James Joyce's Araby: Tone & Theme

Instructor: Kevin Watson

Kevin has taught college English and has master's degrees in Applied Linguistics and Creative Writing.

In James Joyce's short story 'Araby,' the tone and theme show the author's feelings and attitudes toward his characters. In this lesson, we explore how this is revealed through the author's choice of plot points and language.

Coming of Age

James Joyce's short story ''Araby'' follows an adolescent's sudden awakening of feelings for a girl and the obsession with her that follows. This leads to changes in the boy's view towards her, his friends, and authority. The story shows the boy's view of the events contrasted with the adult author's greater awareness.

The Author's Attitude in Detail

The tone of ''Araby'' reveals author James Joyce's attitude toward the story. First, there is the city of Dublin, described as pathetic and depressing. The first sentence demonstrates this attitude toward the city: The street is ''blind'' or a dead end, and the town is a drab, lifeless description. The houses all gaze at one another ''with brown, imperturbable faces.''

But this description is shattered by the young boys birthed into the neighborhood at the end of school. The exhilaration and energy of the boys brings the dead streets back to life. The boys seem blind to the gloom the author sees; they haven't yet been absorbed into the world of adult resignation.

Optimism and Pessimism Run Together

The pessimistic tone toward the town is interwoven with the optimistic tone toward the boys. In the evening, the cold air stings and the houses grow ''somber'' as they walk down ''dark muddy lanes'' past ''dark, dripping gardens where odors arose from ashpits''. Clearly, Joyce holds no esteem for this place yet paints the boys above this melancholy, their hearts still filled with hope, imagination, and possibility. There is a triumphant tone about their play, the way their ''bodies glow'' while others are merely ''shadow.''

Skepticism Toward the Catholic Church

The former owner of the boy's home was a priest who died in the house. The back room was littered with ''useless papers'' and filled with mustiness. He describes the priest as ''charitable'' for leaving his furniture to his sister but his money to institutions. However, is there charity in leaving what you cannot use any longer? Joyce uses the boy's view of the church to show an ironic tone and skepticism.

Sexual Awakening

Later, when the narrator recalls his infatuation for Mangan's sister, the language grows sensual with a hint of erotic awakening. The boy sees ''her figure defined by the light of the half-opened door.'' The sudden awareness goes on: ''her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair swung from side to side.''

The narrator then says, ''Her image accompanied me even in places most hostile to romance.'' These imaginary threats play into his tale of chivalry: ''I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes.''

Then the poet within arises, but not without stumbling when he says, ''My body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running across the wires.'' His thoughts are so jumbled that he substitutes the word wires for strings. Finally, he goes over the top with ''Oh love, o love...what innumerable follies laid waste my waking and sleeping thoughts that evening.'' All of this shows the narrator's amused tone as he looks back on this first crush.

Magic and Reality

On the way to the bazaar called Araby, the boy recalls his ride on a train that passes a river to arrive at the destination bearing the ''magical name.'' His imagination glorifies everything he sees while he anticipates fulfilling his quest to find a gift for Mangan's sister. His hopefulness is contrasted with the author's hint of the coming disappointment that Araby will bring. The adult narrator recalls the same event with less color, a ''third-class carriage of a deserted train'' repeated immediately after as being ''alone in a bare carriage.'' The stark difference shows the boy's fantasy versus the adult's reality.

Disappointment arrives as the boy walks through Araby as it's closing down. There is no exotic feel at all, only English accents in the mundane banter of ''I did not'' and ''yes, you did.'' For the boy, the place has no charm at all.

And the child and adult attitudes converge, and all the fantasies end up in darkness.

The Bigger Picture

The themes of a story are the larger statements the author makes about its characters. They can be stated directly or implied. In ''Araby,'' Joyce accomplishes this through the boy's memories.

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