Residents of Dublin are paralyzed by the darkness. That darkness gathers under an enchanted cloak thrown across them. The cloak is woven of mythical threads of secrets of religious ritual, sexual mysteries, and the imperfection of courtly love.
Blindness has many causes. A Jackson and McGinley note for “Araby” points out that Launcelot found himself with “a great lust to sleep” after riding through summer’s heat (Malory 330). The knight fell into an incapacitating slumber under an apple tree like the one on Joyce’s Richmond Street blind and in that other Garden. While Launcelot shut his eyes, his nephew Lionel was taken prisoner and scourged with a cord of thorns, reminiscent of Christ’s passion. Deprived of his senses by sleep, Launcelot lost sight of the Godhead.
Asleep, a knight errant might lose contact with reality playing out around him. He might also dream, creating a different reality replacing the physical. He might be awake but hallucinating too, his senses “enchanted.” Illness could deprive him of sight or weaken it, or darkness obscure the physical world. Religious traditions, distortions of history, and sexual myths like those in Le Mort D’Arthur, may darken the historical past into legend. In the same way, Joyce’s stories begin in dark truth bent into myths of social and religious conventions. Launcelot and “Araby’s” boy are blinded by the myths of heroism and chivalry. They also lose sight of Christ, now under the Church’s shadow. William York Tindall in “Araby,” finds “… a disappointed quest, not for God…but for Ireland’s Church” (19).
While sleep is necessary, natural, and restorative to the senses, including sight, it may also be a vehicle for self-deception. “Araby” concludes Joyce’s treatment of childhood when dreams are most instrumental in development. Dreams are cryptical, deceptively symbolic, and elusive. In Joyce’s “The Sisters,” Joyce’s story about the dark mysteries of the Church and clergy, the boy dreams about the fallen priest. The dream is a revelation, but after the shade lifts, the boy cannot recall the truth revealed to him. He says, “I remembered that I had noticed long velvet curtains and a swinging lamp of antique fashion. I felt that I had been very far away, in some land where the customs were strange—in Persia” (Dubliners 13-14). Tindall observed that “The Church… is a more or less Oriental foundation” (20).
In “‘Araby’ and the Writings of James Joyce,” Harry Stone finds a mirror of Yeats’ “Our Lady of the Hills.” There, Catholic children mistake a well-heeled Protestant girl for the Virgin. They are justifiably outraged by the deception foisted on them by The Church and Irish culture under the clergy’s influence. The boy cries out: “Dad’s a divil, mum’s a divil and I’m a divil, and you are only an ordinary lady” (Stone 306-307).
In the Arthurian myths, in Joyce’s works, and in modern psychoanalysis, hallucinations or enchantments cheat the senses, especially the sense of sight. Arthur is born illegitimately but the rightful heir to the crown when Merlin casts a spell and Uther Pendragon appears in the guise of the rightful king. This deception results in the birth of “the once and future king.” In turn, Morgan Le Fay transforms herself and sleeps with her brother Arthur. The issue of this witchcraft is Arthur’s nephew-son and arch-enemy Mordred. Lady Elaine appears as Gwenievere; Launcelot impregnates her (Malory 1157-158). In Yeats, as discussed above, the Church deceives the children into believing the Mother of Christ is likely to walk the Earth. In Edwardian Dublin, enchantment continues too, as Masonic candidates transform through rites of initiation “in the light of secret knowledge” (Torchiana 61). That secret knowledge blinds the Catholic population as they flock to bazaars of 1892 (openly referred to as Masonic), the bazaar called the Kosmos 1893, and Araby in 1894. That last market drew 92,000 local, mostly Catholic pilgrims despite bad weather (58). In Joyce’s story, the sound of the bazaar’s name leaves the boy spellbound: “The syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me” (Dubliners 46). One result is that he sees Mangan’s sister where he knows she cannot be in the magical night.
… I looked over at the dark house where she lived. I may have stood there for an hour, seeing nothing but the brown-clad figure cast by my imagination, touched discreetly by the lamplight at the curved neck, at the hand upon the railings and at the border below the dress” (47).
Optical failures result from the darkness as well as pathology. Other senses might also overpower sight. For example, the sound in “dark dripping gardens” or the smells in “dark odorous stables” (Joyce 41) can overwhelm the visual. As the hall goes dark, giant oriental jars become eunuchs guarding the harem against the boy, and his quest is foiled. In “The Sisters” and “An Encounter,” the boy has been indoctrinated into the power of ritual and sexual darkness. In the opening paragraphs of “Araby,” he welcomed and took advantage of the darkness where he “hid in the shadows” (James Joyce’s Dubliners 21), a partner to deception. He has also championed the lady of poet James Clarence Mangan’s “Dark Rosaleen” (Torchiana 61). The final realization of his unworthiness burns his eyes “with anguish and anger (52).
