Araby: Intercolonialism In Ireland as Portrayed by James Joyce
The East is a social construct of Western thinkers that propagates exoticism, mythology, and beauty culminating in the abstract term of Orientalism. This conceptualization of the Orient was of immense interest during the nineteenth century, and commonly explored by Western writers. Beyond the aesthetic appeal of the Orient was this polarizing aspect that created an invisible boundary between “Us” (the West) and “Them” (the East), due to the exploitation of Eastern manufactured goods and natural resources used for the enrichment of the Western powers (America, Britain, and France). This was the ideology behind imperialism, a means of oppressing a less powerful nation in order to capitalize on their labor, resources, and topographical location.
Ireland as an Intercolonial Area of British Imperial Rule
Though many associate these ideas of Orientalism and Imperialism with regions such as Africa and India, Ireland—geographically located between Britain and the East—became an area of contention for Imperial conquest and colonization. Of the three main western powers, Britain exerted the most force in assuming power and a state of oppression over the people of Ireland. Though quite different in many aspects, the commonality between the East and Ireland resides in their both being colonized nations under British rule. It is this factor that influenced James Joyce’s short story “Araby,” from his collection of short stories titled Dubliners (1916) which utilizes the mysticism of the East in describing the stagnant state of Ireland during the nineteenth century—both, consequences of Western intervention. Joyce’s usage of Eastern terminology is in stark contrast with other Western writers. His experience of colonization is interwoven in “Araby,”which juxtaposes the simplicity of Ireland with the mysticism of the Orient, in the culmination of critical tone pertaining to the exploits of Western Powers.
Orientalism: A Term Attempting to Connote Exoticism, Yet Filled with Oppression
Before exploring Joyce’s text, it is necessary to discuss how the concept of the Orient originated. One of the most outspoken individuals on the topic of Orientalism is the literary and cultural theorist Edward Said. His interests pertain to postcolonial theory, which encompasses: orientalism, imperialism, colonization, and other cultural injustices transcribed through discourse. In his book Orientalism, Said discusses the necessity of attempting to understand how the term Orientalism originated.
“Without examining Orientalism as a discourse one cannot possibly understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage—even produce—the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period.”[i]
The image of the East is a projection of the West, most apparent in literary and artistic representations. Edward Said refers to the Orient as a “stage in which the whole East is confined,”[ii] to express both the theatricality of the Western attempts to define abstract concepts unknown to them due to a lack of knowledge, as well as the use of archetypes to represent a whole body of civilization. In explaining the fruition of this term (Orientalism) through the Western Canon’s lens of introspection, it becomes clear how misconceived certain preconceptions can be. The issue of Orientalism was simultaneously occurring with the European domination taking place in the eighteenth century, which led to a colonial dominion of 35 percent of the world, to 85 percent.[iii] What was being described as exotic was simultaneously being exploited for the proliferation of the West.
Araby: James Joyce’s Voice as One of Experience and Knowledge of Intercolonial Life
Part of the exploitation was the insistence of the West to tell the stories of the Orient in a framework that imposed ideologies based on assumptions. As for James Joyce, his voice in “Araby” is not one of assumption, but arises from a place of recognition. The British colonizers were exploiting Ireland through landlordism, laissez-faire economic systems and land holding patterns.[iv] The people of Ireland were left without a voice, and working the lands that were no longer theirs, while aiding the West in monetary profits. The reality of Ireland is related through the protagonist’s (boy’s) description:
“We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of labourers…a ballad about the troubles in our native land.” [v]
Whereas the East was discussed as a region that elicited mysticism and intrigue, Ireland was viewed as a conquered, impoverished nation and did not present for an intriguing narrative. Joyce utilizes the elements of the Orient—as conceptualized by the West—in order to tell the plight of Irish life. Joyce’s integration of oriental discourse provides readers with the type of literature readers gravitate to, while also highlighting the mistaken notion of the Orient as a place of escapism and beauty.
Though Joyce uses aspects of Orientalism in his story, it is not to be confused as a glorification of the Western construct of the Orient. Joyce uses this misconception (of the Orient) to aid his narrative of a boy living in a less glorious location—Ireland—that is also under colonial rule. The title immediately alludes to the romantic association of the Orient. “Araby” is the poetic rendition of Arabia that was used by Western writers when describing the Orient as a sensual locale.[vi] Though a reader may falsely assume this story will be a departure from the topic of Ireland, what unravels is a simple Irish boy’s bildungsroman story involving a Bazaar. “The syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an eastern enchantment over me,”[vii] are the thoughts of the young boy while he lies in bed imagining the wonderful gift he will purchase for the “dark skinned,” girl he has a crush on.
