In “Araby,” James Joyce plays with the idea of blindness—the blindness of both the reader and the characters in the novel. He couples this concept with imagery of both light and dark, emphasizing shadows created in this world.
The novel opens with an image of blindness, immediately setting up the reader for an ongoing motif. Joyce writes, “North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free.” When I first read this passage, I was confused by this use of the word “blind.” How can a street be blind? What is the street ignoring? He continues his use of this term in the next sentence as he says, “An uninhabited house of two storeys stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbours in a square ground.” Joyce has now specified the blindness of the road to the blind end. Perhaps this end is shrouded in shadows, or perhaps there is something about this house that keeps it from seeing the truth. Based on the narrator’s description of the other houses “gazing” at one another, Joyce wants us to think of this house at the blind end as separate, destitute and lonely. Despite this, Joyce does not give the reader a strong basis for understanding why this is the blind house or why it is so secluded. This plays into the parallel between the blindness of the road and the blindness of the reader. Joyce does not let the reader see his rational for separating this house. The reader is blind as a result.
As with the blindness of the street and the house, Joyce introduces another variation on the word to continue playing with the reader’s understanding of blindness. Joyce writes, “The blind was pulled down to within an inch of the sash so that I could not be seen.” Here the blind refers to the actual shade that covers the window. It functions as a way to blind the Mangan’s sister from what is behind the window. It also allows the narrator to hide behind it. Joyce introduces the coupling of blindness and hiding. When someone is impaired and unable to see, another person can take advantage of that and hide out in the shadows.
Now that blindness can be linked with hiding or deceit, Joyce allows the reader to find a greater understanding of the close of the novel. The narrator has gone to the market to buy a gift for Mangan’s sister, the woman he loves, but is unsuccessful. He says, “The upper part of the hall was now completely dark. Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” In this scene, the lights have gone out in the hall, blinding the narrator. He is “gazing up into the darkness,” and it is then, when he is unable to see what is around him. He is able to look at himself, and he says that he is driven by vanity. Joyce allows blindness to now function as a force of enlightenment and self-reflection. But this is juxtaposed with the last image that Joyce leaves us with. The narrator’s eyes “burn with anguish and anger.” This burning is perhaps showing the reader that the narrator is now growing blind to the world. Perhaps he is allowing the idea of vanity and anger to blind him from what is most important. He gives up on finding a gift and his once exciting mission to please Mangan’s sister is being abandoned. This is a new blindness for the narrator.
Each of these uses of blindness shows the complexity of the image that Joyce wants to convey. Being blind can make someone lonely, can hide someone and can force someone to look at themselves differently. Each of these meanings is hidden in “Araby” and functions in a way that confuses the reader. The story finishes with questions floating in the readers’ heads. They cannot see Joyce’s meaning, and they are in the dark. They too are blind.