at half its height by a gallery" (Joyce 399), which suggested magnificence, but held only darkness. Most of the stalls were closed, and "the greater part of the hall was in darkness" (Joyce 399). The narrator tells us that the hall held a "silence like that which pervades a church after a service" (Joyce 399). The few people that were still at the bazaar, and noticed him, treated the narrator as if they wished he would leave, attending to him only out of a sense of duty (Joyce 399). Going to the bazaar seemed a fruitless effort to gain something that could not be gained through going to a bazaar, or other `opiate of the masses'.

The setting in "Araby" is desolate, the tone one of disappointment and inadequacy. The description of the setting helps to set this tone, and through the setting and the tone, we can understand the feelings of anguish and anger that the narrator had at end of the story. He came to the realization that life controls and taunts people. We get the feeling, through the setting and tone, that the overall message of this story is that when life seems hard, it is, and when it seems like it might get better, it won't.

Works Cited

Joyce, James "Araby." The Norton Introduction to Literature. Eds. Jerome Beatty, Alison Booth, J. Paul Hunter, Kelly J. Mays. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2002, 395-399.


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