The boy’s experience is Joyce’s technique of mirroring the West through a less intimidating figure. The opening line contains the phrase “blind”[viii] in describing the street, and the phrase is repeated in the following line, immediately signaling attention to the issue of perception. As the text progresses, there are descriptions alluding to the East, such as “brown imperturbable faces”[ix] personifying the houses on the street and continuing this form of description that is purposeful in creating a vision. His crush is described as a “brown figure,”[x] with “soft rope of hair”[xi] and wearing a “silver bracelet.”[xii] She comes to him in visions, apparitions, and there is this fantasy surrounding her, yet she is a real person.
The Unnamed Girl as Symbolic of the East
The girl—who remains unnamed throughout the story—becomes a symbol of Araby (The East). The color of her figure, her soft hair, and the silver bracelet (which conjures images of shackles) embody both the beauty and oppression of the Orient. Just as the girl is a real object seen through the veiled eyes of the young boy, this is also the distorted way the Orient is viewed. A very real region of the world, yet looked upon in a fantastical manner. The boy’s reliance on this girl alleviates the solemnness of his days, just as the Western illusion of the East avoids recognition of the oppression occurring in that region.
The Bazaar: The Moment of Harsh Reality
The moment of clarification regarding the interwoven relationship Joyce weaves between Ireland and the East manifests in the Araby Bazaar. This becomes the moment when all of the boy’s illusions are painfully crushed once he realizes the futility of his visit to the Bazaar. He arrives late, has hardly any money, and is disarrayed. Then he remembers his purpose once seeing “porcelain vases and flowered teasets,”[xiii] transporting him back to the comfort of his fantasy. The boy’s moment of reverie is quickly diminished by the presence of a young woman and two young gentlemen who were laughing in their English accents, and treat the boy in a demeaning manner.[xiv] Ironically, it is the English who are running the Araby Bazaar, in the colonized Ireland: “I looked humbly at the great jars that stood like Eastern guards at either side of her stall.”[xv] These great jars become symbolic reminders of the imperial rule imposed upon both Ireland and the East, and the boy realizes his disillusion as a form of vanity, harshly referring to himself as a creature.[xvi]As many Western writers utilized the imaginary construct of the Orient as a form of literary entertainment, Joyce’s “Araby” confronts these fallacious notions of the East, while highlighting the state of an oppressed Ireland. Unlike the East, Ireland is not a subject of literary works because it does not have the association of mysticism and fantasy.
One of the most poignant moments in “Araby” is the amalgamation of the girl’s Eastern symbolism and one of the most symbolic objects of Irish culture—the harp. “But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires,”[xvii] are the thoughts of a boy in love, yet there is more to this sentence that the words on the page. Since the rebellion that occurred in Ireland in 1789, the harp stood for self-expression as well as a reminder of its pre-colonial past.[xviii] In The Crowned Harp, Professors Smyth and Ellison explain the significance of the harp as an emblem of Irish solidarity:
The insistent use of harp imagery should also be placed against the importance of the sense of orality in early nineteenth-century verse … harp symbolism thus feeds into the theme (popularized most effectively by Moore) of a struggle against muteness and cultural amnesia, which adds an ideological sounding board to the vogue for songs and ballads as the authentically Irish genres of verse and poetry.[xix]
Due to the precision of Joyce’s writing, it is poignant that he would include a simile about a harp in his story that details a coming of age tale, as well as the affects of colonial rule. The people of the Orient are viewed as not having a voice (“muteness”), which leads to Western writers feeling the need to impose a voice upon them. “Cultural amnesia” is another means of describing the stagnation occurring in an Ireland devoid of vocal freedom. The harp is also a common feature in aesthetic works presenting a beautiful (exotic) woman stringing the harp. In this instance, Joyce utilizes the harp as the state of Ireland, devoid of ability for expression, and the strumming of the strings is the colonial rule imposed upon both regions.
Joyce makes a prolific move in telling the story of two colonized regions. The unassuming voice of a young Irish boy creates a platform for allusions pertaining to both the East, as well as Ireland. In using allusions to highlight the oppression occurring in the Western construct of the Orient, Joyce is in direct opposition with the majority of Western writers who glorify the East. For Joyce, there is no glory to be found in a colonized nation. His utilization of the Bazaar, which serves as a site of epiphany for the young boy, is symbolic of the blind-eye turned in regards to colonized nations. As for the East, the most common term is Orientalism, symbolizing exoticism, yet, there is nothing mystical in a concocted term, only one connoting prejudicial thoughts attempting to stay hidden behind the mystical allure as transcribed by Western writers.
[i] Edward Said. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. 3
[ii] Ibid. 63.
[iii] Ibid. 41.
[iv] Clare Carroll and Patricia King. Ireland and Postcolonial Theory. Cork: Cork University Press, 2003.
[v] James Joyce. “Araby.” Dubliners. New York: Penguin, 1992. 22-3.
[vii] Ibid. 24.
[viii] Ibid. 21.
[ix] Ibid. 21.
[xvii] Ibid. 23.
[xviii] Smyth, Jim, and Ellison, Graham. 2000. Crowned Harp. London, GBR: Pluto Press. Accessed November 9, 2014. ProQuest ebrary.16
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