James Joyce's use of religious imagery and religious symbols in "Araby' is compelling. That the story is concerned somehow with religion is obvious, but the particulars are vague, and its message becomes all the more interesting when Joyce begins to mingle romantic attraction with divine love. "Araby' is a story about both wordly love and religious devotion, and its weird mix of symbols and images details the relationship– sometimes peaceful, sometimes tumultuous– between the two. In this essay, I will examine a few key moments in the story and argue that Joyce's narrator is ultimately unable to resolve the differences between them.
While the story's concern with religion seems to speak for itself, a few biographical details bout Joyce's own youth and his religious background help inform any reading of "Araby.' We know that he was both drawn to and repulsed by the Catholic church in Ireland, and that just before taking orders, he opted to give up a life in the church and chose instead to devote himself to writing fiction. In the end, Joyce saw the church as something confining, something that imposed rules rather than freeing a creative spirit. As a writer radically inclined to break the rules even of fiction, the rules of the church were too severe for him. We also know that Joyce was a very sensual person who wanted nothing to do with celibacy or abstinence; his youthful marauding in the brothels of Dublin suggests that the church's proscriptions of sexual, or even romantic, activity were also too much for him. Some of these issues show up early on in the story "Araby.' To begin with, the narrator– the voice of a young Joyce, surely, if not entirely autobiographical– lives in a house whose former tenant was a priest who had "died in the back drawing room' (40). The narrator also tells us, in the first sentence of the story, that he lived near the "Christian Brothers's chool.' Whether these details make any difference in the story itself, it is curious that the reader is immediately flooded with religious material.
These minor bits of information may be trivial, but the do create a setting that is rich with religious overtones. And of course, at the end of the second paragraph we discover that the garden of Eden is in the narrator's back yard: "the wild garden behind the house contained a central apple-tree [… ] and the late tenant's rusty bicycle pump.' Perhpas it is a stretch to read a bicycle pump as the tempting serpent, but a central apple-tree unmistakably suggests the garden of Eden. The story takes place against a backdrop of religious icons and images– all the events occur in a religious "setting,' if you will. We have religion, but what about the idea of confinement, or of romantic love? As it turns out, the narrator's love interest, known only as "Mangan's sister,' soon provides both (40).
After days of secretly following her around, the narrator is finally confronted by the girl. She wants to go to the baazar, Araby, but she can't. When he asks her why, the reply is telling: While she spoke she turned a silver bracelet round and round her wrist. She could not go, she said, because there would be a retreat that week in her convent. Her brother and two other boys were fighting for their caps and I was alone at the railings.
She held one of the spikes, bowing her head towards me. (41) Basically, she will be out-of-town the weekend. This is literally what prevents her from being able to go to the baazar. But there are some figurative things that prevent her from going, as well. The event that takes her out of town is specifically religious– she is involved with a "convent' and has to attend a retreat, both religous reasons. And the other details in the passage are equally interesting: she turns a bracelet round and round her wrist– much, perhaps, as an inmate might turn her shackles round and round.
The image is striking. A girl wearing shackles stands on the other side of a set of bars as she explains why she is not free to go to the baazar. The church both literally and figuratively prevents her from going. She is confined by her religious devotion, kept from participating in the secular world into which the narrator himself is beginning to move.
The narrator's turning away from his duties is the other half of the equation: "at night in my bedroom and by day in the classroom her image came between me and the page I strove to read. The syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence [… ] and cast an Eastern enchantment over me' (42). The girl, the baazar, and romantic infatuation all collapse into a kind of enchantment– an Eastern kind that seems to stand diametrically opposed to religion. Instead of church and priests, school and duty, the boy is obsessed with romance, with the exotic (baazar) and the erotic (images of Mangan's sister). A dichotomy forms between that which is religious and that which is not.
It is romantic love versus religious devotion, the baazar at which the narrator wants to buy something for his infatuation, and the kind of life that keeps the girl from going on her own. Curiously, it is in the image of the girl herself that this dichotomy between spiritual and sensual begins to break down. That she is the subject of religious devotion is clear: she allows the convent to keep her from Araby. But at the very moment she becomes a kind of religious image in the story, she also becomes a kind of erotic / romantic icon for the boy: The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing. It fell over one side of her dress and caught the censored e border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease. (41-42) The image is ambiguous.
On the one hand, the girl is clearly an object of romantic adoration on the part of the narrator. He marvels at her image, and it returns to him ("I may have stood there for an hour, seeing nothing but the brown-clad figure cast by my imagination' (42) ) continuously. But on the other hand, she can be read as a kind of religious icon, in the likeness perhaps of the Virgin Mary. She is pictured in a kind of weird light, as a statue of sorts, standing for the convent and for the retreat. And if we remember for a moment the garden in the narrator's backyard, we may be able to make further sense of Mangan's sister: the story has a garden of Eden and an apple-tree; what it needs is an Eve to tempt the narrator. And he is clearly drawn away from his studies, from his pursuit of self-perfection, by the girl.
She is herself a devotee of the church, but she serves to tempt the narrator away from his reading, his schoolwork, even his play with his friends. She simultaneously represents both halves of the equation. She is a "symbol' both for religion and for romance. Mangan's sister is not the only location at which the religious and the exotic / erotic become confused. The baazar itself, Araby, is described by the narrator as being dark and silent like a church: "I recognized a silence like that which pervades a church after a service' (43).
A few sentences later, the boy has an epiphany– a sudden realization– while in the baazar: "gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity' (44). Ordinarily, epiphanies are religious moments characterized by a sudden "seeing of the light.' Here, however, the boy reaches his epiphany– as does the story– while gazing into the darkness at a baazar. If the baazar is initially opposed to religion, it is here explicitly likened to religion. The ending of the story is almost as ambiguous as its back-and-forth treatment of religion and romance. It is not clear exactly what he has realized, nor is it clear whether there is a clear distinction between what is religious and what is romantic, between what is sacred and divine and what is worldly and base. But perhaps Joyce, in whom these two elements were equally confused, would have wanted it that way.
Bibliography bi be.