The short story "Araby" by James Joyce could very well be described as a deep poem written in prose. Read casually, it seems all but incomprehensible, nothing more than a series of depressing impressions and memories thrown together in a jumble and somehow meant to depict a childhood infatuation. Like the sweet milk inside a coconut, the pleasure of this story comes only to the reader who is willing to put forth the intense effort necessary to comprehend it. Or like an onion, peeling off one layer reveals yet another deeper, more pungent level. Practically every insignificant detail becomes vitally important and meaningful as the plot progresses, until it becomes apparent that this story is not about romance at all but rather the "coming of age" that marks everyone's passage into adulthood. This is especially apparent in the point of view, the symbolism of the first paragraph, and the character of the narrator himself.
Crucial to an understanding of this story is a solid grasp of its point of view. It is important to recognize that the story is written from an adult perspective. This is revealed in at least two ways: the style and tone or air.
The style of writing-its technical construction-is probably the most obvious. From the opening sentence on, the writing leaves no doubt that the author is mature and highly experienced: He uses an exceptional vocabulary, he has a propensity for figurative language, and his sentences are full and well-developed. No child would have written the following sentence, exemplary of the entire story: "The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces" (178). That is the work of a polished artist.
The tone of the story lends credence to this view. The narrator has matured and put the affair behind him. Looking back, he shakes his head and gently ridicules himself in a nostalgic and sad manner: "her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood" (179); "What innumerable follies laid waste my waking and sleeping thoughts . . . !" (180). In so doing, he disengages himself from the emotions of the infatuation, subtly giving the story a detached air entirely in keeping with the adulthood of the narrator. The boy's are portrayed accurately enough, but little ardor is infused into the narration. Despite its colorful, even picturesque language, it is matter-of-fact. There is little of the breathtaking, exhilarating beauty associated with romance. The author seems to expect the reader to rely on his or her own experience of first love to fill in the gaps. Even before the final paragraph, the story exudes an air of disappointment and futility.
Establishing the point of view of "Araby" all but eliminates the possibility of interpreting it literally. While this story depicts a childhood romance, it is not a story of a childhood romance. Had it been the intention of a narrator merely to relate in the first person a winsome tale of infatuation, he would almost certainly have written it from the child's perspective. Such a story would have not only conveyed far more power and emotional impact romantically, but also been more appealing--even with the crushing disappointment of the conclusion. More passion and tenderness would have been infused into the narrative. As it stands, the story is often dismal, dark, and unpleasant.
The narrative opens with the enigmatic paragraph:
"North Richmond Street, being blind [i.e., dead-end], was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers' School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two stories stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbors in a square ground. The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces" (178).
Ostensibly this is straightforward enough, though perhaps irrelevant, verbose, and uninviting for an opening...