Araby: Intercolonialism In Ireland as Portrayed by James Joyce

“Araby,” from James Joyce’s collection of stories titled Dubliners (1914)

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, written by Edward Said (1978)
Orientalism, written by Edward Said (1978)

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.

Edward Said, Professor at Columbia University, and founder of Post-Colonial Studies.
Edward Said, Professor at Columbia University, and founder of Post-Colonial Studies.

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.

"Gateway to the Orient," by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1869)
“Gateway to the Orient,” by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1869)

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.

Excerpt from Araby. The boy's thoughts on the beautiful "dark," girl he watches from afar.
Excerpt from “Araby.” The boy’s thoughts on the beautiful “dark,” girl he watches from afar.

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.

An image of an open bazaar from the 1920's.
An image of an open bazaar from the 1920’s.

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 Crowned Harp. A symbol of Irish solidarity.
The Crowned Harp. A symbol 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.

Eastern mysticism as a false construct, as stated by Edward Said in Orientalism.
Eastern mysticism as a false construct, as stated by Edward Said in Orientalism.


[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.
[vi]Ibid. 250.
[vii] Ibid. 24.
[viii] Ibid. 21.
[ix] Ibid. 21.
[x] Ibid.22.
[xi] Ibid.22.
[xii] Ibid.23.
[xiii] Ibid.27.
[xiv] Ibid.27.
[xv] Ibid.27.
[xvi] Ibid.28.
[xvii] Ibid. 23.
[xviii] Smyth, Jim, and Ellison, Graham. 2000. Crowned Harp. London, GBR: Pluto Press. Accessed November 9, 2014. ProQuest ebrary.16
[xix] Ibid.16.

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  1. Joyce can be unreadable.

    But when he chooses, as he did here and throughout “Dubliners” and “Portrait of an Artist” he proves himself to be a great artist and an incomparably gifted writer.

    • Dubliners is undoubtedly one of my favourite books. I can’t help noticing that Ulysses is missing from your list – deliberately, I take it?

  2. Natalya

    A Little Cloud is another fascinating account (among many in this collection) of an insignificant person (Little Chandler) trying to navigate the dark spaces of his inadequacy – with the bullying, swaggering former friend who openly despises him. He returns, humiliated, from the pub to be berated by his tetchy wife. This is the person the young boy in Araby would turn out to be. The stories in Dubliners are among the best in the English language, Chekovian.

    • Interesting you should mention Chekhov. He often gets mentioned in relation to Joyce and Chekhov was of course still alive (just) in 1903, when Joyce began writing the stories that would become Dubliners. Yet while he praised him later in life, Joyce maintained that he hadn’t read him at the time. He said something similar about not having read certain passages by George Moore, and that was almost certainly bogus, so he may well have read Chekhov too.

      That said, I often think the similarities between them are fairly superficial ones, but where they intersect most closely, in theme and method, is in ‘Araby’ and ‘The Kiss’. Both stories are about the stripping away of youthful illusions; both centre on a woman as the agent of this realisation; and both use darkness as a key element of the transformative moment.

      • Natalya

        writers claim they haven’t read a possibly influential precursor: hmm. Btw, I meant by ‘Chekhovian’ (now spelt better) more to suggest the muted tone and tangential approach to plot than any kind of direct influence. I do think, though, that the structure of Dubliners, moving from Childhood through Adolescence into (hemiplegic) adulthood resonates like perhaps many great authors’ works, but Chekhov is so good on the inner lives of children. It occurs to me that The Dead also deals in darkness/light imagery in a powerful way: the closing scene, as snow covers Dublin and the world, takes place in Stygian gloom. Wonderful.

  3. Ozell Way

    This and ‘An Encounter’ rank among my least favorites (in terms of how I feel after reading them) in Dubliners — all of the epiphanies are sad ones, but the ones that come in childhood are the worst.

  4. Excellent article on one of the great stories in the language, Danielle. And to think it may not quite be the best story in Dubliners. Astounding, really.

  5. Lindberg

    Thanks for writing about the great work of such a great man.

  6. Garland

    I wrote an essay on this story in high school, I was possibly the only student in my class that thoroughly enjoyed Dubliners haha. Araby was my favorite story.

  7. This article and story is utterly brilliant.

  8. I like the end of the story as it suggests a continued paralysis for the narrator.

  9. Tisdale

    It is amazing, to me, how relatable this story is. All the illusions we build in an attempt to find the passion to live another day, only to be destroyed at the end when we discover how enhanced our version of reality is.

  10. Fawn Harbin

    Well, this was a sad and completely depressing story about a boy going through the angst of his first crush. Hated it.

  11. Pei Schumacher

    As a sucker for romance myself, I felt the deep obsession the protagonist held throughout most of the story.

  12. I think I’m definitely too stupid to understand the purpose of reading a story that’s taken out of any context and talk a relationship that doesn’t even exist in it.

