A Heartbreaker: Joyce’s “Araby” (More Motley Reading)

I can’t help it–this story gets to me every time.  It’s not my favorite story in Dubliners; in fact, I avoid it in the gazillion anthologies it graces (mostly because I don’t want to read it to death).  But then when I do read it,  every ten years or so, the narrator sends his story right back around my heart and squeezes.  I love the boy–his questing, his longing, his normalness, his imagination, his possibility.


I love how each of these first three stories builds, one to the next. (Another reason I don’t like it to be anthologized, for it belongs with the other two, grows out of them, revising my sense of what was going on in the one before, and the one before preparing me for the one I’m reading and the one to come.  “Eveline” changes things up big time..but more on that story after I read it again.)  The images from one story call to the next as though they are houses themselves along North Richmond Street. I’m thinking here, again, about Alan’s observation that reading these three stories is like “peeking into a musty window of these people’s lives.”  The shuttered world of “The Sisters” becomes the full city in “The Encounter” becomes the wild swing between inside & outside, imagination & reality, domestic and other in  “Araby.” The rhythms and sounds of the first two–those remarkable cadences– prepare us for the astonishments of this story:  “…shook music from the buckled harness” or “Her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.”   So simple those soft syllables. The boy has slowed down enough from the “career of [their] play” to notice, to sense, to feel.

Chris mentioned in his post the indebtedness of so many twentieth-century writers to Joyce.  I think here in “Araby” of Flannery O’Connor’s use of sentence rhythm and sound–the way Joyce breaks up a sentence– in  the magnificent opening of her “Parker’s Back”: “Parker’s wife sat on the front porch floor, snapping beans. Parker was sitting on the step, some distance away, watching her sullenly.  She was plain, plain.”  I love to reorder Joyce’s sentences to learn from him, to see how the meaning comes out of his grammar, his syntax. The opening sentence, for example–What if it read, “Being blind, North Richmond Street was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ school set the boys free?”  Or even worse, “Except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ school set the boys free, being blind, North Richmond Street was a quiet street.”  What he does with word order and punctuation.  (Watch out–wait until we get to “The Dead” and that opening sentence!)  There are many, many sentences in this story that just knock me down.

I love the language of “Araby” and how it, too, grows out of “The Sisters” and “The Encounter.” We’re ready for the mix of peculiarly childish perspective and adult use of language–the child’s fresh hearing of “Swaddlers! Swaddlers!” from “The Encounter” becomes the more nuanced language of longing when he describes her hand on the railing .  Something has intensified in “Araby,” sharpened and matured–the gauzy confusion felt by the boys in the opening stories lifts in the presence of longing.  Where in “The Encounter” the streets are “noisy”, in “Araby it is “flaring.”  “Araby” ends in “anguish and anger,” a stressed declaration of feeling that the other stories do not find, one just ending mid-sentence, the other penitent. (Going back to my earlier point about the sounds and rhythms carrying so much of the power: imagine if Joyce had ended the story in “anguish and rage”…)

I love that this story (the other two, as well) are narrated in the first person, but using the past tense, and thereby keeping us–and the narrator– at a distance from the events.  This is told through the scrim of memory, and that the narrator is telling the stories must mean that he keeps returning to these memories, catches on them like a wool sweater on a nail.   In fact–and this is in response to something Chris said in a discussion with Nancy about the language–I do not think at all that Joyce missteps a bit with the swings between elevated and simple language.  I think he offers us another divide here between adult and child, a deeper angst, sadness, and impossibility precisely because the stories are told by the older self re-entering the younger self.

Araby, II

So much to respond to in this story, so fun to read it slowly aloud, but I’ll leave it here for now.  I’m rather enjoying this motley reading:  writing a bit here, responding a bit there, sending off another bit in a postcard, messing around with photos I took on my last trip to Ireland. What a gift to be on this journey with such a motley crew.


10 Responses

  1. I’ll be writing about “Araby” today but I did want to note briefly that I don’t consider Joyce’s changing voice in his stories to be a misstep as much as a method. I may be overly influenced by a great book I read long ago by Hugh Kenner (Joyce’s Voices) in which he investigates the way Joyce goes back and forth from a retrospective voice to one that is much more closely oriented to the character at hand.

    The canonical example is the opening line of “The Dead” — whose voice is it saying “Lily was literally run off her feet.” Not Joyce, I don’t think, he wouldn’t use “literally” that way either retrospectively or currently– it’s more the voice of Lily (again, I agree with Kenner).

