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James Joyce's "Araby" may seem at first glance to be only a story about a young boy's first love. However, there is an underlying theme of his effort to escape an inimical reality by transforming a neighbor girl into something larger than life, a spot of light in an otherwise dark and somber environment.
Joyce's description of North Richmond Street evokes images of a vacuous, joyless, and stagnant environment. The house in which the young boy lives seems equally cold and gray. The narrator's description depicts a close and stifling environment: "Air, musty from having long been enclosed, hung in all the rooms, and the waste room behind the kitchen was littered with old and useless papers." (38) Another passage speaks of, "The high cold empty gloomy rooms" in the upper part of the house, and evokes a picture of a gloomy and repressed existence.
The protagonist detaches himself from this ugly atmosphere leached of vitality with dreams of Mangan's sister. In contrast to his dark surroundings, he sees her as a something bright in his life, as evidenced by his description of "her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door". (38) Later, as he talks with her at the railings, the narrator relates: "The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing." (39) His preoccupation with first love is consuming and serves as an escape from the harsh, dirty truths of his existence.
On a rainy evening, the object of his fascination spoke to the boy as he stood, hands clasped, and murmured, "Oh love! Oh love!" (39) Her address must seem almost miraculous to him. When she mentions how much she would love to go to Araby, his promise to bring her something from the bazaar seems to imply his feeling that this might somehow bring about a reciprocation of his love. His anticipation of the trip "cast an Eastern enchantment" over him as he looks forward to his trip to what his love describes as a "splendid bazaar" (39), which sets him up for the disappointment that lies ahead.
The boy's final disappointment begins with his uncle's drunken preoccupation with his own agenda, which causes him to forget about the promised trip to the bazaar and come home late.
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