James Joyce’s “Araby”: Coming out of the Cave
“Araby” is one of the most widely taught short stories from James Joyce’s Dubliners. Told in the first person from the perspective of a boy in his early teens who has an infatuation with a neighborhood girl (Mangan’s sister), “Araby” ends with a dark epiphany. The boy, who envisioned himself on a quest to purchase the girl some trinket at an Arab bazaar, ends up seeing himself as “a creature derided by vanity.” This complex story raises some fascinating literary questions about:
- Narrative point of view. The boy’s narrative voice is at once that of an adolescent and that of an older individual looking back on this episode in his life.
- Joyce’s method of “Scrupulous Meanness,” the economical Flaubertian attention to detail, in which all details resonate with symbolic or psychological meaning.
- Myth and Genre. The boy departs on an archetypal quest to gain a prize for his “princess.”
- Desire and male gaze. The reader follows the boy’s eyes as they settle suggestively on the often glowing features and body parts of Mangan’s sister.
- Sociological realism. The novel depicts the “blind” streets and daily rituals of the Dublin residents.
The text, however, pairs excellently with excerpts from Plato’s Republic or just The Allegory of the Cave. One of the most compelling dimensions of the story is epistemological, about how we see the world around us, often through illusion. The boy is deceived by his own physical vision (his eyes), one tinted by an adolescent desire that creates an illusory reality in his mind.
An ideal pairing would be to read and discuss The Allegory of the Cave first and then move to “Araby.” However, many of these philosophical questions can be asked about “Araby” alone, even if you haven’t read Plato. “Araby” alone or in conjunction with Plato could be a part of an early lesson on epistemology.
- How does Joyce foreground the idea that part of the purpose of this story is an examination of seeing? According to Joyce, how do we see reality? Can we trust the way we see the world?
- Introduce or tap into the notion of ontology. Is there a knowable and objective reality in this story? Can we know that reality through the boy’s eyes?
- Is the boy deceived? If so, why? What passages in the story might be examples of false or deceptive seeing? Is any objective "reality" knowable?
- Close read the fifth paragraph of the story beginning, “Her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance...” Psychologically, what is the boy doing here? What kind of “reality” is he constructing in his mind?
- Connect to the Cave. How is the boy in a cave? Does the boy ever realize, even in a small way, the cave that he is in? Do we see Platonic notions or imagery in this story?
- How might “Araby” reinforce, connect to, or question Plato’s theory of forms?
- What helps the boy see clearly? What pulls him out of the cave, even for a moment? What kinds of things begin to help you see that you yourself might be in a cave?
- Gender. How is the boy’s gaze gendered, i.e. how does it embody a male way of seeing the world? How would this story be different from a woman’s perspective? Do men and women see the world differently? Is epistemology gendered? Is philosophy gendered? Does Western philosophy reflect a mostly a male-centric way of looking at the world?