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This story is set in a ‘blind street’ in a drab Dublin neighborhood. Here the houses-‘conscious of decent lives within them gazed at one another with brown, imperturbable faces.’ The boy lives in a gloomy house where a priest had died. The yard contains a single apple tree and straggling bushes. The children of the neighborhood play till late in the dim light offered by the ‘feeble lanterns’ in the dark, muddy lanes or behind the gardens where ‘odors arose from the ash-pits.’
Against this background the boy discovers three old damp books: Walter Scott’s "The Abbot", "The Devout Communicant"; and "The Memoirs of Vidocq." Between these "curled and damp" tomes and the romantic figure of his friend Mangan’s young sister the boy creates a shadowy, fantasy world. Though she lives in the opposite house and is his friend’s sister he has never spoken to her but for "a five casual words, and yet her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood." He carries her image in his mind even in the filthy market place, "feeling that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes." He lies awake in the morning, watching her door. Sometimes, his eyes fill with tears without his knowing why. He would, at times, "press my trembling hands together murmuring ‘ O love! O love!’ many times.
Finally, the girl of his dreams speaks to him! She tells him of a bazaar fantastically named ‘Araby’ that she longs to visit. She can’t, as her convent is to have a retreat that week. The boy promises that if he can go, he will get her something from Araby. All week he is haunted by images of her, and of the bazaar, the name of which lends it "an Eastern enchantment." He asks his uncle and aunt for permission to visit the bazaar. They agree. On Saturday, he reminds his uncle of it. That gentleman absent-mindedly agrees, but forgets to give him any money for the trip.
There is an agonizing wait all day for his uncle to return and give him the money. His aunt is sympathetic but helpless. She has a visitor, whose presence becomes unbearable to the boy. Finally, the uncle returns at nine that night. He is apologetic about forgetting and gives him a florin. Inspired by the tittle of the bazaar, he recites "The Arab’s Farewell to his Steed" an old poem, while the frantic boy rushes out.
It is past ten, when he arrives at last. Most of the stalls have been closed for the night. People are counting their day’s takings. The boy finds one stall open where porcelain objects are on display. The girl attendant is busy flirting with two young men. She asks him "out of a sense of duty" if he wants something. He knows he is short of money for any of the items there. By now, the lights are being switched off. The boy is totally dejected at not completing his objective. He sees himself as "a creative driven and derided by vanity."
This third story based on childhood reveals the pain and pleasure of the first stirrings of romantic love. The boy’s loneliness, his dependence on his relatives, his age and his depressing surroundings all contribute to his situation. The dream like attraction to his friend’s pretty sister is a natural consequence. That she is an object of fantasy is clear from his preference for mooning about, hoping for glimpses of her from his window. He doesn’t make any effort to talk or spend time with her, until she expresses a commonplace wish to him.
The name, "Araby", given to an ordinary travelling fair, sets him off on flights of fancy. He imagines it, an enchanted Eastern place from which he will carry off an exotic gift for his fair lady. Even this is not possible because of his uncle’s forgetfulness, the late hour and the inattentive sales girl. But his frustration goes far beyond these prosaic factors. Partly because of his helpless dependence on his uncle, and partly because of his almost religious fervor for the girl, his dejection is total. A contrast to his romantic adoration, is the shop girl’s inane flirtation with the two young men. There is no dragon to conquer but the petty, earthly obstacles in his way cannot be overcome, and therefore he views himself with much disgust at the end.
This boy could very well be the same as the protagonist in the earlier stories. His preoccupation with romance shows that he is somewhat older than in the earlier tales. Like the other boys, he lives with an aunt and uncle and is given to books and fantasy.
As in "An Encounter", his attempt at entering the sphere of action is frustrated and the episode ends in failure and a reduced sense of self-worth. The boy is reduced in his own estimation after failing to achieve his purpose at the bazaar. The conversation of the sales girls with her friends repels him and fills him with disgust.
In his first romantic experience, the boy prefers to dream from a distance-the girls name is not mentioned even her appearance is never evoked in an earthy manner-"The light from the lamp...caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there, and falling, lit up the hand that rested there." This is enough to fuel his desire to carry out a romantic mission. His bookishness and the deep imprint of a religious conditioning is revealed in him.
PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS
The plot is repetitive here. The boy’s surroundings and his personality are filled in at the start, followed by his fantasy romance. The girls casually expressed wish then leads to his ‘quest’, which ends in failure. The failure and the conversation at the stall acts as a revelation to the boy, making him conscious of the unreality of his romance and his inability to change this.
The theme is as in the first two stories that of the experience of growing-up. The teenage boy, just beginning to become aware of girls, dresses up his infatuation with religious images. His failure to fulfill his lady’s wishes brings him down to earth.
SYMBOLISM / MOTIFS / IMAGERY / SYMBOLS
Joyce dwells on the ‘blind street’ and the houses with imperturbable faces, revealing the boy’s loneliness and the drabness of his home region. The ‘curled and damp’ books are powerful forces in his life, offering him a romantic world of fantasy and escape. The fantasy aspect of his attraction towards the girl is stressed in the ‘chalice’ image, which bears high through the dirt and grime of the market place. The use of the chalice image is very different from its use in "The Sisters."