The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

James Joyce's "Araby"

by Andrew Tibbetts

The first lesson from Adam Sexton’s “Masterclass in Fiction Writing: Techniques from Austen, Hemingway, and Other Greats” is on story structure. He uses as his superlative example, James Joyce’s short story, “Araby”.

Joyce’s short stories, along with Flannery O’Conner’s, were what got me hooked on short stories from my teenage years.

Over the past few years, I’ve been writing a story inspired by this story. In fact, I was thinking of doing a set of ‘cover versions’ of all the stories in Joyce’s “Dubliners”. My attempt would be to capture my impressions of Northern Ontario from various angles. This is one of the many things “Dubliners” does. It gives us Dublin.

Looking at “Araby” through Sexton’s lens is most disorienting. For his purposes, he avoids looking at the theme, at the setting, at the poetry of the language (all the things that attract me to this story) and instead performs an x-ray to see the bones. Who knew, that beneath that anxious and horny story of burgeoning sexuality, with its sting of psychological epiphany in its tail- who knew that beneath it all was an odyssey? Its skeleton is a miniature version of Homer’s epic skeleton- with something ‘wrong’ with it.

From a structural point of view, the activating incident is the boy’s desire to impress the neighbourhood girl he is falling for. He promises to get her something from Araby, the exotic fair come to town. This burning need to bring his desires to some shape and win some affection from the girl by his actions, by making and keeping a promise, is what fuels the story structure.

Let me just say, that it does not go well. Plot-wise (and of course, in many other ways). What makes Joyce the first great modernist is that his voyage, as opposed to Homer’s or Jules Verne’s or de Maupassant’s or any of the adventure tales popular, and still popular now that the movies have grabbed them, is that his voyager gets lost and stays there. Like Stravinsky’s cadences that do not resolve, or Picasso’s faces that do not end where they are supposed to, Joyce’s voyage doesn’t come back home.

There are so many other things to say about this wonderful writing. But instead of saying something about it, I’ll give it to you straight. Thank goodness for public domain. Here is the boy from the first mention of his beloved. She emerges in a paragraph which lists the things that ‘we’ do. The boy is one of the boys on the street. They play. They fight. They notice things. They brag, dream, etc. But by the end of the paragraph she has popped up in, ‘we’ has become ‘I’. It’s a brilliant shift of literary power and psychological-developmental subtlety.

This excerpt takes you from that birth of the individual from the womb of the tribe through to the activating incident. But never mind all those bones- turn the x-ray machine off and just let the flesh sing:

…Or if Mangan's sister came out on the doorstep to call her brother in to his tea, we watched her from our shadow peer up and down the street. We waited to see whether she would remain or go in and, if she remained, we left our shadow and walked up to Mangan's steps resignedly. She was waiting for us, her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door. Her brother always teased her before he obeyed, and I stood by the railings looking at her. Her dress swung as she moved her body, and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.

Every morning I lay on the floor in the front parlour watching her door. The blind was pulled down to within an inch of the sash so that I could not be seen. When she came out on the doorstep my heart leaped. I ran to the hall, seized my books and followed her. I kept her brown figure always in my eye and, when we came near the point at which our ways diverged, I quickened my pace and passed her. This happened morning after morning. I had never spoken to her, except for a few casual words, and yet her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.

Her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance. On Saturday evenings when my aunt went marketing I had to go to carry some of the parcels. We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of labourers, the shrill litanies of shop-boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs' cheeks, the nasal chanting of street-singers, who sang a
come-all-you about O'Donovan Rossa, or a ballad about the troubles in our native land. These noises converged in a single sensation of life for me: I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes. Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand. My eyes were often full of tears (I could not tell why) and at times a flood from my heart seemed to pour itself out into my bosom. I thought little of the future. I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.

One evening I went into the back drawing-room in which the priest had died. It was a dark rainy evening and there was no sound in the house. Through one of the broken panes I heard the rain impinge upon the earth, the fine incessant needles of water playing in the sodden beds. Some distant lamp or lighted window gleamed below me. I was thankful that I could see so little. All my senses seemed to desire to veil themselves and, feeling that I was about to slip from them, I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled, murmuring:
'O love! O love!' many times.

At last she spoke to me. When she addressed the first words to me I was so confused that I did not know what to answer. She asked me was I going to
Araby. I forgot whether I answered yes or no. It would be a splendid bazaar; she said she would love to go.

'And why can't you?' I asked.

While she spoke she turned a silver bracelet round and round her wrist. She could not go, she said, because there would be a retreat that week in her convent. Her brother and two other boys were fighting for their caps, and I was alone at the railings. She held one of the spikes, bowing her head towards me. 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. It fell over one side of her dress and caught the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease.

'It's well for you,' she said.

'If I go,' I said, 'I will bring you something.'


Blogger Tricia Dower said...

That is a wonderful story, Andrew. Breaks my heart to compare my pathetic words to his. I studied Joyce in college but didn't fully appreciate his talent until a few years ago. Wasn't ready for him, I guess.

Wed Jan 09, 09:21:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Thanks for making me feel even stupider, Andrew...

Wed Jan 09, 10:20:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

But a great post!

Wed Jan 09, 10:20:00 pm GMT-5  

Post a Comment

<< Home