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Running Head: The True Meaning into "Araby"


The True Meaning into "Araby"

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Joyce was a pioneer and a model for authors who believed in free written expression. Most of his works feature inventive language, and many of them have been criticized for being too obscure in their references or too blunt in their descriptions of intimate matters, including sexual activity. His writing evolved steadily from adolescent lyrics to precise vignettes to bold combinations of autobiography and satire. Most of his works deal with everyday life in 20th-century Dublin. Joyce once remarked that “the extraordinary is the province of journalists,” and most of his writings concentrate on ordinary people, objects, and places.

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Although Joyce renounced the Roman Catholic faith, his writings frequently refer to the rich tradition of the Church. He compared the artist and the writer to the priest, who performs certain social and aesthetic functions in a dramatic display. He also compared the literary use of symbols to the religious use of sacraments, which are the outward and visible representations of inward and invisible spiritual states. (One such sacrament is baptism, which represents the favor of God bestowed on an individual.) Joyce called some of his early sketches epiphanies; the term epiphany, often used in a religious context, means an understanding that comes about through a sudden intuitive realization. A Joycean epiphany is a small descriptive moment, action, or phrase that holds much larger meaning–for example, a single word or gesture that explains a person’s entire personality.

The main character in “Araby” is also a young boy who lacks the level of mature reasoning required to escape the pressures of a conflict between emotions and reality. The “blind faith” that is followed in this case, however, is not a learned value but rather the silly, uncontrollable reactions of love: “Her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood”. To a reasoning man, the boy’s failure at the bazaar to purchase something for Mangan’s sister would be a trivial and correctable misfortune in the process of courting a love interest. To an unreasoning boy, however, it is a complete catastrophe. Everything must go perfectly in order for him to win her over, and he has already failed. The most noteworthy part of “Araby” takes place at the very end of the story when he realizes that he is “a creature driven and derided by vanity”. The boy has just had his first maturing epiphany. He has begun to see himself objectively and, hence, has begun to take the first step towards rational thinking.

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James Joyce uses many different techniques to convey the discoveries that the main character realizes about himself, and life. In this brief but complex story, Joyce concentrates on character rather than on plot to weave a sophisticated tale on many levels. First and foremost, “Araby” is a story of the discovery of what love is but beyond that, it is a complex analysis of the ironies inherent in self-deception. On one level "Araby" is a story of initiation, of a boy's quest for the ideal. The quest ends in failure but results in an inner awareness and a first step into manhood. On another level, the story consists of a grown man's remembered experience, for the story is told in retrospect by a man who looks back to a particular moment of intense meaning and insight. As such, the boy's experience is not restricted to youth's encounter with first love. Rather, it is a portrayal of a continuing problem all through life: the incompatibility of the ideal, of the dream as one wishes it to be, with the bleakness of reality.

This double focus-the boy who first experiences, and the man who has not forgotten - provides for the dramatic rendering of a story of first love told by a narrator who, with his wider, adult vision, can employ the sophisticated use of irony and symbolic imagery necessary to reveal the story's meaning. The boy's character is indirectly suggested in the opening scenes of the story. He has grown up in the backwash of a dying city. Symbolic images show him to be an individual who is sensitive to the fact that his city's vitality has ebbed and left a residue of empty piety, the faintest echoes of romance, and only symbolic memories of an active concern for God and fellow men. Although the young boy cannot comprehend it intellectually, he feels that the street, the town, and Ireland itself have become ingrown, self-satisfied, and unimaginative. It is a world of spiritual stagnation, and as a result, the boy's outlook is severely limited. He is ignorant and therefore innocent. Lonely, imaginative, and isolated, he lacks the understanding necessary for evaluation and perspective. He is at first as blind as his world, but Joyce prepares us for his eventual perceptive awakening by tempering his blindness with an unconscious rejection of the spiritual stagnation of his world.

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The boy's manner of thought is also made clear in the opening scenes. Religion controls the lives of the inhabitants of North Richmond Street, but it is a dying religion and receives only lip service. The boy, however, entering the new experience of first love, finds his vocabulary within the experiences of his religious training and the romantic novels he has read. The result is an idealistic and confused interpretation of love based on quasi-religious terms and the imagery of romance. This convergence of two great myths, the Christian with its symbols of hope and sacrifice and the Oriental or romantic with its fragile symbols of heroism and escape, merge to form in his mind an illusory world of mystical and ideal beauty.

