William Trevor on James Joyce's Araby
This article first appeared in the Folio magazine's Spring 2013 issue. The article is accompanied by the short story 'Araby', with specially commissioned illustrations by Matthew Richardson, winner of the inaugural House of Illustration Book Illustration Competition. James Joyce’s Dubliners consists of 15 stories, many of them based on childhood jottings which he later, in his long exile from Dublin, turned into fiction. The third one of these, in the order he chose for the collection, was ‘Araby’. It shares with almost all the others a sense of epiphany, an abruptly evident truth that was not there before, a revelation that transforms for ever. In ‘Eveline’ a young girl excitedly looks forward to a new, different life with the man she is to marry, to the marriage itself and being taken by him to one of the distant lands he is familiar with as a sailor. She remembers with painful anguish her mother’s miserable existence as a domestic drudge and joyfully anticipates the happiness she is certain is to be hers. But as she and her Frank wait together at the dockside to begin their journey into the future, with awful suddenness she is afraid. The moored ship, ready now, alarms her, its mournful whistle sinister. The bustle of the crowd, the sense of urgency, the jumble of voices all around her, make a nightmare of the pleasure that moments ago was hers. Fear becomes panic: she cannot go. In Dubliners Eveline is one of many, each a variation of frailty or strength. Mr James Duffy keeps himself to himself, a hermit in the suburb of Chapelizod who avoids all human contact until he allows himself the companionship of Mrs Emily Sinico because she admires him so. Perhaps unaware that he is doing it, he takes advantage of an innocence which Mrs Sinico, in turn, possibly doesn’t realise she possesses. She is a cosily married woman who discovers in this new relationship a man who can talk about everything, who is ready to lend her books and is generous with advice. But Mrs Sinico, through these attentions, becomes a victim of her own shame, while Mr Duffy assures himself that he acted only for the best. Each story reverberates and, lingering, goes on beyond its length. In the Committee Room the politicians chatter about Parnell, and more is said than all that’s heard. Priests in their solitude develop their texts, a mother protects her daughter from the carelessness of the world; and Joyce, remembering, writes of his own despair. He would have built the Dublin of his childhood differently, as the nameless boy of ‘Araby’ would have, too. The story shared is of that time when first love flourishes, when being too young to understand is old enough to want to. The boy who so well exposes his troubled heart lives on glimpses from a distance, of lamplight falling on the white curve of a neck, on loosened hair, a hand upon a railing, the border of a petticoat. Politely, the adored one nods, or even smiles a greeting on the street, acknowledging passion with cautious kindness. A single word, a single gesture makes the day a celebration, but what more usefully is learnt is that love’s tit-bits can be a mockery too.