The central figure in Joyce’s short story Araby is a boy. The author speaks in the first person through the boy, who is as such his own self. Joyce actually presents here his own boyhood experience during his stay in the city of Dublin with his uncle and aunt.
Of course, Araby is no conventional story of external action and sensations. It is, in fact, all about a young boy’s fascination for a young girl not much known to him, and his lingering longing for Araby, an oriental fete held in Dublin, in 1894. The story also shows his frustration after visiting Araby, considered so much as a place of ideal beauty and charm. As a matter of fact, the story has symbolic overtones in a realistic setting. The central
character here is not merely an individual but rather the symbol of the frustrated human search for the ideal of beauty and romance. The character of the boy is to be studied from that particular perspective.
Of course, Joyce gives some touches of his own boyhood nature in the boy’s character. He makes his hero a psychologically interesting figure. The symbolic aspect of the story serves to present the boy from a psychological angle. What is more conspicuous in the boy’s nature is his romantic sensibility. He is no normal figure in the world. He is possessed of too much vigor of the romantic sensibility that is found active all through. The romantic sensibility draws the boy somewhat inexplicably to Mangan’s sister. His romantic mind is fascinated by her. He is eager to have a little sight of or contact with her. Of course, he has the least communication with her, and there is no scope for the development of any relationship between them. But the boy is haunted by her dream and her image seems to accompany him even in a noisiest commercial environment of Dublin.
The boy’s romantic sensibility seems to develop a kind of passion of love in him. Of course, he is too young to understand what love is or to know the significance of sex. Yet, somehow or other, he is drawn to her absolutely and this is nothing but love, though different from the conventional view of love. The boy’s own words to himself reveal the inexplicable sense of love that possesses his mind. He murmurs within himself ‘O love!, O love!’ many times.
Another strongly noted feature in the boy’s psychology is his strong imaginative power. Of course, this follows naturally from his romantic temper. He is fascinated by the vision of Araby. His romantic imagination is allured by the call of Araby which he looks upon as an ideal center of pomp and splendor. He has no actual knowledge of Araby, noted for oriental magnificence. But in his mind’s eye, he has an enchanting vision of Araby that spells him.
“The syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me.”
The intensity of his romantic and imaginative sensibility makes the boy rather restive. He is not presented as a steady and firm personality. In fact, he is vitally impulsive and his mind is easily impressionable. He feels disturbed, rather agitated, by his dream of life, as it delays to prove real to him. This is clearly seen in the matter of his plan to visit Araby. During the period, intervening between his decision and actual visit, he appears impatient, and he is unable to concentrate his attention seriously on any work. His own words well mark his mental state that is too eager to fulfill his dream of life.
“I had hardly any patience with the serious work of life which, now that it stood between me and my desire, seemed to me child’s play, ugly monotonous child’s play.”
Araby is a psychological story like Katherine Mansfield’s The Fly. Katherine Mansfield’s hero is an aged man, but Joyce’s hero is a boy and he presents the adolescent psychology here. The transition from boyhood to adulthood involves some sort of mental stir and ripples and Joyce tries to represent the same through the portrait of the picture of his own boyhood.
The story is a tragedy, but no conventional one. It is the tragedy of the frustration of the mind. The boy’s vision remained unfulfilled and his long-cherished ideal is not at all realized. His impulsive, romantic nature is cut to the quick by his sad and disappointing experience at Araby. His agonized mental state is precisely expressed in the concluding sentence of the story and this marks the tragic frustration of a mind that aspires after an ideal
which is unrealizable in a hard drab realistic world:
“Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity, and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”