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The Illusion of Escapism in “Araby”

By Ally Marie McLean

Araby” by James Joyce explores the feelings associated with the pursuit of illusory escapism from a life of drudgery. The protagonist, an unnamed Dublin schoolboy at the turn of the century, takes little pleasure from his daily life. He finds a distraction from the doldrums in daydreaming of Mangan’s sister, a girl who lives in his neighborhood. After a prolonged period of nervous agonizing, the protagonist works up the confidence to talk to Mangan’s sister. He promises to go to Araby, a local bazaar, and bring something back for her. However, unforeseen complications cause the protagonist to arrive at Araby just as it is closing, and the venue does not live up to his expectations. Unable to bring anything back from the bazaar, the protagonist is confronted with the crushing realization that his quest for escapism has been fruitless, and ultimately, pointless.

Throughout “Araby,” the story’s protagonist bemoans the dreariness of his surroundings. For example, when the protagonist  accompanies his aunt to the market in one scene, he describes “the curses of laborers, the shrill litanies of shop-boys… the nasal chanting of street singers” (597). This is juxtaposed with the allure of Araby and Mangan’s sister. Descriptions of Mangan’s sister and the narrator’s hopes for Araby are the only times we see the protagonist express anything other than boredom and situational anguish. These offer brief relief for the protagonist, a glimpse of escape from the drudgery of daily life, his schoolwork, the daily commute, and so on. One instance of this escapist behavior can be seen in the aforementioned market scene, where the protagonist likens daydreaming of Mangan’s sister to carrying a chalice “safely through a throng of foes” (598). After working up the courage to talk to Mangan’s sister, and embarking on his quest to retrieve something from Araby for her, the protagonist’s situational anguish seems to worsen, and the setting seems to become even more dismal. Now, rather than coming to terms with the reality of his situation, the protagonist chooses to focus on daydreaming, only magnifying his discontent with life in Dublin. As the protagonist recounts: “I wished to annihilate the tedious intervening days… I chafed against the work of school” (599).

The symbolism found in “Araby” also helps to illustrate the theme of illusory escapism from an oppressive environment. The narrator opens the short story with a description of the dead end street that the main character lives on. This can be seen as metaphor for the lives of Dublin’s inhabitants, which seem to be doomed to dead ends and drudgery. In such an oppressive environment, it is clear that Dublin is not a place where one has time for love. The impersonality of everyday relations is juxtaposed with the imagined warmth of Mangan’s sister’s company, and the allure of Araby. The dead end of the protagonist’s street can be seen as a metaphor for the hollowness of success in a place devoid of hope, where individuals seem to be suffocating under austere institutions, without any real chance of mobility. Araby, in contrast, can be seen as a symbol of the allure of the unknown, of escape to another time and place. During the period between his initial conversation with Mangan’s sister and his pilgrimage to Araby, the narrator describes how “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” (599).

The story progression of Araby follows classic plot structure, and the protagonist’s development can be divided into three stages. The story’s exposition finds the protagonist, infatuated with Mangan’s sister, looking to break away from the bleakness of everyday life. It is here that we find the protagonist in the first stage of his development. He is confronted with the harsh reality of his surroundings, the oppressive atmosphere of industrial Dublin, and instead of coming to terms with this, he daydreams of escape, and projects this daydream on Mangan’s sister. The rising action of the story takes place following his conversation with Mangan’s sister, when the protagonist begins his quest to arrive at fabled Araby, and perhaps earn affection from Mangan’s sister. It is here that we see the second stage of the protagonist’s development as a character. No longer is he simply unhappy with the drudgery of daily life in Dublin. Now, our protagonist has become impatient, waiting for the moment when he can finally bring something from Araby to Mangan’s sister. And finally, the third stage of the protagonist’s development is found at the story’s conclusion, when the escape offered by Araby and Mangan’s sister is revealed, ultimately, to be a mirage. The denouement of the story takes place when the protagonist succumbs to the futility of his endeavor, abandoning the loose ends he had pursued throughout the story. In the aftermath of his disillusionment, he is left with nothing but the bleak existence he had sought to escape.

James Joyce’s “Araby” is an illustration of the effects of attempts at escapism in the face of an oppressive environment. Through the story’s setting, a dreary Dublin dead end street culminating in an abandoned house, the senses are shocked by the possibility of escape, the allure of something better. The symbolism found in the story is intertwined with the setting, in a way, with the dead end street representing Dublin life, juxtaposed with the allure of Araby, a symbol of escape. The story’s progression follows the development of the character as he goes from daydreaming of something better in a dismal setting to being crushed by the realization that escape was never really obtainable.

Works Cited

Joyce, James. “The Author’s Work as Context: James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners'” The Norton Introduction to Literature. Comp. Kelly J. Mays. 11th ed. New York, London: W.W. Norton, 2013. 592-647. Print.

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