Another initiation or maturation story? Hey, this section is “Innocence and Experience.” This Joyce story is a touching account of a young boy’s discovery of the opposite sex. His crush might be called “puppy lust” if it weren’t so innocent.
Readers familiar with Joyce will correctly assume the setting is Ireland. Readers not familiar with Joyce can use internal evidence to recognize the “British” setting from the monetary terminology—florin, sixpenny, and shilling. And the first sentence description of Richmond Street being “blind” (British for “dead end”) also helps establish setting. However British the setting is (in this case, Irish), the story is universal.
The extent of the nameless boy’s infatuation with “Mangan’s sister” (we’re not even certain he knows her name) is shown several times, especially when he describes lying on the floor to look through a one-inch gap to watch her (paragraph 4) and when he says that his “body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon he wires” (5). The action and metaphor would be absurdly overstated were it not again for his innocence. Observe also the loving, careful detail with which he describes her at the end of the 4th and 10th paragraphs.
Especially interesting is the way Joyce describes the boy’s increasingly physical attraction with religious terminology: “image,” “chalice,” “prayers,” and “adoration” all in the 5th paragraph alone. This description of secular feelings with religious vocabulary establishes the dichotomy of the human experience (the mixture of diverse and contradictory feelings).
When she finally speaks to him (7), she asks if he were going to Araby, “a splendid bazaar.” Understand that her question is not a hint for him to get her something. This is a friend of her younger brother and the question is the equivalent of “Isn’t the weather nice?”
Inspired, thinking he has a chance to impress her, he goes to Araby (basically a flea market, but the name suggests the richness of the Arabian nights). What does a barely pubescent boy know about what a girl would like? (Expand that question to ask what any male would know about what any female would like). Perhaps remembering that his aunt had a tea set, he decides to look at a tea set.
Reread paragraphs 26-32.
The dialogue Joyce records is basically junior high flirting. Yet the boy describes the speakers as “a young lady” and “two young gentlemen” (26). Why?
The clue is at the end of paragraph 26 when the (Irish) boy says, “I remarked [noted] their English accents….” The English have always regarded (and still regard) the Irish as the scum of the earth, and one of the worst results of stereotyping is the stereotyped group’s accepting the image as truth. The labels with which the boy refers to the three despite their trite, immature conversation demonstrates his acceptance of their superiority and thus his inferiority.
The recognition (however unconscious) of his cultural, ethnic “inferiority” prompts him to recognize his sexual and chronological “inferiority.” Seeing and hearing even this immature interaction between the sexes makes him realize he has no idea how to talk to “her.” As the lights are extinguished in the hall (symbolically leaving him in the dark), he calls himself “a creature [note the use of a less than human term, a “depersonification,” to describe himself] driven and derided by vanity….”
The disastrous results of the young boy’s first attraction to the opposite sex are surely universal. Come on, are any of you still “with” your first crush?
But the story is more than that. In addition to the initiation or maturation theme, the story traces a “loss of innocence.” However innocent the boy’s feelings are, moving from “Girls have cooties” to his attraction to Mangan’s sister traces a loss of innocence, at least a loss of “absolute” innocence, which is inevitable in the “real world.”
In the second paragraph, the boy names three books left in their home by the previous resident, a priest. Check the titles: The Devout Communicant is a manual for individuals approaching a first communion, a logical text for a priest; The Abbot is a novel about a less than totally devout religious church official; the third is a racy, sexual novel involving a church official. In short the three books demonstrate that even a priest is not wholly perfect.
The universal “loss of innocence” theme is emphasized by the symbolism of the books and the “wild garden…[with] a central apple-tree…” (2), which clearly suggests the Garden of Eden, the primal “loss of innocence” story in western culture. The main elements are obvious: a male, a female, a garden, an apple tree. What’s the only thing missing? I know, a serpent.
Let me suggest that “the rusty bicycle pump” (2) symbolically represents the serpent. Imagine a pump bicycle pump with an air hose. The physical shape of the hose could easily suggest a serpent.
Admitted, if we had no other clues, I couldn’t argue that the bicycle pump hose represents the serpent. But with the “obvious” and “clear” “wild garden…[with] a central apple-tree” reference to Eden, we should look for a serpent. And there he is.
And thus we find a way to suggest whether symbols are “real” or not: Do they fit in established patterns (as these do)? This one clearly does and surely there is no more universal symbol for “loss of innocence” than the Eden story. .
And so the theme of the story is a universal “loss of innocence,” a loss we all must suffer as we gain a carnal attraction to and understanding of the “real world.”
In the King James translation of the Bible (for many people, especially those my age, this is “God’s Bible”), forms of the verb “know” are used as euphemisms for sexual actions: “Adam knew his wife,” for example. Given the identity of the “tree of knowledge” as the forbidden fruit, many theologians see “original sin” in Eden as the discovery of the pleasure of sex.
Rather than being re-creation (procreation, the only acceptable purpose of sexual activity to “the church”), sexual activity has become recreation. The change, “the fall,” demonstrates how we have fallen.