Araby: An Outline Commentary
‘The Sisters’ and ‘An Encounter’ are about the same length. ‘Araby’ is roughly a hundred lines shorter than these. There is a progression in the three stories. The boy in ‘The Sisters’ is a passive witness, limited in his capacity to act by the weight of the adults about him. The boy of ‘An Encounter’ rebels against this oppression but his reward is the menace of a bizarre and abnormal adult. The boy in ‘Araby’ strives both to act and to realize an actual affective relationship but suffers frustration, a thwarting that results both from the burden of adult control and his own recognition of the falseness of his aims.
In short, ‘Araby’ is busy and crowded with people although these come and go in a breath. The first mentioned character, the dead priest, lingers more than most. He was the former tenant of the house that the boy now lives in with his aunt and uncle. The priest left behind books that influence the boy and a rusty bicycle pump. The latter is found in a backyard that contains an apple tree, a suggestion of an edenic world in a story laden with spiritual and churchly trappings. The bicycle pump, says Tindall, commenting on its appearance in the Circe section of Ulysses, “probably means spiritual inflation.” There are equally strong references to the mercantile. We learn, for example, that the priest left his money to charitable institutions and left to his sisters his furniture. The three books seem strange ones for a priest: a novel by Scott, memoirs of Vidocq and a devotional treatise. The latter may be an orthodox, if mediocre, work or it may be the work of an anti-Catholic writer whose last name is Seller, a fitting name for this story where the mercantile theme is so strong.
The background of the boys who are the central figures of these first three stories is interestingly similar although different in the details. The boy of ‘An Encounter’ has no background except as a student but all the boys, whatever their differences in background, are much alike.
The opening paragraph is very different from the openings of the first two stories. These tell us almost immediately that the stories are both personal narratives. In ‘Araby,’ however, the first paragraph gives us no clue of this and is expert, mature and polished with an arresting and poetic image as its climax: "The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.” This is a different way to accomplish what Joyce did with his discussion of Joe Dillon’s priestly aspirations in ‘An Encounter.’ There is a complex temporality involved. In the one time is the accomplished writer who gives houses imperturbable faces and in another time is the immature narrator.
Except for two minor characters, Mangan and Mrs Mercer, nobody has a name in this story.
With a device that was used in ‘The Sisters,’ again in ‘Eveline’ and yet again in the first “us” of Finnegans Wake, Joyce begins a story with a pronoun for which only the context provides the antecedent. Children play boisterous games in the winter evening until their bodies glow. (The Grand Oriental Fête, however, was held in May of 1894.) The children, as in ‘Eveline,’ hide from authority in the person here of the boy’s uncle or Mangan’s sister. The boy is smitten with the latter.
He watches out for her so that he can arrange seemingly accidental meetings. They have exchanged trivialities but have never really spoken. He describes her figure as “brown,” the same word with which the writer of the opening paragraph describes the houses of North Richmond Street. (Ellmann: James Joyce, page 136: “James and Margaret got up at midnight [on the night after the burial presumably] to see their mother’s ghost, and Margaret thought she saw her in the brown habit in which she was buried.”) The boy’s passion survives the ugliness of those he encounters while on errands with his aunt and rises to an almost unbearable...
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