Summary of James Joyce's "Araby"

by Thomas Colbyry

James Joyce included "Araby" in his 1914 short story collection "Dubliners." Like many of the stories in "Dubliners," "Araby" features a young male narrator whose name the reader does not learn. It is the story of how the boy fell in love with his friend Mangan's sister and attempted to buy a present for her from "Araby," a traveling bazaar.

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Setting

The boy lives with his aunt and uncle in Dublin during the late 19th century in a house once occupied by a priest. The priest has died recently, and the boy examines what remains of the priest's effects, finding some tattered books and a "rusty bicycle-pump." It is winter, but this does not deter the boy and his friends from gathering to play in the streets or spy on his alcoholic uncle.

Mangan's Sister

The narrator's best friend is a boy named Mangan, about whom the reader learns almost nothing, other than that he has an older sister -- a sister with whom the narrator is in love. In the evening when Mangan returns from play, the narrator waits intently for her to appear in the doorway. He watches her closely, with a lyrical, and surprisingly mature, eye for physical beauty: "Her dress swung as she moved her body, and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side."

Idealized Love

One day the boy decides to follow Mangan's sister as she leaves her home: "When she came out on the doorstep my heart leaped. I ran to the hall, seized my books and followed her." He does not dare speak to her, however, and later when he finds himself thinking about her, while performing chores for his aunt and during his idle hours, his love for Mangan's sister begins to adopt an almost religious quality: "Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand. . . I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration."

Araby

The boy tells us somewhat abruptly about the first words he exchanges with Mangan's sister: "At last she spoke to me." She asks him whether or not he will be going to Araby, which, the reader learns, is a kind of traveling bazaar. She says she will not be able to attend because of a retreat at convent school she attends. He promises to bring her a gift from Araby, and he spends the next few days amid a quasi-religious ecstasy at the prospect of attending the fair, which he describes in fantastic, Orientalist language, and later giving her his present.

Disappointment

When the day of the bazaar comes, the boy's uncle, who had promised he could attend, stays out late -- the narrator hints that his uncle was drinking -- and the boy nearly misses his chance. His uncle hands him a florin, however, and he sets off for the bazaar. When he arrives, he is disappointed to realize most of the vendors have closed their stalls. One stall still open is minded by a young woman, who is engaged in conversation with two young men. The nature of their conversation is implicitly sexual. Almost immediately the boy becomes disillusioned: Araby has turned out to be a grave, commercial affair ("I listened to the fall of the coins"), and he recognizes beneath the idealized love he felt for Mangan's sister the same sordid lust the two men feel for the vending woman.

About the Author

Thomas Colbyry is a writer living in Marquette, Mich. Currently pursuing a B.A. in English, he works as a writing tutor and contributes book reviews to several publications. Colbyry often covers topics related to literature, specializing in early modern, Restoration, 18th-century and Victorian British literature, as well as the literature of Japan.

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