When I teach Joyce’s story, “Araby,” in my sophomore-level fiction class (as I did this week) I find myself having to dispell several misconceptions. One of these comes in the first sentence of the story:
North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers school set the boys free.
Although most of my students understand the meaning of this sentence, someone will invariably assume that it refers to a school for the blind or that the main character is blind or that someone, somehow, is blind. In this story, of course, no one is literally blind. Like Oedipus, however, Joyce’s adolescent narrator is a seeing person blind to a great deal around him. Like those addressed in Mark 8:18, this narrator has eyes but does not see. This reference to a blind street, therefore, is probably not altogether accidental.
The story of “Araby,” of course, is a story of a “blind” person coming to a state of sight, again echoing the story of Oedipus. In this case, the hidden truth is not a scandalous marriage and patricide, but a construction of vanity that leaves the boy speaking that marvelous final sentence:
Gazing up into the darkness, I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.
Obviously the boy’s realization is not as grave as that of Oedipus, but the pain is no less real. Rather than gouging out his eyes, the boy simply feels them burn as he “sees” himself clearly for the first time by looking where? Into the darkness.
What I find most tragic about Joyce is that he can write so powerfully about a character recognizing his own blindness, all the while remaining blind to many things. Joyce’s chronic poor eyesight stands, it seems to me, as a sort of true-life metaphor.
Like many bright people, Joyce, and his adolescent narrator, recognize the vanity, the delusion, the vaporous nature of a great deal of typical life. The boy sees in Mangan’s sister something to be sought, yet he doesn’t recognize the many signs by which the world would warn him that his vision of the girl is illusory, an unrealistic, unattainable object of his own creation. The boy sees that he has been bowing down to an idol of his own creation, an idol wrought in the image of his youthful whims and desires.
Rising up with burning eyes from that moment of realization, however, we do not get the sense that the narrator turns from the idol to something worthy of worship. I say this because Joyce’s writing is so frequently autobiographical. Joyce, turned his back on Ireland and the Irish Catholic Church, yet he never seemed to be able to get them out of his system. He locates all of his stories in Dublin and draws heavily on Catholic imagery to populate his writings. Why?
I would suggest that after the Joyce character said, “Non serviam,” in Portrait, he found himself adrift, just as the boy in “Araby” does. It is one thing to recognize that you are driven and derided by vanity; quite another to transcend that problem.
Although the stories in Dubliners do not follow a single character, they clearly trace the arc of typical life. Therefore, it is not too much a stretch to identify the boy in “Araby” with Gabriel in “The Dead.” As that character looks out upon a largely cold and hopeless world, we might ask whether he would not have been better off continuing to delude himself with that long-vanished vanity. One might also ask whether he has truly had as great an epiphany as he believes himself to have had.
Perhaps the boy, recognizing that he could not buy anything of real worth for Mangan’s sister has simply determined to ease that disappointment by telling himself that he has been driven and derided by vanity. With that decision made, he needn’t trouble himself with pursuing her any longer. He needn’t feel guilty if he instead buys a bit of candy with the remaining eight pence. Why, after all, do we take the boy’s word for his experience? Why is this realization the correct one? Has his vision suddenly been given a perfect corrective?
Similarly, when Joyce stands against tradition and his simplistic religious upbringing, do we too easily accept the pronouncements of heroism that he offers? Is it not possible that Joyce’s resistance to the Church was as much an unwillingness to wrestle with the very real demands that it could and should make on his heart and his life as it was a sort of post-Romantic pose of nonconformity? Taken from a confessedly “blind” fellow, it seems insufficient for us to accept at face value his observations of reality, even the reality of his own psyche.