James Joyce’s “Araby”: A Dead End of Brown Dreariness

Published: 2021-07-11 16:40:05
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In the opening line of his short story “Araby,” James Joyce employs a rather startling description of the street on which his protagonist lives. The very oddity of the construction of the sentence “North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free” is enough to create a confusion for maybe a moment or maybe long enough to sustain the reader to the end of the story. By the time that final sentence of the story is read and lingers in the memory, the strange description of North Richmond Street as “being blind” makes the circuit from unfathomable to tragic. The tragedy of the “Araby” is that just about everyone in as solidly constructed in place in as the street on which they live yet seem neither to understand themselves what being blind costs them.
Almost immediately after the somewhat bizarre and off-kilter description of the street being blind, Joyce removes the blindness from the reader with the much more straightforward description of an “uninhabited house of two storeys stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbours in a square ground.” Quickly, the darkness of confusion is lifted for the reader as it become obvious that the weird syntax previous was intent on describing a dead end. Not just a dead end, but a dead end consisting of brown houses. Are these homes really brown or have the years just taxed the lightness of their brick and wood to give them an appearance of a row of dull, dreary brown sameness?
The theme of the story is quickly set and as with the lives of those who make their living or live their life in connection with the blind alley of North Richmond Street, the story moves inexorably forward to a conclusion that it is not only inevitable, but inescapable. With each new addition of a small detail like a priest wasting away in a back drawing-room or the brother who tease his sister before always, ultimately and forever, showing obeyance to her wishes or even the minutely hopeful trip to the bazaar, Joyce creates a system of expectations dashed and hopes gone unfulfilled in the reader.
In a way, the reader is utterly blind to how the story of “Araby” is going to turn out, but deep within, there is always present the expectation that it will not be a happy ending. The blindness of the reader to the specifics of what is to come mirrors the blindness of the characters to what is to come. In a story like this where symbolism becomes everything, a very specific line can build to massive importance as a thematic explanation. When the narrator informs the reader that the “blind was pulled down to within an inch of the sash so that I could not be seen” he is almost essentially telling the story of his life.
The specificity of blindness here relates to a window treatment use to open and close the view through the glass. Beyond that specificity, however, a blind also acts to both allow those inside to see out and those outside to peek in. This is a story of people hiding from the reality that is outside just as much as Joyce utilizes it to function as a way for those who have never been to this particular place in this particular time to gaze into the dreary, brown, repetitive existence of his character. These are people who not intended to be universal symbols; they are very much of a specific time and place. Their lives and their stories could only take place in the Ireland that Joyce writes about. But viewing them through the partially open blinds that Joyce provides is a means for comparison of the bleakness of dashed hopes and blind alleys to the dashed hopes and blind alleys that make up our own lives.
That narrator who hides behind the pulled down blind is in love. And at this moment, in this place, his blind alley is about his love for Mangan’s sister and his dashed hope is about something as simple and plain as going to the bazaar to buy her a gift. The lack of success may surprise those used to reading stories where love conquers all and everything turns out right and happy. The dead end marked by the brown houses of North Richmond Street hardly allows such an ending.
That disallowance is realized especially through the utilization of two distinct, yet connect symbols that permeate the short story. First, most obviously and most importantly, there is the symbolism of North Richmond Street that, being blind, serves brilliant as a thematic anchor for everything that follows. In the span of a mere five words, James Joyce lays out as the opening of his story “Araby” all that anyone really needs to know about it. The story is about a certain street that is dead. A vision of a better life is dead. A vision of any positive change in the life span of those currently inhabiting the neighborhood is dead. Of course, not really, but because those who live there are blind to any possibility of mandating actual change and experiencing the kind of epiphany that results in true self-actualization, they might as well be dead.
The symbolism of the dead end that keeps those trapped within North Richmond Street blind to the possibilities of hope and escape is intertwined with the repetitive motif of the symbol of things being brown. It is not just the houses that make up the neighborhood on North Richmond Street that are described as “brown.” The narrator also describes the figure of his love and lust—Mangan’s sister—as being “brown” which is almost as strange and unsettling a description as that of the street which opens the story. And later, notably, the word “brown” is used to describe the figure that she casts only in his imagination. It is of particular interest that brown is used to describe both the dullish look of the repetition of similar houses abused by the passage of time as well as to describe the faded hope of love that the narrator looks to for an escape from the passage of time.
Ultimately, “Araby” is a story less about the events that the narrator describes than it is about the theme of both seeing the futility of their existence while being blind to the urge to change them.

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