A Life of Unbalance
Somewhere off the coast of Europe, upon a land filled with fantasy and folklore, is an island that bears the name of Ireland. Ask the Irish to describe this mystical country, and discover that more often than not, between blessing the patron saint, Patrick, and searching for leprechauns holding pots of gold, they will mention the religion that surrounds itself around their soil. The people of Ireland are steadfast believers in Catholicism, a culture that was—still is—prominent, especially in the 1800s. But with this culture, there comes an absence of freedom—a privilege that many Irish seek. In the short story “Araby”, by James Joyce, the narrator—an anonymous boy—recounts his childhood in Dublin, the capital of Ireland, during a substantive period of Catholicism. Yearning to escape confinement in cultural entrapment, the narrator sets his heart on a girl, daydreaming about a future with her. Throughout the story, however, the narrator is anything but certain about his true feelings for Mangan’s sister, and Joyce uses his confusion, his desperation to escape entrapment, and his disillusionment to illustrate the dangers a lack of freedom can pose.
The narrator’s confused adoration for Mangan’s sister conveys a dismal lack of freedom. Near the beginning of the story, his passionate feelings for her seem to be clear—absolute, even. As if he were an actor, the boy undoubtedly manages to convince the people around him—especially himself—that his love for Mangan’s sister is profound. But by looking between the lines, one will notice the difficult internal struggles he has with himself whenever her image appears in his mind. Every morning and every night, not knowing “whether [he] would ever speak to her or not or, if [he] spoke to her, how [he] could tell her of [his] confused adoration,” the narrator shows that he has not yet developed the maturity for a relationship. It is almost as if the narrator does not want to ever speak with Mangan’s sister, because “when she addresse[s] the first words to [him he] is so confused that [he] [does] not know what to answer.” This uncanny sense of bemusement is the first sign that the narrator, deep down, has mixed feelings for her. Even though he is unconsciously aware of this, Mangan’s sister is nothing more than a preoccupation, something to merely occupy his days and help him forget about the presence of a cultural entrapment that has enclosed his life. It is only at the end of the story when the narrator realizes he is “a creature driven and derided by vanity,” and how his “feelings” for Mangan’s sister are nothing but a murky illusion.
The narrator is consumed by desperation to escape entrapment, which further illustrates the dangers of a lack of freedom. As a boy living in an era overflowing with Catholicism, the narrator has proved, through his actions, how desperate he is to escape that society. Such confirmation can be observed after his brisk conversation with Mangan’s sister. Filled with great joy, “innumerable follies laid waste [his] waking and sleeping thoughts after that evening.” But the emotions do not conclude there; it continued to dwarf the narrator’s life, calling out to him through his thoughts, his words, even in class, as “[he] watche[s] [his] master’s face pass from amiability to sternness.” Such an extreme reaction to an opportunity, as in the narrator’s case, is unorthodox. But it is vital to consider the great power that Mangan’s sister holds before the boy; the freedom he is seeking for. Thus, fueled by audacity to escape his current life, the narrator matures beyond his years, his past life “seem[ing] to [him] child’s play, ugly monotonous child’s play.” But his journey to find liberty is unsuccessful because when the boy reaches Araby, he has an awakening and realizes the truth of his desire. Mangan’s sister is like a fictional character in his fantasy world. He realizes that there has never been any freedom to be gained from her since the beginning.
Perhaps the biggest consequence of a lack of freedom would be the disillusionment that can take place. Throughout the story, there is hardly any reason for the boy to actually like Mangan’s sister. The fact that they have nothing in common—not age nor personality or even a conversation—indicates that the eventual disillusionment will be inescapable. Yet, it is her utopian spirit, her aura, that makes her perfect in the eyes of the narrator. And naturally so, when Mangan’s sister introduces “the syllables of the word Araby…[his] soul luxuriate[s] and cast[s] an Eastern enchantment over [him].” This outlook, however, proves to be nothing but folly, as the narrator suffers innumerable disappointments, starting with his uncle’s disdainful reaction, to the “silence like that which pervades a church after a service” once he arrives at the Bazaar. It is only then that the boy realizes that Araby is not what he—or even Mangan’s sister—would have envisioned. At this moment, he grasps the simple harshness of reality: he does not like this way of life. He doesn’t like Mangan’s sister. Not even enough to talk to her, never mind spending sixpence to purchase a porcelain vase for her. Fantasy, he discovers, is what paves the path to disillusionment—and freedom has not once been found by vanity.
Daniel Smith once said, “Live a life that is well balanced; don’t do things in excess.” But in “Araby,” the narrator lives a life quite the opposite of that. He is a slave to cultural entrapment; someone desperately seeking freedom, only to find more confinement in the end. The cage that he is trapped inside is one that takes away every bit of his liberty. Mangan’s sister is the only key that can open the door and set him free, becoming a significant part of his fantasy world. Having little choice but to set his mind on her, he experiences a confused sense of adoration in her presence, ever-growing desperation to escape with her, and because of that, is left with nothing more than disillusionment. In the process of doing so, he loses his innocence and childhood; two qualities that can never be earned back. Upon finishing the story, one will notice that James Joyce firmly believes in a society that does not excessively place culture above all else. Balance and freedom are intimately entwined—lose one of them, and the other will follow.