Jun 22, 2012

Brief notes on "Araby"

James Joyce's "Araby" is a tale told by a man or young man looking back on his childhood, we assume. What lessons do you think this man has learned from the experience he tells of in this story? 

Is he bitter? Is he disappointed? Is he sad? Is he angry? What or whom is he angry at? What or whom is he anguished about? 

I see a two part answer:

1. He is anguished about his world, the community around him. In what ways has his community (family, friends, society) let him down? It throws up every obstacle in his path to prevent him from achieving his desires. A useful exercise is to examine the text for examples. You will find that Dublin is not a world conducive to romance. 

2. He is also angry and anguished at himself. Why? For being duped by fantasy, by his illusions of heroism, his ideals of romantic love. He's been seduced by adoration and veneration for a girl who hardly knows him. He's seduced by the musty books left by the dead priest who used to occupy his house, by associating erotic love with religion. He realizes, that there is nothing exotic about Araby. There is no magic there. There will be no realizing of his dream. He has been deluding himself. 

What kind of a man makes these conclusions later in life when looking back on his childhood? What sort of character do you think this man is now, at the time he tells the story? The narrator has become one of the Dubliners, one of the drab, pointless figures portrayed in these stories. The spark he once had as a child, the spark of love and hope and anticipation has been snuffed out. And he's bitter about it. He's angry. He's lost hope. 

How do we know this? We don't with certainty. But ask yourself, why would an adult write about his experience in this way, come to that conclusion? Does he have to be so hard on himself, so hard on his fellow city dwellers? He could look back on this experience and laugh it off as a charming little childhood experience. If he were an optimistic, "never say die" sort, he wouldn't have let this setback stop him at all.  But no, the sense of place here, the environment seems dead set against him, and judging from his conclusion, the environment won the battle and the war. 

This brings up the notion of conflict in fiction. Much great literature is about conflict, struggle. Literature can be better appreciated and understood as dramas arising from conflicts. 

The conflict in a story, poem, or drama can take many forms: 

  • person vs. person
  • person vs. environment: (place, community, gods, fate, destiny, society)
  • person vs. self (struggling against interior forces)

Out of that struggle, we see characters winning, losing, coping, enduring, etc. A wide range of human responses to these struggles. That's what the stories are about. An ambiguous work of literature will be rich in implications as to how the characters deal with these conflicts. 

In "Araby" our protagonist comes out on the losing side of his battle with the environment. He learns an important life lesson, yet maybe he has lost more than he found. At least, this is an arguable point. 

At what price do we gain bitter wisdom about the real world?