Finding the Sublime in the Mundane

Finding the Sublime in the Mundane

            “Araby” by James Joyce and “A & P” both make use of seemingly commonplace events to represent deeper scenarios, and both incorporate the themes of authority, hypocrisy and teenage admiration.  “A & P” may appear to be just another day at an A & P supermarket in which three girls come in wearing swimsuits, breaking the place’s dress code.

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However, it is also a study on the conflict between the conservative and the avant-garde - Finding the Sublime in the Mundane introduction. “Araby” on the other hand may seem just like another infatuated young boy pining for the girl of his dreams, but it also deals with Irish Catholic religiosity which prevents the boy from expressing some of his desires.  Each of the boys in the two short stories has a crush which he lifts on a pedestal as something more consequential.

            In “Araby” a boy is caught between his infatuation for a girl, who is even unaware of his feelings, and what is expected of a good Catholic boy.  The main themes explored in the short story are a young boy’s first love, religion and hypocrisy, and isolation.  The young boy says that “her name sprang to [his] lips at moments in strange prayers and praises” and his eyes are often full of tears” (Joyce, 1916, p. 405).  He mistakes love for religious devotion, in that he thinks of his beloved almost as a deity, someone deserving not just of love but of “praises.”  Even his reaction to her is full of religious ecstasy; he lets himself go by crying because of the strange feeling that causes him both pain and happiness.

“One evening I went into the back drawing-room in which the priest had died.  It was a dark rainy evening and there was no sound in the house… I was thankful that I could see so little.  All my senses seemed to desire to veil themselves and, feeling that I was about to slip from them, I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled, murmuring: “O love! O love!” many times” (Joyce, 1916, p. 405).

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The above segment shows the boy on his own one evening.  He recognizes the place as holy because it is where the priest, a former tenant, has died.  This makes him grateful for the darkness because he feels that what he is feeling at the moment is wrong and must be “veiled.”  Putting his palms together may either be in the act of prayer or the act of repressing his emotions.

            Another theme in “Araby” is religiosity and hypocrisy.  Throughout the short story, there is a feeling of religiosity.  This is because of the boy’s strong Irish Catholicism.  This faith has even influenced his view of his beloved; he describes her as a girl with a “soft rope of…hair” (Joyce, 1916, p. 404) which is usually attributed to saints.  Even the very beginning of the story is about what is viewed by the boy as the imprisonment of boys by their faith, when talks about “the Christian Brothers’ School [setting] the boys free.”  The “former tenant of” their house is a priest.  He is traditionally viewed as “charitable”.  Questions may come up, however, about the priest leaving “all his money to institutions and the furniture of his house to his sister” (Joyce, 1916, p. 404).  A priest is supposed to have taken a vow of poverty and is not allowed to keep for himself any material possession.  However, for strongly religious people, they may not have noticed this discrepancy at all.

            The third main theme to be discussed is isolation.  The boy describes the feeling of loneliness emanating from his surroundings.  Their house is “detached from its neighbors” and its rooms are “musty from having been long enclosed” (Joyce, 1916, p. 404).  Further descriptions of the house’s interior convey a feeling of neglect.

            In “A & P” the prevailing themes are conservatism versus modernism, law, making choices and taking responsibility.  Like the boy in “Araby”, Sammy is attracted to a girl who does not know about his feelings.  However, their situations are much different.  The boy in “Araby” knows the girl he is infatuated with personally and seems to have placed her in a pedestal for some time.  In “A & P”, the admiration may be less pretentious but it happens during one day at a supermarket:  a nineteen year old boy admiring a stranger who is one of the customers.

