Araby” is among the pieces I like in “Dubliners,” James Joyce’s collection of short stories. It is narrated by a boy who lived in a drab neighborhood, but transformed it into a place of adventure in the imaginative games he played with his friends. The gang kept an eye on the boy’s uncle, making sure he did not see them when he arrived, as well as on a girl, the sister of one of them, Mangan, who often came out on the doorstep to call her brother in for his tea.
The girl became the object of the boy’s fantasy. He sought to catch a glimpse of her and to be near her in every way, but he never got to talk to her, and one rainy day, in an abandoned room, with trembling hands, he declared to himself that he was in love.
When finally the girl spoke to him, it was to ask if he was going to Araby, a bazaar, which she would love to look in on, except that she was attending a retreat in the convent that week. The boy promised that if ever he went to Araby he would bring her something.
From that time on, Araby became for the boy a place of enchantment. He asked permission from his aunt to go to the bazaar that Saturday. But on that day his uncle arrived late, and after being given money, the boy went straight to the train station. When finally he stepped into the bazaar it was ten minutes to closing time. The big hall of the bazaar was quiet and half in darkness and nearly all the stalls were closed. In one of them, which was still open, the boy looked at the porcelain vases and tea sets. A young lady, who was talking and laughing with two young men, saw him, and perfunctorily asked him if he wished to buy anything. He looked at the items and said no.
The boy realized that his stay was useless but still lingered before the stall as if to show that he had a genuine purpose. Then he turned and walked away. A voice announced that the light was out and the hall slipped into complete darkness.
Staring into the darkness, the boy saw himself as “a creature driven and derided by vanity” and his eyes “burned with anguish and anger.”
Joyce intended “Dubliners” as a sequence of “fifteen epiphanies.”
In “Stephen Hero,” a posthumously-published autobiographical novel, Joyce described “epiphany” as “a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phrase of the mind itself,” adding that “[i]t was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.”
In my own estimation, epiphany to Joyce is a moment of insight, or wisdom, if you like, which comes of a sudden, and changes the rules.
In “Araby,” seeing a place half-dark and half-empty, instead of an enchanting Oriental bazaar, and receiving perfunctory treatment from a stallholder, the boy came to his senses and saw that all along he had been manipulated by a false obsession, by vanity.
I had wondered why Joyce used the term “epiphany,” which is derived from a Greek word, which means “manifestation” or “appearance,” and customarily applied to the revelation of Christ’s divinity to the wise men from the east who had been led to the Child Jesus and his mother by a star.
But then, according to an author, for Joyce “all art is a shadow of the Incarnation.”
Art is a way of seeing the numinous in the ordinary, the radiance that lies in even the commonest object, and that radiance can come only from Light itself, the Word become flesh.
Isn’t it significant that the boy’s purpose in going to Araby was to buy Mangan’s sister a gift? Likewise, the Epiphany in the Gospels involves gifts. Matthew writes that the wise men had travelled to see no less than the infant king of the Jews. They did see the child and his mother, but not in a palace or some other kingly scene. Jesus and Mary were probably still in a stable, surrounded by animals—a place of great poverty. And yet, instead of feeling deceived, as the boy did in Araby, they knelt down to worship.
Perhaps, no two epiphanies are the same. The boy decided not to buy Mangan’s sister a gift, but the wise men opened their treasures and offered the infant their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
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