    • JamesBKelley

      I don’t think you’re “too stupid,” but I also don’t think you’re being very fair. Joyce was profoundly aware of the histories and legacies of colonialism (not just on the level of British colonialism in Ireland), and many of his writings reflect that awareness.

  13. Sarai Mannolini-Winwood

    A strong discussion of the impact of imperial rule of Ireland by the British and the issue of colonisation and the “othering” of the exotic. I was very impressed by the consideration you have given this topic. It may be worth doing a follow up by exploring the within the same lens the poetry of Seamus Heaney. Great work!

  14. Munjeera

    Beautifully written!

  15. Freckles

    Joyce’s writing is accomplished, but the limitations of naturalistic performance mean that his visions cannot fully be realised on the stage. It is as if logistics and art clash to a disadvantage.

  16. A fantastic example of architectural construction in short story.

  17. I’m not a big fan of James Joyce, but this has get to be the best of his literary works.

  18. When I read the first part of the story, I actually thought he would discover something about the priest. That was just the first few sentences though. For me, this story was boring, didn’t really have a storyline and the concept didn’t catch my attention. Such a shame.

    • Cornish

      I agree. In all honesty, I did not like this short story either. The sentences were, in my opinion, very difficult to read which caused the point the author was trying to make to get lost. I had to read the sentences a few times to understand what I was reading and this did not make for a ‘smooth’ read.

  19. Joyce is very descriptive in his writing, making me able to grasp every bit of scenery. The first person narration made the story really strong. Making me able to relate to the main character, and read the story as if it were my own.

  20. Phoebez

    This is a great story by James Joyce that is so much more than what it seems to be. On the outside it seems to be about a boy having a crush on his best friends sister and going to buy a gift for her. But there are. Any analogy’s in this story. The main story is the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. I am fascinated with how Joyce packed all of these analogy’s into this short story. It is about going from child hood to adult hood. It is not just having a crush you have to go deep with stories such as these.

    • The twists and turns of layered analogical writing that you mention is, in this light, a precursor of his future writing, culminating in Finnegans Wake.

  21. Araby is one of favorite short stories! I have read several times over the last years. This is one of Joyce’s more digestible writings. I think the first-person narration of an “innocent” boy lends itself to this unfamiliarly easiness in Joyce’s language

  22. For some “bizarre” (ha ha!) reason I really liked this short story.

  23. I use this short story with college students. Joyce is a linguistic gem and his descriptions bewilder many but they are worth analyzing.

  24. Maynard

    Araby was a required reading thrice in my life—once when I was still in high school, and twice in college. Every reading experience was entirely distinct from one another.

  25. I was impressed with how Joyce was able to capture a journey from idealism to disillusionment in such a short story. It was expertly handled. I would have enjoyed a bit more connection with the characters, but enjoyable.

  26. Some of the greatest writing of all time..

  27. Great work. This is very helpful in reading and understanding the text.

  28. As far as the theme of losing childhood innocence goes, Checkhov’s The Steppe is hard to beat.

  29. I enjoyed this short story more than I expected i would. The theme of light and dark is pretty obvious and is something I look to use in my own writing. 🙂

  30. While reading that story I was feeling very bad for that poor boy…

  31. Stephanie M.

    Nice article. I appreciated your discussion of the romanticized version of the Orient, contrasted with Joyce’s Ireland as colonized and oppressed. Whether we romanticize or oppress another culture, we project an unfair and one-sided interpretation onto it. Thus, that culture’s people are left to deal with our messes, as the protagonist of Araby tries to do. That is, he is a member of the oppressed nation of Ireland; he has no control over how his nation is viewed and interacted with. So, he romanticizes another culture–which may be a form of oppression in itself.

  32. Great write up on Joyce. Very inspiring and informing! Thank you!

  33. Interesting article. I think you’re certainly onto something with Said and Orientalism, but I am still wary of the fact that Said’s theory is predominantly applicable to the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asian cultures; to equate this with the Ireland-versus-Britain colonial conquest seems like a bit of a stretch, even if those ideas on cultural colonization and imperialism overlap. Is there something to be said about the fact that Ireland is still very much a “Western” nation? Do we have to equate Ireland with the Orient?

  34. “The British colonizers were exploiting Ireland through landlordism, laissez-faire economic systems and land holding patterns.[iv]”

    – [iv] Clare Carroll and Patricia King. Ireland and Postcolonial Theory. Cork: Cork University Press, 2003.

    Contra: during the time of the Potato Famines (1838-c.1890) food was prohibited from entering Ireland (which worsened the effects of the famine) under the British government’s misguided belief that Ireland at the time was overpopulated. Whatever policy this could be, this strikes me as the exact opposite of laissez-faire. Bear in mind that the French roughly translates to “let [it] do”, or more interpretively, ‘let it go’.

  35. Thank you for linking Said’s orientalism to Joyce; Said is heavily thought of in terms of only the “Orient” and the MENA region, but this opens conversion to literary representations which are important to consider through a new lens.

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