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The three girls in “A & P” enter the supermarket in their bathing suits.  They seem oblivious about not following the dress code.  Sammy, the narrator of the story, describes one of the girls as “the queen” who “kind of lead” (Updike, 1961, p. 742) the other two girls.  He describes what she is wearing, “a kind of dirty-pink – beige maybe…bathing suit with a little nubble all over it, and what got me, the straps were down” (Updike, 1961, p. 742).  It is evident that Sammy is observing everything about this particular girl. He may not pretend to be in love, but he does have a crush on the girl.  Unlike the other people inside the supermarket, Sammy may not see the girls in a negative way, but the way that they are dressed has definitely caught his attention.  The other customers, upon seeing “Queenie’s white shoulders…kind of jerk, or hop, or hiccup, but their eyes snapped back to their own baskets and on they pushed” (Updike, 1961, p. 743).  What the girls are wearing shock them more than any dynamite set off inside the supermarket can, according to Sammy.  In the end, the girls are reprimanded by the supermarket’s manager, Lengel.  Lengel represents the conservative people who like following and implementing the set rules and regulations; he also wants others to do the same thing.  In “Araby”, the Catholic Church has the Ten Commandments and other dogmas that the people must follow.  People who practice their faith want to see others doing the same.  The boy in “Araby” wants to follow the rules but his feelings are driving him to do otherwise.  Sammy, on the other hand, decides to defend the girl who represents change and modernism.  He is under the authority of Lengel but the girls’ bathing suits do not offend him.  This is opposed the reaction to his own desires by the boy in “Araby”.  He is disgusted by his own feelings (Joyce, 1916, p. 405).

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Another main theme in “A & P” is taking responsibility for one’s actions.  Sammy told Lengel that he is quitting his job as a sign of defending the three girls.  Lengel tells him that he “will feel this for the rest of [his] life” (Updike, 1961, p. 746).  Sammy’s action will affect not only his job but his statement in life.  He must show that what he has done during one day at the supermarket has not been urged by merely a teenage crush, but rather by something more sublime: the recognition of individuality, choice and modernism in the face of rigid conservatism.  In this manner, Sammy is similar to the boy in “Araby”.  The latter has also thought of his crush as something loftier than what it really is.  Sammy must then continue in his self-appointed crusade to defend those that are being restricted too much that they have lost their carefree ways to become sullen and repressed law-abiding citizens.  Therefore, he must internalize this belief, on the other hand knowing that this is a very difficult task. He recognizes this by saying that his “stomach kind of fell as [he] felt how hard the world was going to be to [him] thereafter” (Updike, 1961, p. 746).

            In “Araby”, the  authority is the Catholic Church.  Its personification is the priest who is on the surface a good man; hints at his possessions seem to whisper otherwise (Joyce, 1916, p. 404).  Lengel is the representative of authority in “A & P.”  “His face was dark gray and his back stiff, as if he’d just had an injection of iron… (Updike, 1961, p. 746).  His description suggests that he is aloof and harsh to lawbreakers; he follows the law to the letter but he wants others to follow as well.  This lack of “let and live” attitude can make one wonder if in fact he is also bitter about this constant strict following of rules that he wants others to feel the same way.  To some extent, authority is a common theme for “A & P” and “Araby”.  Authority in a certain form rules the lives of the stories’ characters.

            Hypocrisy is another common theme.  The hypocrisy in “Araby” has been previously discussed.  In “A & P”, Sammy is caught between having to reveal his hypocrisy and continuing the difficult task of defending choice.  He is a hypocrite because he only defends the choice of pretty girls but is sullen towards a customer whom he describes as “if she’d been born at the right time, they would have burned her over in Salem” (Updike, 1961, p. 742).  It is well known that the people who have been burned in Salem are punished for being different and yet, Sammy is antagonistic towards this customer who deserves his full attention in the first place.

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Of course, teenage admiration is a common theme, though the infatuation involved in “Araby” is stronger.  It is when each of the boys attributes the admiration to something much more significant than a crush that they become similar.

            As a conclusion, the two short stories, James Joyce’s “Araby” and John Updike’s “A  & P” are similar in terms of the themes of authority, hypocrisy and teenage admiration.  They also present seemingly mundane events that have underlying depth, ultimately integrating the aforementioned themes.

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Joyce, J. (1916). Araby. In The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction (pp.404-408). Boston, Massachusetts: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Updike, J. (1961). A & P. In The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction (pp.742-746). Boston, Massachusetts: Bedford/St. Martin’s.


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