The stories “A&P” by John Updike and “Araby” by James Joyce both give a glimpse into the mind of male youths at a period of sexual awakening. The stories present the perspectives of these boys as they watch young women from a distance and admire the beauty they seem to find in their persons. The youths are enchanted by these female figures, and are in the end driven to heroism and disillusioned by love. The authors express these sentiments from a first-person point of view that gives a sense of immediacy, allowing the feelings to unfold in real time. However, the two boys express their enchantment with (and longing for) these girls in manners that demonstrate a focus on different aspects of the girls’ humanity. While the protagonist-narrator of “Araby” expresses his fascination with a pure and chaste spiritual innocence, the main character of “A&P” demonstrates a lewder and more carnal approach to his sexual awakening.
The narrators of “Araby” and “A&P” identify themselves as young persons who are experiencing the alluring aspect of the opposite sex and are in the end disillusioned with the world and matters of romance. The “A&P” narrator (Sammy) expresses his enchantment with the girls in the way his mind is fixed on them as soon as they enter the supermarket at which he works. Updike achieves the effect of showing this youth’s mind as riveted on these girls, as the story begins with their entrance to the store and contains details about almost nothing else. It begins in medias res: “In walks these three girls with nothing but bathing suits” (Updike, 113). The sensual aspect of the picture is highlighted in the narrator’s attention to the girls’ attire, and this pinpoints his interest in them as being of a sexual nature. The extent of his obsession with them soon prompts him to blunder into an adolescent action. In a bid to be heroic, he quits his job because of his manager’s reprimand of the girls. They, however, do not even notice. His actions after this mirror those of a boy who is overwhelmed by the effect of sexual attraction and is rewarded with nothing for his troubles.
The protagonist-narrator of “Araby” has also become enthralled with the aspect of a woman. He, like Sammy of “A&P,” surreptitiously watches a girl and is unable to get her out of his mind. He makes this admission when he declares, “Her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance” (Joyce, 255). His obsession with her is very potent and he too is able to place her as the focal point of his thoughts, despite distractions around him. In fact, he emphasizes this ability in his comparison of her image to a chalice which he was able to keep safe despite the throng of distractions that came to thrust her from him (256). However, he too soon faces a disillusioning circumstance, as his pseudo-date with her at the bazaar is thwarted by the tardiness of his uncle. He is shown to be “a creature driven and derided by vanity” (259). Upon reaching the event, he too finds out that fate plays tricks on lovers, and he is unable to meet the girl for whose sake he had gone to the event.
Despite their similar premises, the two stories differ in the nature of their expression of these two boys’ enchantment of with the women they watch. While both protagonist-narrators experience these subtle awakenings of their psyches and bodies as a result of the overall beauty of the girls, Sammy of “A&P” experiences this feeling in response to a much more carnally expressed beauty. He notices the girl specifically because of her state of undress, and his mind is filled with the images of her body devoid of clothing. He admits that what “got” him about the main girl (the queen) was the fact that the “straps were down” on her bathing suit (Updike, 114). His enchantment with her body is proven more sensual and carnal in his description: “there was nothing between the top of the suit and the top of her head except just her, this clean bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light. I mean, it was more than pretty” (114). This is especially true in contrast with his idea that the extent of her mental faculties were akin to the buzz of a bee (114). This demonstrates how much more he was concerned with her body than her entire personhood.
This emphasis on carnality is in direct contrast with the almost spiritual intensity of the passion that that Araby’s narrator has for the object of his affections. It is her clothing, as opposed to her body, which is described by this narrator. He remembers her as one who is attired in virginal skirts and upon whom the light shines in almost ethereal fashion. She is in fact compared to an angel, as he describes her effect on him. He says, “But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires” (Joyce, 256). This girl is described in such a way that depicts her as chaste and virginal—in direct contrast to Sammy’s girl who flaunted her body and etched their parts in his mind. The narrator of “Araby,” however, considers his girl a holy object, a “chalice” that he must bear through distracting throngs (256).
The stories “A&P” and “Araby,” by John Updike and James Joyce respectively, both tell the tale of two young boys who experience a spiritual and sexual awakening at the hands of a girl. The two boys are thrust into a confusion of feeling toward the opposite sex that overwhelms them and causes them to make bold decisions. They are both prompted by love and in the end are disappointed by the reward they receive for their troubles. It is disillusionment with the prospect of romance confronts each at the end. However, the boys differ in the focal points of their attention to the women they observe. While Sammy from “A&P” is obsessed with sensual body parts and the bareness of the flesh he is permitted to view, Araby’s narrator is concerned with the essence of the woman his mind has distilled. This essence is more related to her spirit than her body, and this difference elevates the intentions of this particular narrator over his “A&P” counterpart.
Joyce, James. “Araby.” Literature: Reading, Writing, Reacting. Laurie G. Kirzner & Stephen R. Mandell (Eds.). New York: Harcourt College Publishers, 2001. 254-259.
Updike, John. “A&P.” Literature: Reading, Writing, Reacting. Laurie G. Kirzner & Stephen R. Mandell (Eds.). New York: Harcourt College Publishers, 2001. 113-118.