A brisk first reading of Araby draws us towards an economical, tightly conceived very engaging vignette. Its very economy and Joyce’s reputation for fastidiousness calls for careful combing of the text. Our second reading unveils the shadows and a distinctive palette, which reveals the sensibilities of a cinematographer.
From the outset, we notice that the narrator inhabits a shrouded world. A world through which he stumbles as though partially sighted, if never entirely blinkered. Inhibited, not only by his extreme youth, by his squalid surroundings, which hems him along narrowly prescribed corridors, but also by a stifled and stifling society with a noticeable absence of much levity; a society which conspires to lure him down avenues and boulevards which turn out to be mere cul de sacs. His parentless domestic arrangements are controlled and marshalled in locus parentis by his pious aunt and a frequently feckless uncle. The aunt represents the corralling restraint of an all pervasive Catholic church. His drunken uncle offers caprice and unreliability, delivering half-measures with regular episodes of disappointment. This uncle who wholly promises, half-delivers having been asked twice , the canny narrator waiting till half-way through dinner to make his final request to receive his florin, half of which he spends. He is short-changed at every turn.
All senses and every modality are degraded. Vision is veiled. Everything is smothered in sombre shadow; from the looming spectre of the deceased priest and a deadening church to Mangan’s sister, who despite her elevated position in the narrative is never entirely illuminated, never even named. This namelessness may be less odd than it may seem at first since she too is a kind of brackish cul de sac in her own way; turning out to be something other than she appears, and quite incapable of living up to the boy’s idealized image of her. The pair spin in separate orbits. Her namelessness contributes to her mystery. Joyce’s scrupulous care when selecting names suggests a possible association with the poet James Clarence Mangan. Mangan was a popular romantic poet described by Joyce as the failed standard bearer of a failed nation and as one of the world’s most inspired poets. He is best known in Ireland for his transliteration of Roisin Dubh into My Dark Rosaline. In the poem and song – both poignant lamentations- the young and beautiful Rosaline is one of many codes and metaphors representing a downtrodden and browbeaten Ireland.
Sounds too are frequently muffled and muted, sometimes weakened and distinct as if far away. The air itself is fetid, cold and malodorous. The smouldering ash pits -mingle with the pervasive stench from the stables. Even the violet sky is rationed. The lamps offer a feeble light and when Mangan’s sister appears to call her brother into tea, her figure remains in partial silhouette; defined by the light from the half-opened door. This claustrophobic mood, murky and delustered is deepened by Joyce’s own lacquer-like layering of image upon image; a squinty bleakness with its stagnant smoggy atmospheric. The cumulative effect of this very deliberate heaping of image on imagery is to lend the ambience a leaden feel that chokes and checks both the protagonist and the reader. The only glimmer of light which provides some relief from a fuliginous atmosphere is when the boy imagines himself struggling through the boisterous throng clutching a chalice. A hero gripped by confused adoration carries aloft a precious shiny bejewelled trophy containing an even more precious cargo. The action of the coachman when he shook music from the buckled harness is echoed by the boy’s description of how Mangan’s sister extracted music from him as if he were a harp. There is no suggestion of manipulation in this analogy: the playing is itself innocent and unknowing and the effect seems to be entirely one of enchantment. The girl is in all likelihood entirely unaware of his growing infatuation as she grips the railings, bending her head towards him in a manner suggestive of seniority – perhaps superiority over him.
We could speculate that the silver bracelet which she turned round and round her wrist might easily be a gift from some incumbent rival for her affections. If Mangan’s sister is not toying with the boy’s feelings, contingency, and the fates are doing so with accomplished cruelty as they torment and stab at his sensitized opening heart. Joyce has selected the muddiest of palettes with which to paint Araby. The hues and dusky tints more than hint at the earthy and the sultry. We are reminded too of Joyce’s own ocular difficulties and his preoccupations with his failing eyesight. A condition which invades his work with rich allusions just as surely as they continue to plague his writing with painful challenges as he works on the remaining stories that make up Dubliners and the other masterpieces that lay before him.