by James Joyce
Characters in "Araby"
If you remember one thing about this narrator and one thing only, let it be this: he carries a torch. Big time. We're talking Joey-for-Dawson (in the early days, at least), Ross-for-Rachel, Jim-for-Pam. This crush is serious business. He's not into his friend's older sister because she's nice and pretty. He notices all the details, like her hair is a "soft rope […] tossed from side to side" (Araby.3).
When it comes to Mangan's sister, this is no laughing matter. He develops daily rituals to follow her to school, and tells us that he cries because of her. Maybe it's just not fair to call this a crush. After all, the kid "pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled, murmuring: 'O love! O love!" many times" (Araby.6). He's so plumb head over heels for this girl that everything around him becomes a backdrop—Dublin, the dead priest's room, it's all a blur.
When he finally talks to Mangan's sister, it's actually kind of a bummer. They don't say anything particularly interesting to each other, and he doesn't exactly sweep her off her feet. His true feelings come out in his promise to get her something from the bazaar—something he hopes will win her over.
But here's the problem. For all his swooning and wooing and, um, stalking, his love isn't really anything special. Mangan's sister doesn't even seem aware of it. And when he finally gets to Araby, it's not like the clouds part to cast a ray of sunshine on the perfect gift. Nope. Instead, he encounters surly salesmen, to whom he's just another late customer, preventing them from closing up shop for the day.
Along with the narrator, we're starting to feel upset that the aunt and uncle and shopkeepers are so insensitive. But are they? Probably not. The real problem is that the world isn't conforming to the narrator's grand expectations. He wants sweeping romance, and he winds up in a half-empty bazaar.
Cue major revelation:
Gazing up at the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger. (Araby.36)
Um, that's not exactly the response we were expecting, right? You want to impress someone you like by buying them a gift, but your uncle, and the mall (let's say) are conspiring against you. Who gets the brunt of your anger? Your uncle and the mall, right? Well, not in this case. The narrator turns back almost all of that feeling on himself. But why?
The narrator is really aware that he's in love with Mangan's sister, but it's something he holds inside himself: he doesn't tell a single person. So it's not like anyone else has his back with this. And even worse, it's not like his uncle kept him from going to the bazaar. At least not entirely. He had a chance to get a gift. A small chance, sure, but a chance. And he totally blew it. When it comes to love, he already knows, no one else can take the blame but you.
Or you could look at it another way. The bazaar hasn't lived up to his expectations. Maybe Mangan's sister won't either. After all, isn't his crush a kind of "vanity"? Hasn't he blown up its significance to crazy proportions? And the fact that it might all blow up because he couldn't get to market on time shows that it's all on shaky ground to begin with. He's no knight in shining armor, and Mangan's sister's no princess. They're kids in a city with forgetful uncles and surly shopkeepers and a whole bunch of other stuff just ready and waiting to burst their bubble.
The narrator's would-be girlfriend doesn't even have a name of her own. She's just his friend's big sister, and she lives in the house directly across from his. In some ways, the story is all about her, but we only get a couple of descriptions of her in the story, and only one chance to hear her talk. As a presence in the narrator's mind, she's the most major figure there could be; but in "Araby," she a minor character.
One pattern emerges whenever Mangan's sister appears in "Araby." Like a religious icon or a painting of Money, there's always some reference to light. When the narrator sees her on the railing outside her house calling her brother to dinner, "her figure [was] defined by the light from the half-opened door" (Araby.3). Later, in a similar situation, when she finally speaks to him, light makes the whole scene possible: "The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing […] just visible as she stood at ease" (Araby.9).
Check out the contrast between the light that shines on Mangan's sister and the "darkness" that encloses the bazaar once it's closed. That darkness—when they turn out the lights—means there's no hope for him anymore. He can't buy the gift, and can't win her, and basically can't possibly be happy (yes, he's being dramatic).
On the other hand, the light that allows him to see and appreciate Mangan's sister provides some hope that this narrator will, miraculously, escape his cage. Remember North Richmond Street, where he lives, is "blind:" for the narrator, Mangan's sister allows him light enough to see a way out.
Aunt and Uncle
The narrator lives with his aunt and uncle (just like in "The Sisters"), and he portrays them as distant but not all that bad. It's not like they're the Dursleys or anything. They're not terrible as parents, but they definitely don't understand why it's so important for the narrator to get to Araby. And come on, aunt and uncle, it seems kind of obvious. Can't they just be cool for a second?