In the end it took me a dictionary
To find out the meaning of ‘unrequited’
While she was giving herself for free
At a party to which I was never invited.

Billy Bragg, The Saturday Boy.

Araby is the third story in Dubliners and the last one to feature the perspective of an unnamed child. It’s an epiphany, and one of the better examples of how epiphany rarely leaves the subject in a more positive mindset than before. There’s not a lot going on, and that which does is frustrating because it ends in disillusion and disappointment. Yet in terms of Joyce’s construction of a ‘moral history’ of Ireland it shows us how ill-equipped for life the limitations of upbringing in Dublin leave his characters. As a story it is a nice example of the death of childhood innocence, the child learning (as it were) how to have his heart broken. And as a part of the whole Dubliners collection it exemplifies the book as a borehole, rather than a map: we may or may not be able to orient ourselves geographically but we can certainly discern the conditions present for growth and development.

For many people it can be difficult to get past the worst piece of sub-Freudian imagery in the literary canon, which happens on the first page of Araby. In a priest’s back garden, underneath an apple tree, there’s a rusty bicycle pump. What could that possibly mean? Well, it’s a matter of following clues. The first thing that might strike the reader of Dubliners is that the presence of a dead old priest may well suggest the boy is the same one who featured in The Sisters, but that sort of speculation isn’t really going to get you anywhere. The second is that this may well be about frustrated sexuality, but that’s of limited value as the kid seems too young to know why exactly “the flood from [his] heart pour[s] itself out into [his] bosom” when Mangan’s sister passes. The clearest use for the reader of this image is the reference to the Garden of Eden suggested by the apple tree. This is because Araby is about discovery, the coming to knowledge of self. And its perspective is limited by all things biblical and Catholic.

The narrator (the bazaar on which Araby is based came to Dublin in 1894 so conventional Joycean guesswork puts him at 12 years old), fatherless and uncertain, takes his cues from the stories he encounters. His imagination allows him to interpret a shopping trip (rather grandiosely) as a “chalice” he bears “safely through a throng of foes”.  Walter Scott is mentioned, and there is a chivalrous intent to his rhetoric. Matched with this is a Catholic sensibility, as the boy comprehends his desire in religious terms: “Her name sprang to my lips… in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand”. Even the silence that greets him at Araby is assimilated into his worldview: “…like that which pervades a church after a service”.  This is a worldview beginning, like the boys from the Christian Brothers school in the first paragraph of the story, to be “set free”. Escape is a strong theme in the early stories of Dubliners but the vulgarity of Dublin is not, perhaps, best suited to escape, and there’s the rub.

What strikes me on this reading is the amount of imperfect vision noted in the story: North Richmond St. is described as “blind”, the boy hides in shadows and allows his vision of Mangan’s sister to be “defined by the light from the half-opened door”. Partial access seems to be granted, but when certainty is absent the boy, like the protagonist in The Sisters who has to “make sense of… the unfinished sentences”, becomes skilled (he thinks) at “interpret[ing] the signs”. Even when he retires to the priest’s old room he looks at the world through “one of the broken panes” which gives the blurred, impressionistic view of “some distant lamp or lighted window”. The sound of the rain “impinging” on the ground below makes him “thankful that [he] could see so little”. The world of imagination, of speculation, is preferable, perhaps, for the boy, (is he learning to look at the world through what Joyce later termed “the cracked lookinglass of a servant”?) The subsequent hours seem nothing more than “innumerable follies” and the intervening days “tedious”. He wants to escape from the dull sensible world to the exotic East.

Idealism and imagination die in this story as the Eastern bazaar turns out to be a market from no further East than England and his quest for spiritual elevation is frustrated by his uncle’s drunken forgetfulness and his own realisation that he was projecting a great deal more that was actually there from the words of Mangan’s sister. The proprietors of Araby ignominiously misinterpret his politeness and pure intention, as they seem to think he is going to steal something. His version of romantic love is counterpointed in earthier language by the gossip of the workers. And he comes to a higher level of knowledge about himself, that no matter how his fancy dresses up the situation, reality remains, whether in the drunkenness of his uncle, the commercial vulgarity masquerading as Oriental exotica or the unrequited nature of his infatuation. His vanity drove and derided him, he reflects, leaving him in darkness once again.

(I have no idea of the provenance of the following cartoon)

This time what struck me about Araby was the limited point of view, the ubiquity of alcohol and commerce, and the shadow of half-understood but fully-present religious suspicion in the Dublin depicted in the story. There are a lot of brown, stagnant shades, and always a difficulty seeing things clearly. And at the end we learn the lesson that education is all-too-often painful.