Fiction: A Guide for Reading
Notebook Entries For English 4106
I. Provide a brief synopsis of the plot, detailing the central conflict, complication, climax, and resolution.
II. Provide Brief notes on each of the following elements, with more extensive notes on any element which should be especially scrutinized.
Point of View
III. Provide a statement of the story’s theme or subject.
IV. Evaluation (provide a paragraph on each of the following).
a. Criteria of coherence
Author: James Joyce
I. A brief synopsis of the plot.
A young boy is tortured by an adolescent desire for his friend’s sister, and his conflict increases when there arises an opportunity to “bring her something” from a bazaar. The adult world of school and home becomes an obstacle, especially when his uncle spends the evening in a pub and forgets the boy’s request for money to go to the bazaar. Late and hurried, he arrives at the “great” fair, but is disappointed after the greater part of his money has been spent for the admission and only a few of booth remain open. The frivolous flirtation of a girl and two Englishmen seems to mock his serious desire.
II. Brief notes on each of the following elements. More extensive notes on one, with an explanation of why that element should be especially scrutinized.
Plot—A common tale of adolescent love, the story also owes something to the traditional tale of quest.
Character—The boy’s romantic temper is emphasized (and criticized) by a number of techniques, but also noteworthy is the presentation of Mangan’s sister (who remains nameless) almost entirely as an object to be gazed upon—suggesting the falseness of the boy’s vision.
Setting—This element deserves some special attention. Joyce has gone to great pains to develop an atmosphere that emphasizes his major theme—the blindness of romantic youth (and perhaps more than youth). A close reader will note the recurrence of terms associated with limitations of vision. The street on which the boy lives is “blind” (a dead end). Rooms within his house are closed and musty. The winter scene finds the boy and his friends playing outside in “dark muddy lanes” and “dark dripping gardens” and “dark odorous stables.” Even in this general darkness the boy and his friends find “shadows” from which to spy, a detail that is echoed in the boy’s morning habit of watching for Mangan’s sister through “blinds.” This general darkness appears again in the great exhibition hall and becomes a major part of Joyce’s technique for driving home the issue of the boy’s foolishness and blindness. (Note: this is not to say that there isn’t a great deal of sympathy for the boy on Joyce’s part.)
Point of View—The first-person narrator obviously has the advantage of time having passed. Whatever the boy felt at the bazaar, he probably could not have said at the time that he was “a creature driven and derided by vanity.”
Language—As suggested above, Joyce uses repetition to achieve his “darkness” motif. As suggested in the comments under point of view, the style is often elevated (“I imagined I bore my chalice through a throng of foes”), suggesting the superior advantage from which the narrator is looking back on himself. The tone, which might have become mocking, does not because the narrator is mocking himself all along.
III. A statement of the story’s theme.
Though a story of adolescence, “Araby” reflects a vision of life more generally human with its theme of human vanity and self-delusion, but the “anguish” and “anger” the boy experiences at the end may well be important markers of his humanity as well as his vanity.
IV. Evaluation (a paragraph on each of the following).
a. Criteria of coherence—As the comments under character, setting, and language should suggest, Joyce achieves a high degree of coherence in this story. Each part works with the other—in fact often inseparably—to demonstrate the boy’s limited vision that sets him up for failure. To be noted especially are the way some of the repetitions in language create an atmosphere that corresponds to the protagonist’s state of mind. The characterization of Mangan’s sister (the figure in the light, to be gazed upon) further suggests that limitation. And of course the plot moves inevitably toward the disappointment that results from the drive of a great desire without a clear vision to direct it.
b. Criteria of correspondence—So at one level we may enjoy this story as simply a true-to-life story of youthful exuberance for the sake of love. Who among us has not behaved “foolishly” because of our desires? But certain elements of the story make it difficult to reduce it to a simple formula. Its echoes of elements of the quest romance give it a literary quality of some seriousness. Perhaps even more important is the vision of the adult world presented in the story, for it is hardly an attractive alternative—given the description of the market place, the uncle’s behavior, and the scene of the girl with the Englishmen—to the boy’s vanity. In fact, the boy's imagination is his vehicle out of the oppressive, dull adult world that seems to surround him. One sees in the end that the story is not simply about the way boys are—though it certainly is about that—but about the way human beings are—especially in terms of vanity. There may even be an echo of Ecclesiastes in the final sentence of the story. “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”