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Irony in Araby by James Joyce

Instructor: Clayton Tarr

Clayton has taught college English and has a PhD in literature.

In this lesson, you will learn about irony in James Joyce's short story 'Araby.' You'll also look at how blindness relates to the narrator's concluding epiphany.

What Is Irony?

Irony may be the most incorrectly used term in literary studies. Alanis Morissette may be partially to blame. For her 1995 song ''Ironic,'' which is about ''rain on your wedding day,'' among other things, is really all about coincidences.

Irony is not coincidence. Rather, irony is an incongruity between what readers or a character expect and what actually occurs. Authors often use irony to demonstrate a life lesson about expectations versus reality.

James Joyce's Dubliners and ''Araby''

James Joyce's Dubliners is a collection of short stories published in 1914. Not surprisingly, all of the stories are set in Dublin, Ireland. Most of the stories in the collection feature what is called an epiphany, which is an abstract claim about the human experience.

''Araby'' begins on a drab Dublin street full of lower middle class families who struggle financially. The children on the street play through the cold. Joyce demonstrates that the children are crossing over from innocence to experience. The protagonist of the story, an unnamed narrator, becomes obsessed with the sister of Mangan, one of his friends. He watches her through a window, and during a thunderstorm he has an erotic self-encounter.

The narrator finally works up the courage to speak to Mangan's sister. However, his nerves get the best of him, and he cannot recall the details of the conversation. He does remember that she asks him whether he is going to Araby, a local bazaar. She cannot go because she must attend a retreat with her convent.

Now the narrator knows that he must go to Araby in order to buy a gift for Mangan's sister. He waits patiently for his uncle to return home from work and is forced to wait even longer through dinner. Finally, his uncle gives him a paltry sum of money. It is late; however, so the narrator must rush to get there and buy his gift quickly.

Once he arrives, he sees a world of wonder. But this wonder is quickly dispelled when he looks at the small knick-knacks that he can afford. He cannot get the full attention of the young woman who works at the stall because she is engaged in a frivolous, flirty conversation with another young man. The narrator thus experiences his epiphany: ''I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.''

Dubliners Title Page
Joyce, Dubliners

Blindness in ''Araby'' as Irony

The theme of blindness begins almost immediately in ''Araby.'' The street the narrator lives on is ''blind,'' meaning both that there is no view from the houses and that the street does not communicate with the rest of the world.

When the narrator begins to spy on Mangan's sister, he does so through window ''blinds,'' which is a subtle wordplay indicating that he is not actually seeing. Joyce also sets up the narrator's blindness through the narrator's description of Mangan's sister. She is indistinct, only body and clothes, a ''brown figur'' with no specific features other than being a woman in the narrator's world of sexual awakening.

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