Themes of symbolic blindness and escapism

Araby,” one of the Dubliners short stories, James Joyce weaves imagery of death and darkness, sightlessness and esotericism. Through such symbolism, Joyce conveys central themes of symbolic blindness, escapism, and a lack of identity. The opening line of the tale describes North Richmond Street as “being blind,” as if the street itself would have the potential to see itself and its residents. Joyce further personifies the homes on North Richmond Street, focusing on imagery related to motifs of sight, light, and darkness: the houses: “gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.” Thus, the houses do have the potential to see each other. Furthermore, brownness, which is akin to darkness, is one of the main motifs of “Araby.” The buildings the narrator describes are brown, as is the skin of Mangan’s sister. Brownness signifies exoticism and the gypsy culture that the narrator describes. This gypsy or Arabic culture represents an esoteric world in which the narrator hopes to escape to and in which he may find himself. Thus, imagery of brownness and darkness represent the theme of escapism in “Araby.” Imagery of death also pervades the short story, and death imagery is closely connected to sensory deprivation and to escapism. Right from the start, the narrator notes how a priest died in his home. Thus, death and religion are also closely linked in “Araby.” Religion is portrayed as a form of escapism, as a link to another world. Later, the pawnbroker’s widow also exemplifies the conjunction of death and religion, as she “collected stamps for some pious purpose.” The juxtaposition with death, darkness, and religion creates a dreary, somber tone for the tale but also contribute to the narrator’s eventual epiphany and self-realization.

Moreover, Joyce’s deliberate withholding of the main characters’ names in the story reflects the unfulfilled quest for identity, or being blind to one’s true nature. Joyce provides the names only of a few minor characters such as Mangan and Mrs. Mercer. More major characters such as the narrator, Mangan’s sister, the uncle, and the dead priest are cloaked in mystery because Joyce withholds their names. Thus the reader is “in the dark” about their identities, just as the narrator is in the dark about his own identity as well as the identity of Mangan’s sister. The dark imagery in “Araby” underscores the narrator’s lack of selfhood and his simultaneous quest to escape his current reality. He is drawn to Mangan’s sister precisely because he does not know her and does not know her culture. He constantly fantasizes about her, escaping the dreary world of his daily existence for a richer, tantalizing, exotic inner world. The narrator states, “I kept her brown figure always in my eye,” (30). Similarly, the narrator has a predilection for the drawing room in which the priest died. Just as he is drawn to Mangan’s sister because she represents an exotic, unknown and mysterious world, he is drawn to the priest’s room because it represents the darkness and mystery of death. Death is the ultimate escape from life; death is also a symbolic rite of passage.

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The dead priest and Mangan’s sister both represent exoticism and esotericism. The priest is exotic because he is dead and because in his life he served as an intermediary between this world and the spiritual world. To the narrator, the priest must have been privy to wisdom and knowledge that the average person like him is not. Likewise, the narrator imagines that Mangan’s sister is privy to esoteric wisdom. Her sexuality also represents this esoteric and mysterious wisdom. “Her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side,” (30). Convey the connection between sexuality and esoterism, Joyce uses the motif of blindness as well as the central theme of escape: “The blind was pulled down to within an inch of the sash so that I could not be seen.” Here, Joyce also includes a double entendre, which is often used in conjunction with sexual innuendo. The window “blind” is a homonym for being blind. The narrator uses the “blind” to hide, to create a blind world. He hopes to remain unseen, undiscovered, and invisible.

Indeed, the narrator is invisible throughout the story. For example, he hides from people in the shadows; he watches Mangan’s sister from an unseen place; his uncle forgets that he wanted to go out to the bazaar and thus treats him as if he were invisible. On route to the bazaar, the narrator is isolated and alone, the only passenger on the special rail car. The inclusion of the special railcar en route to the bazaar also corresponds to the mystery and esotericism in “Araby.” The bazaar itself is a completely exotic world, in which the narrator is like a foreigner and thus invisible. The aunt wonders if the bazaar is not some “Freemason affair,” (32). The narrator describes it in mysterious, exotic terms: “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,” (32). The narrator remains invisible at Araby: the market is about to shut down and when he patronizes a specific stall the woman ignores him and only gives him a cursory introduction to her wares. Through his experience as an outsider, the narrator realizes that he is in fact narcissistic and is escaping from his true self.

