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.

Araby

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.