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Illusion and Reality in "Araby" by James Joyce

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Illusion and Reality in "Araby" by James Joyce  essay
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Irving Howe, a literary and social critic, once noted that “the knowledge that makes us cherish innocence makes innocence unattainable”(Lifehack Quotes). Often depicted in the transition from childhood to adulthood, this loss of innocence is sorrowful yet eminent. A functioning society requires that individuals at some point transition from a world of illusion to a world of reality; a transition that’s catalyst is a loss of innocence. James Joyce, an Irish novelist and poet, highlights this loss of innocence in his short story, “Araby.” In his work, Joyce pits the innocent, childlike nature of his narrator against the strident realities of the world, forcing the narrator to reconcile his perception of reality. By questioning and inverting the practicality of romance and faith, Joyce expedites his narrator’s loss of innocence. Furthermore, Joyce suggests that optimistic ideals are limited to the world of illusion, thwarted in the real world by the selfish, materialistic, and corrupt nature of society.

Through his incorporation of autobiography in “Araby,” Joyce conveys the universal nature of the loss of innocence. For example, both the narrator and Joyce grew up on North Richmond Street and attended the Christian Brother’s School. Furthermore, Joyce’s critic, Harry Stone, suggested that historical documents verify the Araby bazaar came to Dublin at the same time Joyce’s family was living on North Richmond Street (346). However, Joyce also made strategic and purposeful autobiographical alterations. Literary critic J.S. Atherton suggested that Joyce’s father is actually portrayed as the uncle in “Araby” in order to make the narrator appear “lonely so as to stand out in contrast to his surroundings” (41). Although there are “grounds for considering that “Araby” is based on an actual event in Joyce’s childhood” the incorporation of autobiographical elements give Joyce’s work merit (Atherton 40). By entwining autobiographical strands into his thread of literature, Joyce ultimately yields a supreme work rife with genuine relevance and universal applicability rather than condescension and patronization.

Joyce uses personification and connotatively charged diction in the first paragraph to contrasts the initially innocent nature of the narrator with the lifeless world around him. In the first line of the text, Joyce describes North Richmond Street as “being blind” and with a “blind end” (15). Although the phrase “blind end” denotes a dead end street, the connotation of the phrase exemplifies the nature of the narrator: blind, unaware, and unknowing of the problems that pervade the real world. The boy has an “idyllic ignorance of the wider world,” as described by journalist Chris Power, which solidifies his initial state of innocence. Furthermore, Joyce notes that at the end of the school day the “school set(s) the boys free”, insinuating that the children are imprisoned by their education (15). This imprisonment is to an extent responsible for holding the boys captive in a bubble of innocence; it prohibits them to explore other, possibly dangerous or enlightening realms of the world. Joyce then contrasts the innocent nature of the narrator with the apparently lifeless state of the rest of the world which has lost its innocence. The houses, for example, are described as “uninhabited,” “detached,” “brown,” and “imperturbable,” adjectives which invoke a mood of hopelessness and despair (Joyce 15). By contrasting the innocent nature of the narrator with the corrupt nature of his world, Joyce suggests that the innocent narrator is oppressed by the outside world. In the end, Joyce reveals that the chasm between the narrator and world is too great to endure; ultimately the gap, Joyce foreshadows, will be mended through the narrators conformity, achieved through his loss of innocence.

By analyzing the practicality and possibility for romance in the real world, Joyce catalyzes the loss of innocence in the narrator. Joyce examines the role of romance through his depiction of the narrators relationship with Mangan’s sister. In the beginning, the narrator appears to have nothing more than an innocent crush on an older girl. While the narrator finds himself with “her brown figure always in my[his] eye,” he does not have the courage to speak to her as he always “quickened his pace” to pass her when they encountered (Joyce 16). This depiction, of a harmless, child-like crush, dramatically shifts as an undercurrent of sexual symbolism inhabited the later part of the text. The first instance of this transition, occurred on the evening when the narrator was alone in his home and entered the back room. In that moment, the narrator described that all his “senses seemed to desire to veil themselves” and he felt as though he was “about to slip from them”, while he “pressed the palms of his hands together” and murmured “O love! O Love!”(Joyce 16). As noted by literary critic Edward Brandabur, this scene is clearly one of “autoerotic displacement” and the fulfillment of the narrator’s sexual desire, which is more dominant than ever before (53). The shift of the narrator’s physical nature from one of boyhood to manhood, permeates the rest of text through “symbolic suggestion” such as the symbolically erotic objects for sale in the final scene at the bazaar (Brandabur 53). As a result of this transition, the reader is no longer able to view the intentions of the boy in his romantic quest as solely innocent. Instead, his actions must be considered at least in part to be a sexual conquest, thereby highlighting his loss of physical innocence.

While the narrator looses his physical innocence, he also experiences a loss of spiritual and emotional innocence. Via religious allusions and undertones, Joyce suggests even religion is corrupt and will fail as a cornerstone of strength for his narrator. Immediately, Joyce established a connection between religion and his narrator by stating that the narrator attended the “Christian Brother’s School” and resided in a home once occupied by a priest (15). However, these images are juxtaposed by their description, for example, with the clarification that priest had “died in the back drawing room” (Joyce 15). By aligning the spiritual with negative description, Joyce portrays his utter disgust for the “decay of the church,” also suggesting the eminent loss of the church, faith, and spirituality from within the boy (Atherton 44). This loss of spiritual innocence is foreshadowed early on, with Joyce’s inclusion of the narrator’s own garden of eden residing in his back yard: a “wild garden” containing a “central apple-tree” (15). On the day of the bazaar, which fell on the “night of Our Lord,” the narrator ignored his religious duties and instead engaged with the profane world (Joyce 18). This decision is what ultimately led to the “fall of the coins”, the fall of man, and the fall of the narrator from spiritual innocence (Joyce 19). By incorporating the religious construction of the garden of eden and original sin, Joyce was able to both symbolically depict his narrator’s loss of spiritual innocence while also describing his revulsion for the Church.