The boy’s indoctrination into the clandestine arts is central to what Burgess, summarizing the import of Dubliners’ opening stories, calls the “external mysteries- ritual and dementia and … now… love’s bitter mystery…” (39). The priest’s library offered a syllabus of deceit. Vidoc is “a double agent, vacillating between good and evil” (Torchiana 53) and a master of darkness and disguise. The author of The Devout Communicant sponsored Edward Gibbon’s conversion to Catholicism. Gibbon subsequently betrayed Catholicism blaming Christianity for the fall of the Roman Empire (54). In Walter Scott’s The Abbot, allegiances vacillate between Catholic and Protestant monarchs, and Mary Queen of Scots is thought to be alternately a saint and a “harlot” (Stone 310). The youth learned the power of secret rituals from the priest, about sexual depravity in “An Encounter,” and the corruption of simony around the edges of Araby’s profiteering. In the concluding story, he also practiced stealth, spying from beneath the hall curtain and pretending to share an accidental schedule with Mangan’s sister. Those small corruptions make him as unworthy of the Grail as the questing knights in Le Mort d’Arthur.
A trusted eye, less prone to deception, might guide the knight errant through the dark. In the simoniac’s way, “Araby” betrays that loyal eye for silver. “The Arab’s Farewell to His Steed” laments that “proudly arched and glossy neck, and dark and fiery eye,…. my steed, thou’rt sold” (James Joyce’s Dubliners 25). The poet, Caroline Norton, who wrote those lines, was herself bartered away by her husband, who facilitated her affair with Lord Melbourne (Stone 33). Norton then sued unsuccessfully for divorce on the grounds of adultery.
All ladies championed in quests may not be worthy. Mangan’s sister cannot attend the bazaar because she attends a retreat but twists her silver bracelet, signaling to the boy that he should bring her treasure from the quest. Stone notes that Joyce’s reference to Thomas de Quincey’s “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow” blends the virgin and the temptress: “Him I led astray, him I beguiled, and from heaven I stole away his young heart to mine. Through me he did become idolatrous….” (307). Like Raphael’s teenaged prostitute, his model for the Virgin, Mangan’s sister is also a corrupting influence. Stone continues to say that as women rise to the status of ideals, male devotion is corrupted: “…men in their yearning to worship, contrive (even desire) their own betrayal and insure (sic) their own disillusionment” (313).
In Malory, Sir Bors follows four holy women into the relic’s chamber. Bors, however, is unable to complete his mission because he is unworthy of the Grail. He is stricken blind by a silver sword (1157). Lancelot’s quest ends incomplete too. He encounters a holy man who counsels:
…seek it ye may well, but though it were here ye shall have no power to see it no more than a blind man should see a bright sword, and that is long on your sin,…. (1323).
Earlier, King Evelake obsessively seeks to view the Grail. For this reason, he is beaten, left with bruises across his body and face. In the end, he prays not that he would be allowed to see the Grail but to live until a kinsmen of his would see it (1297). In “The Sisters,” an unworthy priest drops the Grail and breaks it. The boy in “Araby” admits his unworthiness by looking for a child’s discount for admission. The Grail demands perfection.
The lessons of the childhood stories of Dubliners and of Le Mort d’Arthur reach the same conclusion. The ideals imposed by the Church, the mysteries of sex, and courtly love all lead to blindness. The boy of Dubliners might recite with Launcelot from Moore’s poem “Lalla Rookh”: “Oh ever thus from childhood’s hour/ I’ve seen my fondest hopes decay” (Torchiana 59).
Burgess, Anthony. ReJoyce. W.W. Norton & Co., 1966.
Joyce, James. Dubliners. Enhanced Media, 2016.
Joyce, James. James Joyce’s Dubliners: An Illustrated Edition with Annotations, edited by John Wyse Jackson and Bernard McGinley. St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
Malory, Thomas, Sir. Le Morte d’Arthur. The Modern Library, 1994. Apple Books.
Stone, Harry, “‘Araby’ and the Writings of James Joyce.” Joyce, James. Dubliners: Text and Criticism, edited by Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz, Penguin Books, 1996.
Tindall, William York. “Dubliners.” A Reader’s Guide to James Joyce. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1959.
Torchiana, Donald T.” ‘Araby’: “The Self-Discovery of a Double Agent,” Backgrounds for Joyce’s Dubliners. Allen & Unwin, 1986.