This convergence, which creates an epiphany for the boy as he accompanies his aunt through the market place, lets us experience with sudden illumination the texture and content of his mind. We see the futility and stubbornness of his quest. But despite all the evidence- the dead house, on a dead street, in a dying city- the boy determines to bear his "chalice safely through a throng of foes.” He is blindly interpreting the world in the images of his dreams: shop boys selling pigs' cheeks cry out in "shrill litanies"; Mangan's sister is saintly; her name evokes in him "strange prayers and praises.” The boy is extraordinarily lovesick, and from his innocent idealism and stubbornness, we realized that he cannot keep the dream. He must wake to the demands of the world around him and react. Thus, the first half of the story foreshadows the boy's awakening and disillusionment. The account of the boy's futile quest emphasizes both his lonely idealism and his ability to achieve the perspectives he now has.

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The quest ends when he arrives at the bazaar and realizes with slow, tortured clarity that Araby is not at all what he imagined. It is tawdry and dark and thrives on the profit motive and the eternal lure its name evokes in men. The boy realizes that he has placed all his love and hope in a world that does not exist except in his imagination. He feels angry and betrayed and realizes his self-deception. He feels he is "a creature driven and derided by vanity" and the vanity is his own. The man, remembering this startling experience from his boyhood, recalls the moment he realized that living the dream was lost as a possibility. That sense of loss is intensified, for its dimension grows as we realize that the desire to, live the dream will continue through adulthood.

At no other point in the story is characterization as brilliant as at the end. Joyce draws his protagonist with strokes designed to let us recognize in "the creature driven and derided by vanity" both a boy who is initiated into knowledge through a loss of innocence and a man who fully realizes the incompatibility between the beautiful and innocent world of the imagination and the very real world of fact.

The Identity of the substance shall forever retain its mystery, regardless of the hopefulness of the possibility that the title actually names it. However, it could also be taken to mean something else on a broader societal level. By "allowing its otherness to remain other", this could mean, in the social context, to let another person remain distinct and unique--not subjecting him/her to judgment, scrutiny and criticism. Although there is credible evidence to prove that Maria exists in a world of her own, one in which she is well-loved and accepted, one should not be too quick to disparage her nor dismiss her as a pathetic and self-deluded figure. The truth is that "the 'real' Maria--ugly, easily flustered, interfering, unsuccessful, thick-skinned--is as much a social product as the fantasized Maria, who is attractive, popular, respected, admired, and influential". Thus, her society and even the reader, who can be regarded as being part of the generic society, are complicit in Maria's degradation to such a state.

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The attitudes which Joyce might be attacking then would be those which society holds in its harsh exclusion of those who do not necessarily fit the "norm." He crafts his approach through the use of verbal irony. First, he makes it appear as if Maria is the target of the irony by providing strong hints of structural irony which she of course supports through her system of incorrect beliefs (a judgment passed by the reader). However, he then surreptitiously and abruptly destroys this belief which the reader has held hitherto by the inclusion of the "soft wet substance" paragraph. The reader is, as intended, thrown off course in his understanding of the narrative and forced to re-examine his (later proved) faulty belief.

Whether this causes the reader to alter his attitudes is immaterial because though irony has the capacity to provoke feelings, it does not have the power to ensure a change in attitude of the reader. While the reader "might conceivably experience anger at the attitudes or values inferred in the ironic utterance", he only has to "understand, [and] not share or appreciate those attitudes" for irony to wield its sharp edge on him. This inevitably raises the question of irony's effectiveness in causing social change. Joyce's social commentary in "Clay" may only be successful as such--to comment on society. Its audience is limited by the inherently exclusionary nature of literary texts and the use of irony does not guarantee a shift in peoples' attitudes either. Perhaps irony's edge is only relegated to the realm of literary interpretation and discourse--it has neither real effect nor meaning on the common man.

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However, this much said, irony still retains a particular value to readers of literature--novice or maestro. It is a source of interpretive and psychological complexity which challenges and stirs the mind as it goes beyond its natural workings of understanding words as they are presented. It is a kind of "aesthetic experience" whose appeal lies in the multiple interpretations made possible by the ambiguous nature of irony. Frustrating as it is, one gets a kick out of (trying) to understand irony.

Works Cited

Barnes, Michael H. In the Presence of Mystery: An Introduction to the Story of Human Religiousness, 2nd ed. Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 1990

Fowler, James. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human   Development and the Quest for Meaning, New York: Harper    and Row, 1981

Joyce, James, Dubliners, New York: Penguin, 1992

Werner, Craig Hansen, “Paralysis and Epiphany: Theme,     Structure, Style.” James Joyce’s Dubliners: Notes and Critical Essays. U of Dayton Humanities Base Text, Dept.  of English, Boston: Pearson Custom, 2002. 45-64


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