Although the narrator appears initially unaware of his own journey of revelation, Joyce uses vivid imagery and purposefully included details to convey the narrators original awareness of enlightenment. After receiving his duty of service to his lady – to bring her back a gift from the Araby bazaar – the narrator returns home “mounting the staircase” to watch his “companions playing in the street below” (Joyce 17). By including this vivid description of the narrator’s literal ascendance over and separation from his young friends, the narrator is no longer portrayed as a child, with the same child-like innocence of his playmates in the street. Furthermore, Joyce has the narrator go on to lean his “forehead against the cool glass” as he “looked over at the dark house where she lived” (18). This is one of the first moments of distinct revelation for the narrator who realized that in order to achieve his quest he “must escape the vivacious sounds and warmth of life” and instead inhabit a state “where passion freezes through the operation of intellect” (Brandabur 54). In this precisely described moment, the narrator reveals his new found understanding: in order to successfully achieve his romantic conquest he will have to forgo his previous state of innocent and passionate being embodied by his friends below, and instead be present in the real world. The narrator, at this point, is aware that he is neither who he was nor who he will be. Instead he is captivated in a realm of enlightenment where ignorance is dissolved and understanding gained.

The narrator’s epiphany at Araby finalizes his fall from innocence while also describing the inhibiting characteristics of the real world. The boy enters the bazaar to hear the “fall[ing] of the coins” in a darkening hall and “remembering with difficulty” why he had come (Joyce 19). The pairing of these phrases highlight the futility and meaninglessness of the boys fall from innocence; he has gone on a romantic quest only to arrive at a darkening, symbolic church to realize that neither romance nor faith have given him true meaning. He looks around the bazaar describing the overheard, flirtatious conversation between a saleswomen and two Englishmen. In that moment, the narrator appears to be second-class to the Englishmen, even though his journey has left him far more enlightened and wise than the other men; a disparity which exemplifies the unjust nature of the real world and his new “reality.” However, his final epiphany occurs after the narrator speaks to the dismissive saleswoman when, “gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger”(Joyce 19). In this moment, the narrator is forced to look both into the literal darkness of the hall and the “sad darkness of self awareness” (Brandabur 56). The narrator is finally able to “glimpse reality unadorned” (Stone 362). He comes to understand that his new reality, grounded in the real world, is a place where “everyday religion…is based upon self deluding and mindless materialism” and where romance is simply a mode of self deception (Stone 356). However, the narrator’s mood regarding his revelation is two fold. This paradox of emotions is conveyed through Joyce’s construction of the closing sentence which is initially heavy, even burdening to voice with the alliteration of the words “darkness,” “driven,” and “derided” (Joyce 19). The later part of the closing sentence includes the alliteration of the words “anguish” and “anger,” which instead roll off the tongue, disseminating into a peaceful tonality. This precise and distinctive sentence structure mirrors the feeling of the narrator: dismal and depressed that “one portion of his lie, his innocent, self-deluding childhood, is now behind him” while also relieved in the sense that he has discarded his vail of ignorance and is now enlightened to the reality of the world (Stone 366). In the end, Joyce conveys life and the efforts of his narrator as pitiful and futile; for the real world is governed by corruption, valuing materialistic and shallow ideals rather than enlightenment and knowledge, therefore, leaving the narrator no better off than when he initially began his journey.

Society often stresses the importance of “growing up,” of assimilating and conforming to the expectations that govern one’s culture. Although this transition, from the world of innocence and illusion to the world of reality is essentially eminent, its not necessarily enviable or desirable. Instead, Joyce depicts the loss of innocence to be mournful through his narrator’s experience. The narrator’s initial zeal, passion and naivety towards life is obvious, appearing in stark contrast to the seemingly lifeless world around him. However, as the narrator begins his quest, Joyce catalyzes his loss of innocence, first physically and then spiritually, ultimately thrusting him into a state of unjust chaos — also known as the real world — where materialism and pessimism reign supreme. Joyce presents the world of illusion as white and the world of reality as black, with a small street in between: a one way street, connecting the world of illusion to the world of reality, whose toll requires the non-refundable payment of one’s innocence.

Works Cited

Atherton, J.S. “Araby.” James Joyce’s Dubliners: Critical Essays. Ed. Clive Hart. New York:

Viking, 1969. 39-47. Print.

Brandabur, Edward. A Scrupulous Meanness; a Study of Joyce’s Early Work. Urbana: U of Illinois, 1971. Print.

“Irving Howe at Lifehack Quotes.” Quote by Irving Howe. Lifehack Quotes, n.d. Web. 20

Oct. 2015. <>

Joyce, James. “Araby.” Dubliners. New York: Dover Publications, 1991. 15-19. Print.

Power, Chris. “Darkness in Literature: James Joyce’s Araby.” The Guardian, 20 Dec. 2012. Web. 20 Oct. 2015. < booksblog/ 2012/dec/20/ darkness-literature-james-joyce-araby>.

Stone, Harry. “”Araby” and the Writings of James Joyce.” Dubliners: Text, Criticism, and Notes.

Ed. James Joyce, Robert E. Scholes, and A. Walton. Litz. New York: Penguin, 1976.

344-67. Print.

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