Just as blindness and darkness correspond to escapism, sight and light both correspond symbolically to wisdom and knowledge. Furthermore, the lack of wisdom and knowledge evident in the narrator of “Araby” corresponds with a lack of physical light. At the end of the story, the narrator’s epiphany is painful and clarifies the reasons for his escapist tendencies. The final sentence of the story conveys the disillusionment that the narrator experiences when he finally “sees” himself for the first time, as Joyce uses imagery of sight and light: “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” Words like “gazing,” “darkness,” and “eyes” reflect the central motifs of the short story, motifs that relate to the narrator’s unfulfilled quest for identity and selfhood.

Araby” is filled with imagery related to sight and eyes. The narrator sees more with his inner eye, the eye of his dreams and imagination, than he does with his real eyes. Thus he is blind to the present moment and sees only what he wants until the end of the tale, when his narcissism finally dawns on him. The narrator describes his world seen through shadows only, as if he were actually blind. In fact, he states, “I was thankful that I could see so little,” (31). His appreciation of the darkness shows that the narrator longs to escape from his reality; he seeks the shadows as when he hides from his uncle when playing in the streets. Even when the darkness prevents the narrator from seeing, his eyes are literally clouded by fantasy too: “My eyes were often full of tears,” (31). The world of fantasy and spirituality also ties into the motif of the priest, who represents an esoteric, religious world. The narrator’s feelings for Mangan’s sister are esoteric, mysterious, and spiritual. “Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand,” (31). The spiritual world of prayer is shrouded in darkness and conveyed with imagery of death and escapism. Moreover, Mangan’s sister belongs to a convent, which underscores the connection between religion, sexuality, and darkness in “Araby.” The “pious purpose” of the pawnbroker’s widow collecting stamps is another indication of the intimate ties between death and religion.

Sensory deprivation in general pervades “Araby.” Not only is the narrator drawn to blindness’ he is also mute. “I had never spoken to her,” he admits (30). When finally he does he is at a loss for words. “When she addressed the first words to me I was so confused that I did not know what to answer,” (31). He communicates better in a fantasy world, just as he sees better in his fantasy world: “Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand,” (31). Sensory deprivation is at times total: “All my senses seemed to desire to veil themselves,” (31). Silence and muteness, while not as prevalent as blindness, contribute to an overall sense of darkness and death in “Araby.” Sensory deprivation is also a part of religious esotericism. At Araby, the narrator “recognized a silence like that which pervades a church after a service,” (34).

His lack of real or symbolic sight indicates his lack of connection to his daily life and thus his strong need for escapism. The narrator notes, “I thought little of the future,” (31). His obsession with Mangan’s sister prevents him from concentrating: “her image came between me and the page I strove to read,” (32). In fact, he has so lost touch with reality that while at Araby, the narrator forgets why he came in the first place. Thus, the obvious coming-of-age theme of “Araby” is superceded by more subtle themes of the quest for self and for the discovery of one’s identity. The exotic, foreign, magical nature of the market evokes the narrator’s epiphany. He undergoes a type of spiritual initiation. “I looked humbly at the great jars that stood like eastern guards at either side of the dark entrance to the stalls,” (35). Thus, the themes of blindness, death, and sexuality converge. Throughout “Araby,” the narrator focuses on darkness and uses darkness as a means to escape from an unfulfilling life and to hide his identity. The darkness of the streets permits him and his playmates to hide from his uncle and from Mangan; the darkness of the buildings cloaks the true lives of those that dwell within them; and the darkness of Mangan’s sister’s skin represents an exotic, foreign world that the narrator wishes to escape to.

Works Cited

Joyce, James. “Araby.” Dubliners. New York: Viking, 1967

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