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Despite the often automatic preconception in literature that darkness and negativity are inextricably linked, darkness is first a protective and natural force of childhood on North Richmond Street. The narrator first mentions darkness when describing the sunset, naming the children’s time of play as beginning in dusk. While the darkness flows into the street, “the space of sky above…was the colour of ever-changing violet,” and the streetlamps ineffectively endeavor to bring light back by casting “their feeble lanterns” (Joyce, 1). This powerfully romantic image emerges as the first signal that Joyce’s contrast between light and darkness will not be a traditional, bland one. And describing the sky at sunset as “ever-changing” establishes that the coming darkness cannot be responsible for or indicative of the stuck and paralyzed Dublin that Joyce repeatedly illustrates in both Araby and Dubliners. Instead, light appears as potentially negative, intruding into the darkness, attempting to destroy even the beautiful sunset. The children then roughhouse in this darkness, “[running] the gauntlet of the rough tribes” (1). Joyce uses several details defined by darkness to describe their play, which lend a mysterious and magical air to the night. The children run around in “dark muddy lanes” and “dark dripping gardens” and can hear a stable boy “[shake] music from [a] buckled harness” in the stables, all of which are beautifully wild images. Joyce does not pretend that such play could be perfectly sweet, highlighting strange odours and ashpits, but the scene appears childish and wild and innocent, free of any misery or suffering.
In sharp contrast, light comes to represent corruptive effect of Dublin’s society on its children. While the children delight in their night games, they escape from the harshness of the world, avoiding adults and “[hiding] in the shadow” (1). When Mangan’s sister steps out to call the children inside, they only agree when she “remain[s]” outside the door for a while and then they do so “resignedly”, torn from their comforting shadows into the cruel adult world of Dublin (1). Mangan himself “[teases] her,” but even he has no choice but to go into the light (1), emphasizing that all children are eventually forced into the adult world. And it is only once in this light that the boy first describes his attraction to Mangan’s sister, underscoring that darkness, or anything it might represent, is not the cause of what he later describes as “vanity” (5). He says that “her figure [was] defined by the light from the half-opened door”, reducing her to a representative of the light and virtually nothing else (2). The boy’s only descriptions of her are aesthetic, detailing “the soft rope of her hair” and “dress sw[inging]” (2), which only increases the importance of her figure as defined by light. In his only conversation with Mangan’s sister, the boy focuses primarily on “the light…the lamp opposite our door [catching] the white curve of her neck, [lighting] up her hair…and hand” (2). Only in the light does the boy feels any attraction towards Mangan’s sister, an attraction purely superficial and without basis in anything meaningful. All signs indicate that light, despite any preconceptions to the contrary, is a force that children would rather avoid and should not be one in which they spend time.
Joyce uses the motifs of light and darkness to stress the repressive and harmful Dublin society and the comforting freedom of childhood, respectively. After the boy is yanked into the light of the adult world, he acts in a manner unhealthy for a boy of his age. When he aids his aunt in the marketplace, the boy describes a scene best described as vulgar and one typical to Dublin society. Tellingly, Joyce describes the marketplace as “flaring”, an indication that this perverse scene is another part of the cruel Dublin society represented by the light (2). The boy only can escape from this horror when he returns to the safety of the dark. On a “dark rainy evening”, the boy kneels in the back room and feels “thankful that [he] could see so little” (2). But through a “broken [window] pane” that lead to the outside world, where “some distant lamp or lighted window gleamed”, even the rain serves to bother the boy (2). He describes the seemingly innocuous raindrops as “[impinging]…incessant needles…playing in the sodden beds”, using both violent and sexual imagery (2). The boy later states that the “gloomy rooms liberated me and I went from room to room singing” while waiting for his uncle to return home , indicating that darkness not only protects but actually saves him (3). But the moment he looks outside at Mangan’s sister’s house, he remembers the image of her “curved neck” bathed in light and “may have stood there for an hour” (3). Even the memory of light, this hint at Dublin’s cruel society, figuratively and literally paralyzes the boy in place.
Given this understanding of light and dark’s meaning in Araby, it becomes clearer that the story, in keeping with the rest of Dubliners, is more of an exposure of the harmful effects of Dublin society than a sign of any hope of change. A common explanation of Joyce’s use of light and dark in Araby claims that the narrator finds himself stuck in the horrible gloominess of North Richmond Street, develops a crush on Mangan’s glowing sister, and ultimately realizes, in the face of the darkened and bleak bazaar, that he was “a creature driven and derided by vanity,” foolishly focused on the immaterial and unimportant (5). But this theory, no matter how simple, ignores Araby’s role in the Dubliners collection both chronologically and thematically. Joyce ordered his stories to follow the progression through “childhood, adolescence, maturity, and public life”, and as Araby is only the third piece in the collection, it seems likely that Araby belongs to the classification of childhood. A simplistic interpretation of the light and dark motifs would have no choice but to posit that a young boy of maybe twelve is truly is nothing more than a creature.
Throughout all of Dubliners, Joyce carefully uses the last line of his stories to either stress an earlier theme or to highlight an entirely new point. But if the last line is a true epiphany, then Joyce gives great hope for the future because the boy understands the error of his ways and will presumably change himself, better himself. This stands in stark contrast to the theme of a paralytic Dublin that Joyce consistently portrays. Joyce would certainly not write so sloppily as to unintentionally offer major counterexamples to what he considered the “offal” of Dublin. Rather, the boy’s epiphany was a false one, an ironic realization. The boy believes that his vanity was the problem when Joyce really means to demonstrate that any society which would make a child consider himself a creature is repressive and harmful. Once again, the reader sees that Dublin’s paralyzed society as a whole is to blame, not just a few individuals. Without the motifs of light and darkness, this fullest comprehension of Araby might be very difficult to glean.
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