Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.
Obstacles and Infatuation in James Joyce's 'Araby'
Have you ever had an overpowering crush on someone you saw often, but couldn't find a good way to get things started with them? The more entranced we are with someone, the more we resent the obstacles that stand between us and that person. We can sense this as the narrator of 'Araby' awaits his chance to go to the bazaar to get a gift for Mangan's sister. 'What innumerable follies laid waste my waking and sleeping thoughts after that evening! I wished to annihilate the tedious intervening days.'
The young unnamed narrator of James Joyce's 'Araby' is in love with the older sister of his friend, Mangan, who fortunately lives just across the street from him. However, a number of literal and figurative barriers keep her out of his reach. One of them is the fence around the house she lives in. This lesson will look at what that fence symbolizes in the story.
As a Social Taboo
Interestingly, the fence itself is barely there, at least in terms of the way the story is narrated. Joyce doesn't draw attention to it - in fact, the word 'fence' doesn't appear in 'Araby' at all.
Nonetheless, the 'railing' is both a literal and metaphorical barrier. Figuratively speaking, it can be read as a mild social taboo against making advances toward a close friend's sibling.
After an evening of horsing around with his friends, the narrator describes watching Mangan's sister appear on her doorstep to call her brother in to dinner. He 'stood by the railings looking at her. Her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.'
As an Invitation
One fateful evening, the narrator has the luck to have a semi-private conversation with her. 'Her brother and two other boys were fighting for their caps and I was alone at the railings. She held one of the spikes, bowing her head towards me.' In addition to her dejected posture, the narrator also can't help noticing how 'the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing.' He sneaks a glance at 'the white border of a petticoat' peeking out from under her dress.
This scene reveals several things: one is the narrator's sensual appreciation of her physical appearance. Another is the way Mangan's sister uses the fence to strike a dramatic posture, thereby getting the narrator's attention. By gripping the fence and looking downward, she's inviting him to start a somewhat intimate twilight conversation about why she's in such low spirits. As the narrator discovers, the cause of her 'distress' is that she can't go to the bazaar (limited-time market/festival) because she has to attend a retreat with her convent.
As a Romanticized Prison
In striking this pose with the fence, her body language also seems to subtly suggest that she wish it weren't there between them. She grips it in frustration, like a prisoner would the bars of a cell: it appears as an unwanted form of restraint. This fits in with her mention of the convent, another force that's restraining her from doing what she wants (going to the bazaar).
During this conversation, Mangan's sister twists a silver bracelet around her wrist. The bracelet is an accessory, and she'd probably like to have more, but she turns it while saying that she 'could not go' to the bazaar. This suggests she may want the narrator to associate the bracelet with unjust restraint - and it also hints at the kind of item she'd like him to bring her. It works: the narrator tells her, 'If I go. . . I'll bring you something.'
As a Romanticized Weapon
It's no accident that Mangan's sister is holding onto a spike on the railings rather than a flat section of it. As the narrator reiterates throughout the narrative, she 'lays waste' to his emotions. This expression is a battle metaphor. We think of armies as laying waste, or destroying, a captured city. In this context, we can read the spike she holds as a weapon, like a spear, knife, or sword.
However, because she 'bow[s] her head towards' the narrator as she holds the spike, we can also see her as a damsel in distress, passively conquering her knight or perhaps bestowing an honor on him. Initially, the narrator views her power over him in a kind of pleasurably romantic and fatalistic sense, enjoying the fact that 'her name was a summons to all my foolish blood.'
At the end of the story, however, he feels ashamed of and disillusioned with his own fantasy, which falls flat in the crude materialistic context of the closing 'Araby' bazaar. 'I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.'
We've learned that the fence in James Joyce's 'Araby' represents one of many obstacles that prevent the story's narrator from achieving a romantic relationship with Mangan's sister. In addition to being a physical barrier, we can view the fence as a social taboo against getting romantically involved with a close friend's sibling. However, because the sister has a private conversation with the narrator at the fence, it's (ironically) also a form of an invitation to help a damsel in distress. Mangan's sister grips a spike on the fence and bows her head, striking a pose that suggests the fence is a prison for her (when in fact it's her convent that she views as prison-like). Alternatively, the railing spike can be seen as a kind of metaphorical weapon she holds, giving her power over the tender emotions of the adolescent narrator. He initially views this in an enjoyably romantic way, then later realizes that his foolish fantasy is the real weapon that has wounded him.
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