“Araby”: A Child’s Misunderstanding

“I watched my master’s face pass from amiability to sternness; he hoped I was not beginning to idle. I could not call my wandering thoughts together. I had hardly any patience with the serious work of life which, now that it stood between me and my desire, seemed to me child’s play, ugly monotonous child’s play.”

Joyce is writing about – and seemingly satirizing – the follies of adolescence, and the feeling that young children have when they think they know exactly what they want, and because it is their idea, it must be correct. The narrator in “Araby” has become infatuated with one of his friends, Mangan’s, sister. She is clearly older, and while Mangan and the rest their friends enjoy “teas[ing] her before he obeyed,” the narrator is “looking at her,” noticing how her “dress swung” and that “the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.” He is a young boy thinking – we would say foolishly thinking – that he is in love, and that he will be able to win Mangan’s sister’s heart.

In the passage above, the narrator is daydreaming in school because he is bored of the mundane nature of his everyday life. School and games “seemed to [him] child’s play, ugly monotonous child’s play.” We can guess that Joyce is satirizing these feelings because the narrator is very much a child, and he is expected to participate in those activities. He is thinking of himself as wise beyond his years, an idea that we learn will be crushed at the end of the short story.

On the day he wants to go to the bazaar, many distractions come up in the form of his late uncle and the trains, making him almost miss the bazaar. Just as the “monotonous child’s play” of school got in between the narrator and his daydreaming, the “serious work of life” for the rest of society gets between him and the bazaar, which he believes will provide the means to attract Mangan’s sister.

An over- arching theme of blindness is very metaphorical of the narrator’s misunderstanding. He describes his neighborhood, “being blind,” by its noises. He and his friends hide in “the shadow” from adults trying to end their games. The narrator hides behind a literal “blind” so that he can spy on his love. Unlike an epiphany that comes in the form of a “light-bulb,” the narrator’s epiphany comes at the end of the story with “darkness.” Defeated, he says, “[g]azing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” He realizes he was “driven … by vanity,” the beauty of Mangan’s sister, to act inappropriately. While light is normally what would cause one’s eyes to burn, the narrator’s “eyes burned with anguish and anger” as he realizes the “darkness” in which he has been left. He now knows that not only will his short term goal of finding a gift for Mangan’s sister not be realized, be he also now realizes that his long term goal of making her love him will not be realized. This “negative epiphany” literally leaves him alone in the darkness.

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