James Joyce’s short story Araby is full of romantics of the first love, of mysterious symbols, of religiosity, signs of decline and evidences of Irish reality of the beginning of the 20th century. However, its major theme can be identified as disillusionment, or the clash of ideal dreams and real life. Critics often define it as epiphany since nurtured illusions are suddenly crashed in a moment giving place to harsh reality. In Araby, a young boy has to experience this moment of truth when his dreams about a girl and the charm of Oriental bazaar are unveiled by the prosaic talk of a shop-girl and lack of money.
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The setting of the story contributes to the impression of idealistic fairytale the boy lives in. The story begins with the description of North Richmond Street with its “blind end” and houses “conscious of decent lives within them”. This description creates the feeling of double reality – North Richmond Street seems to be a mysterious place that hides some gloomy secrets under the mask of piety. Boy’s house is full of the shadows of the past with its “musty” air, yellow books, and “rusty bicycle-pump” reminding about a priest, the former tenant of the house. In fact, these surroundings are completely real; this is nothing more than old houses of an Irish town in decline, but they get a touch of unreality in boy’s imagination. By the contrast, Araby, an Oriental bazaar that has been expected to be an unreal and magic place, appears to be an unexpectedly real and prosaic place. As Norris notes, there is a meaningful contrast between the “real” estate of North Richmond Street that opens the story and the “unreal” estate of Araby that closes the narration (2003, p. 47).
Characters of the story also develop the theme of illusions. Mangan’s sister, who the protagonist infatuated with, is described as an ideal and almost incorporeal creature. The author doesn’t mention her name, and she never appears in the sunlight: she is always “defined by the light from the half-opened door”, and the readers can see only her silhouette and some details torn out by the light: “the sift rope of her hair”, “the white curve of her neck”, or “the white border of a petticoat”. The image of that girl is the embodiment of boy’s dreams – he doesn’t know what kind of person she is but he imagines an ideal. All other characters do not posses any serious place in his thoughts as her is completely concentrated on his dream: he doesn’t play with boys and he has little respect to his aunt and uncle speaking with irony and enmity about them.
As the story goes, boy’s fascination with the images created by his own mind tend to grow, and his dreams experience a crash only in the very end of the story, in a sudden moment. “This is not ordinary doubt but sudden, profound, existential crisis”, says Kershner (2003, p. 186) about this moment. Probably, it is similar to catharsis as the boy has to overcome his “anguish and anger” to see the reality of life.
Araby is a symbol of “unrealized desire for a young boy depressed by the drab streets of an impoverished and declining city”, believes Seidel (2002, p. 49). Indeed, at first the boy was truly fascinated with the “Eastern enchantment” of the bazaar and expected it to bring him realization of his dreams. However, in reality the effect of Araby was the opposite: it ruined boy’s dreams and disappointed him with “the empty and sterile commercial confection” (Norris, 2003, p. 45).
Thus, the boy’s idealistic vision of life was ruined just as it happens with many of us on one of the moments of our life, and the reason for this was at the first sight very insignificant and simplistic. As Attridge rightly notes, “Joyce is fascinated with the trivia of life” (2004, p. 99), and his short story Araby depicts a moment of disillusionment that brings back to reality not only the protagonist but also the readers of the story reminding them all that true life is almost always too different from dreams but still valuable.
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