Finding Politics in Romance:
Arguing the Irish Experience in James Joyce’s “Araby”
James Joyce’s short story, “Araby”, may be initially received by most of its readers as a poignant tale of young love—as depicted by the almost obsessive attitude of the protagonist toward a lass he is interested in. The perceived significance of the story’s literary elements of plot, setting, and action may be within this discussion of young adulthood in terms of romance; however, a closer reading will reveal an objective more akin to social commentary and cultural identity.
Set in Joyce’s early twentieth-century Ireland, the story is narrated in first-person by the young boy, who begins by providing a graphic description of the Dublin he sees and calls home. He is under the care of his aunt and uncle, and is terribly infatuated with his friend Mangan’s sister. Because of this interest, the boy intends to visit the town’s Araby bazaar in order to purchase a trinket or two for the girl; however, his uncle’s late arrival prompts him to make the trip to Araby right before it closes. While there, the boy finds that the only a few stalls are open, and proceeds to survey the wares in one that is manned by an Englishwoman. He attempts to buy something, yet is ignored by the shopkeep—and thus makes for the story’s ending, as the boy’s eyes burns “with anguish and anger” (Joyce 69). This seemingly simple storyline may be construed as the narrator’s despair and anger upon realizing that he will never have the chance to be noticed by the girl he admires, but further reading will reveal other important issues.
II. Setting vs. Situation
North Richmond Street, being the boy’s residence, is described as being secluded and uniform, giving the effect of familiarity and proximity with regard to its inhabitants. Such a setting is painted through the innocent eyes of the young narrator, which gives good reason for his discovery of the young girl next door, “her figure defined by the light from the half-open door” (Joyce 66). This romantic description is made possible by proximity, one of the most common reasons behind the flowering of young love. However, the narrator also describes their street as being “blind” (Joyce 65), which may logically coincide with the situation of Ireland under British rule, with communities and neighborhoods exhibiting nothing of color and life. Furthermore, the boy’s uncle’s lateness is thought by his wife to be because of his participation in a “Freemason affair” (Joyce 67), which could function in two ways: that this is merely a factor in the boy’s quest to get to Araby, since he needed both his uncle’s permission and funds; and that this defines the Irish observance of patriarchy and the existence of Freemasonry—a tolerance of varying faiths, which is unaccepted within the rules of British culture. Finally, Araby appears to simply be a regular marketplace, but another interpretation could refer to its Middle-Eastern nature and assumed neutrality between the British and the Irish.
II. Indifference vs. Superiority
The behavior of the female shopkeep in Araby could be seen as one of incidental nature, considering her penchant for gossip and attention to her male friends over making a sale. Since she and her friends appear to be discussing another girl, this could symbolize the narrator’s ignorance of romance and knowledge of his beloved’s true person; the final act of his not being able to buy anything confirms the idea that his efforts would be useless, for he could not even get the attention of the shopkeep, much less the heart of his love interest. But the clear mention of the shopkeep and her friends’ English accents and the way the former practically ignored him—considering he had money to spend—also expresses British superiority over the occupied Irish. As the boy realizes that he was but a “creature driven and derided by vanity” (Joyce 69), the more prevalent emotion is that of shame and anger due to this maltreatment rather than because of failure at love.
III. Aspiration vs. Assertion
The romantic angle of the story lends itself well to the discussion of aspiring for one’s attention, as with the young boy to his neighbor. He is shown to have the determination to go to great lengths, such as traveling late at night to Araby, just to present his beloved with a token of his feelings. But it also speaks of the Irish assertion to stand up for their rights, to be recognized in their own country; the symbol of Araby in its Middle Eastern origin is the connotation of distance and mystical nature, a faraway land to which the Irish would travel just to acquire what is needed to show their independence about being under foreign rule. That the boy is deemed inferior by the shopkeep compared to her English compatriots thus demonstrates the collective experience of the Irish—ignored and belittled in their own country.
“Araby” is a story written to relate the underlying hope and disappointment common in a youth’s introduction to love and its complexities, and many readers may stop at this analysis without delving deeper into the story’s more profound concerns. Arguing the fact that this is really a portrayal of the Irish experience under British rule may be defeated by the uninformed, but the presentation of the subtle yet meaningful hints made by the author shows the truth in the claim. Knowledge of James Joyce’s predilection toward political and social issues provides validation, notwithstanding his expert conveyance of his views in works of literature that seem to operate solely within the parameters of literary convention.
The biggest clue is found in the story’s last lines, in the narrator’s realization of his vain attempts, for though someone of this age might react so strongly against the simple idea of not being able to carry out his romantic intentions, the violation of his sense of self and culture is more apparent.
Joyce, James. “Araby”. Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and the Essay, 2nd
ed. Ed. Robert DiYanni. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1990, 1986. 65-69.