    And Ulysses is full of this sort of thing too… The “voice of Joyce” finds itself in the mouths and perspective of other characters, just as the characters find their way into the voice of the narrator.

    But it’s also sometimes problematic in figuring out the “now” of a story, as I think it so in “The Sisters” — the beautiful opening paragraph illustrates this quite well, where Joyce attributes the thoughts of an obviously much older narrator to the current thoughts of the younger boy. Which then leads to further complications when one wants to use those thoughts to support further investigation into the story (in this case, the potential pedophilia).

    Sorry, I did start out saying this would be brief, but …

  2. I love Joyce’s daring with his narrative voice, the winding in and out of the distance, and character if need be to set the scene, the tone, such as with Lily (I agree with your reading of that line). His flexible voice makes the stories all the more real to me, all the more heart-breaking. He stays true to the fuller experience by embracing both boy’s and older narrator’s perspective, reminding us that these moments hurl their stones into the pond, sending ripples out far beyond themselves. Yes, it complicates our investigations into motivation and meaning, but wow, that sure feels like life, how we wonder, speculate, judge, revise, worry a thing until we have no idea what’s what.

  3. It is instructive for me to see how you read and talk about your own reading, luxuriating on single sentences. On occasion in my own reading I make note of the particular way the sentence is constructed, because of the image it creates. But I don’t linger the way you do. Were you taught that or is it something that is natural for you?

    And what of the more obvious part of the story line? The entirely inward life of the boy doesn’t penetrate the adult world of the aunt and especially the uncle, so he betrays the boy without knowing he does so. That type of betrayal seems a recurrent theme in these stories.

    • Lanny,

      I do luxuriate in single sentences, it is true–the beauty of Joyce’s writing resides for me on all kinds of levels, from the sound of a word to the full sweep of a story. No, I wasn’t taught to listen to writing in any literature class, but I did have to memorize lots and lots of poems, especially, in high school, and the sounds did their magic then. I leaned to write fiction as much as painters used to learn their craft (can’t learn the art), by copying. I’d take a paragraph I loved and write it out word for word, then try to ruin it or try to write my own version.

      In grad school (a Masters in lit), I used to drive my fellow classmates nuts by slowing everyone down to consider how the sounds, rhythms and textures of the prose were working.

      I agree about the betrayal on the part of adults–they are so wrapped up in their own misery a good deal of the time, that they cause real harm without knowing it. Sometimes they do know it. And it isn’t clear which is worse.

      • One of the reasons I keep commonplace books (in addition to simply remembering and memorialize) is that through writing excerpts down I live the words a little bit. I feel it best writing on paper, but re-creating on the keyboard provides a similar experience.

        I’ll have to try writing my own version(s) of something. I’ve purposefully written “in the manner of” many times, but never tried to rewrite something in the way you describe…

        • I agree about writing it on paper– I feel the length of words and how they fit next to one another through the pen on paper. I, too, keep a commonplace book (actually a whole slew of them–one in each room just about in case I have something to jot down from whatever I’m reading or thinking.) I still write first drafts longhand, even of essays and articles (and then regret it when I can’t search them).

          Let me know what you think of that writing exercise. William Matthews had an exercise he called “Smash Palace”: he’d take a favorite line of poetry and try to do the most damage to it with the smallest possible gesture. Pretty crazy fun.

          • I just had to add here that Matthews is one of my favorite poets. Knowing it’s unlikely I’ll ever discover another Matthews poem I’ve never seen fills me with sadness.

            What I would LOVE is for a collection of his letters to be published… I understand he was an unusually witty and entertaining correspondent.

          • Chris,

            He’s one of my favorite poets, too.

            Back in the 80s I was on the fiction committee for Bread Loaf and so spent several summers hanging out at the writers conference when Bill Matthews was in full swing up on the mountain. His readings, lectures, workshops and informal interactions were…well…unforgettable.

  4. Barbara,
    I am working on a presentation about blogs in teaching and learning and yours was suggested in Will Richardson’s book on Blogs, wikis etc. (I also see it referenced throughout the blogosphere). Your blog has indeed given me plenty to think about in relation to quality blogging but rather amusingly this post has also made me want to stop surfing blogs right now and sit down with Dubliners again! … and I think I will do just that. Thank you!

    Angela Rickard (Ireland)

  5. Angela,

    Welcome! Thanks so much for the lovely comment. And how wonderful that one of my posts has you wanting to return to Dubliners. The conversation that happens on blogs is all good and fine (and useful and fascinating), but sinking into a great novel, story, painting, piece of music…well, that’s the first thing as far as I’m concerned. Join the Motley Readers!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: