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The Impossible Figure of Woman in ‘Araby’

About the Author: Kaitlyn Cummings

Kaitlyn Cummings is a senior at the University of Maryland majoring in English. She hopes to pursue a career in media production. She is thoroughly passionate about race and gender politics. Her critical interests include feminist literary theory, particularly the works of Judith Butler and Audre Lorde.

By Kaitlyn Cummings | General Essays

What is in a name? In the realm of literature, its absence has the power to silence the voice, suppress the identity, and impose passivity upon the character. The anonymous character occupies a negative space, functioning as an “abstract ‘Other’ whose concrete and tangible distinction is unintelligible, unknowable, inarticulable, and inarticulate” (Frye 996). Historically, anonymity has been employed as a tool of oppression in the gender politics of the unnamed character. Boldly stated by the famed French feminist and philosopher, Annie Leclerc, “it is [the female] silence and the triumphant sound of [the male] voice that authorize[s]” the sociopolitical kidnapping of the female identity, “a silent martyrdom” (60). The motif of the nameless female character threatens the female identity as it upholds a legacy that has smothered the female voice. The female character with no identity can, alternatively, be filled with tropes of sexual objectification and patriarchal dominance.

The enigmatic and unnamed female of James Joyce’s short story “Araby” personifies this motif. Joyce abandons the authorial task of character identification and delegates it to the story’s speaker, whose fragile construction of the female character withers as the plot unfolds. In this supposed romance, an adolescent boy’s infatuation with the unnamed sister of his best friend, Magnan, prompts him to attend a pseudo-Middle Eastern marketplace, dubbed Araby. The Araby Bazaar was, in reality, one of the largest public spectacles held in Dublin in the late nineteenth century. Over ninety-two thousand Irishmen attended to see a variety of ‘oriental’ themed stalls staffed by people highly stylized costumes (Rains 17-29).

The young boy embarks on a fantastical journey to Araby compelled by his curiosity and anticipation, which, upon his arrival, are starkly dispelled by the disenchantment and disappointment of a newfound reality. As discussed in Vincent Cheng’s Joyce, Race, and Empire, “the symbolic journey to Araby is … a pilgrimage in quest of the feminine and the Oriental Other as the anticipated destination of male desire” (93). Alterity and idealization metaphorically join Araby and Mangan’s sister together. At once, the young boy discovers that both his exotic bazaar and his beloved woman are not what he imagined them to be. Cheng continues, “Mangan’s sister is given no name of her own in the story ¾ for she functions as a female blank page awaiting his male inscription” (91). The inscription imposed by the speaker mandates her to satisfy his desire for Otherness, a subconscious yearning for the exotic that she ultimately cannot provide. Analogized in the “splendid bazaar” (Joyce 2), the initially fetishized and idealized woman, finally demystified, prompts the young boy’s maturation from the naïve curiosity of adolescence into the displaced misogynistic “anguish and anger” of manhood (5).

Defined only as the object of a young boy’s desire and the relative of his best friend, Mangan’s sister lacks the agency that is inherently provided in a name. As detailed in Blanche Gelfant’s introduction to “A Frame of Her Own: Joyce’s Women in Dubliners Reviewed,” “the reader can see Mangan’s sister only as she has been appropriated by the male” (263) characters ¾ her suitor (the speaker) and her brother (Magnan). The speaker knows her name yet he withholds it from the reader. Though he too remains nameless throughout the text, his anonymity does not limit his autonomy. He maintains the definitive narrative power over her identity by exercising his authority to either hide or disclose her name. Twice within the text her name is referenced but not revealed: “her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood”(Joyce 1), “her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises…” (2). Her appointed title (“Magnan’s sister”) is nominally linked to her relation to a man, Magnan; in the most literal sense, she cannot exist without man. To the young boy, Magnan’s sister performs a role as Other in her lack of identity.  If we consider desire under the broad definition offered by Cheng ¾ “a longing for a personal, sexual, or cultural otherness, for difference, for a union with the exotic, the alien, the strange … to become one with, something outside of the self” (90) ¾ Mangan’s sister then becomes the object of the speaker’s desire:

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… (Joyce 1).

Themes of voyeurism as an expression of his desire emerge here as the speaker details his morning routine. The ocular becomes essential in his diction. He is “watching” but not “seen” behind the “blind” as she is “is always in [his] eye.” In his furtive gaze the boy can achieve arousal (“my heart leaped”) by visualizing her as a “brown figure”. With that final sentence he calls attention to the nature of her Otherness; the phrase frames her as an exotic object, a reference continued throughout the text. Her “brown figure” confines her to the corporeal, reduced to and defined by body and exoticism.

As the sun sets, the young boy’s evening trip to Araby draws closer. While he waits, he “look[s] over at the dark house where she live[s]… and [stands] there for an hour, seeing nothing but the brown-clad figure cast by [his] imagination” (Joyce 23). In this quintessential exhibition of voyeurism, the male is the bearer of the look and the woman is the image. “…Pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its [f]antasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly,” Laura Mulvey explains (62). The speaker’s descriptions of her “dark house” and “brown-clad figure” confirm her function as his icon of exotica. As stated by by Edward Said, the “romanticized yellowish-brown skin color of the beloved” is meant to invoke thoughts of “Arabia and of the Orientals” (119). Her house and figure are the mysterious Oriental structures enshrouding and framing her identity as imposed by the young boy. An objectified Other upon which the boy can affix his exotic fantasies, Mangan’s sister becomes his epitomized object of Oriental desire.

The young boy’s wait is brought to an end upon his uncle’s return home. Along with the sixpence Araby admission cost, the uncle offers a recitation of “The Arab’s Farewell to his Steed.” The alcohol-induced reference to the poem provides the third allusion to Magnan’s sister’s Otherness. “The Arab’s Farewell,” a 19th century ballad by Caroline Norton, recounts the last words of an equestrian rider to his treasured, yet sold, horse. The narrator reminisces on past voyages and laments the days to come. A series of digressions follow that ultimately lead to the Arab’s recovery of his beloved horse. The resemblance between “The Arab’s Farewell” and “Araby” exists beyond their titles; in both texts the speakers’ curious appetite for the exotic is satisfied solely through ownership of their respective desired objects. For their abilities to transport their male protagonists into the “enchanting East”, the commodified Arab horse and nameless woman become invaluable acquisitions. Just as the beloved steed guides the Arab through the “desert paths” (14) and “sandy plain[s]” (15) back home again, it is under Magnan’s sister’s instruction that the young boy arrives at his Oriental destination.

Similarities in the nature of the courtly refrains declared by the young boy in “Araby” and the romantic verbiage of Norton’s poem further accentuate their resemblance. For both narrators, their romance compels them to cry out exclamations of love. “I pressed my palms together until they trembled, murmuring, ‘O love!’ ‘O love!’ many times” (Joyce 22);  “My Beautiful! My Beautiful!” (Norton 1). These expressions of male cantorial praise posit the nameless woman and the Arab horse as objects of unwavering desire. Throughout Norton’s poem there lies the echoing sentiment of a love ballad. Separated from his beloved, the Arab details how his “lonely heart should yearn” (31) in his horse’s absence. His enduring love inspires his refusal to relinquish the horse: “They tempted me, my Beautiful! But I have loved too long” (44). The romanticized rhetoric demonstrated between man and object in Norton’s poem is also demonstrated in “Araby.”  The young boy employs a poetic diction that is crowded with references to the intoxicating effect of his “confused adoration” (23): “Her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood” (22); “…My body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires” (23). Though the object demonstrated here is Magnan’s sister, the young boy employs the same lyrical romanticism as the Arab when articulating his affections to his beloved.

The descriptive similarities between the Arab horse and Mangan’s sister further link the two texts together in metaphor. In “The Arab’s Farewell,” the narrator applauds his noble horse for its graceful posture: “My Beautiful! My Beautiful! That standest meekly by, / With thy proudly arch’d and glossy neck…” (Norton 1, 2). Similarly, in “Araby” the speaker’s description of Magnan’s sister’s pose employs a similar language and tone: “The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there… just visible as she stood at ease” (Joyce 22). With this, Magnan’s sister becomes a literary reincarnation of Norton’s steed. She, as “she is just visible as she stood at ease” resonates with the horse “stand[ing] meekly by.

Like the horse, the hairs at the nape of Magnan’s sister’s neck reflect a light that captivates the observer. The much-anticipated doorway appearance of Magnan’s sister’s “figure defined by the light” (21) parallels the horse’s emergence from the “dim distance” (35) in “bright form” (36). Their harmonized glow represents the gleam of an idealized projection, as they each only exist as they have been illuminated by the speaker’s eye. The young boy’s adoration for Magnan’s sister is not merely an idealization but furthermore an idolization manifested in her ethereal glow. Each awarded no name, the Arab’s horse and Magnan’s sister, are the rhapsodized representatives of Otherness, whose identities are shaped in the eyes of their male suitors.

Mangan’s sister, devoid of any onomastic substance, is hollowed out further by the speaker’s contoured descriptions of her physical body. Providing no explicit image of her face, the boy also imposes a physical anonymity upon her:

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… (Joyce 22).

Here, the young woman’s head leans toward him, yet we are given no description of her face. Instead he provides a mere outline, connecting the “curves” and “borders” of her figure. References to shadows and figurine silhouettes become the speaker’s only physical description of the nameless neighborhood beauty: “…we watched her shadow peer up from down the street” (Joyce 21), “…her figure defined by the light from the half opened door” (21), “…seeing nothing but the brown clad figure cast by my imagination, touched discreetly by the lamplight” (23). Rendered a faceless silhouette of woman silenced in her namelessness, the young boy begins inscribing Magnan’s sister’s character, now an undefined symbol, with his own romanticized and impossible ideals of woman. As observed by Cheng, the young boy appropriates Mangan’s sister “and objectifies her into an essentialized image” (90). We can see this in his simultaneous idealization of Araby.

For the boy, Araby is an obtainable oasis of Otherness, and even “the syllables of the word Araby… cast an Eastern enchantment over [him]” (Joyce 22). In reverie, he dissects the syllables of its name, outlining its pronunciation and dividing its vowels. In his mind he fragments the desired object, Araby, just as he fragments Magnan’s sister, constructing a figure with indistinct borderlines and curves. Both Mangan’s sister and Araby exist as fantastical symbols of desire that parade through the planes of the young boy’s mind. Magnan’s sister is representative of a gender (woman), and Araby is representative of a culture (Eastern), both overlapping and unfamiliar to the young boy. The conflict arises once he recognizes that Araby is not the enclave of exotica he once imagined it to be. In turn, he uncovers the same to be true of Magnan’s sister. His arrival at Araby marks the collision of fantasy and reality. As he entered the venue with the “magical name” (24) he observed with dismay, “nearly all the stalls were closed and the greater part of the hall was in darkness” (25). The young boy who had previously been so enchanted by Araby that he “could not call [his] wandering thoughts together” (22) now struggled to “[remember] …why [he] had come” (26). John Brugaletta and Mary Haden present the young boy’s sudden disillusionment as an indication of Mangan’s sister’s nonexistence; that she ¾ the facially indistinguishable, shadowy figure of a woman with no name ¾ is no more than a figment of a young boy’s imagination:

The vision had been his alternative to the real world, had indeed become at one point so realistic as to apparently fuse with reality for him. But that vision, concrete though it was, proved to be too fragile for a world of real older girls, money, drunken and indifferent uncles, and the necessary craziness of a day-to-day existence. He had conjured up the spirit of love with an incantation (“O love! O love!”) only to have that spirit dispelled by the clumsiness of a physical world (17).

The theoretically impossible woman, grossly apotheosized by the young boy, is also literally impossible. Discussed by Judith Butler in a much broader sense, “becoming gendered involves impersonating an ideal that nobody actually inhabits… [The] symbolic position…’woman’…[is] never inhabited by anyone, and that’s what defines [it] as symbolic: [it’s] radically uninhabitable” (Butler, 88). The boy’s awakening, a consequence of his realization that the Araby is no more than a cheap marketplace of English vendors, unveils the impossibility of Mangan’s sister as an ideal woman.

The young boy journeys the bazaar armed with the enchanted memory of his beloved coquettishly “turn[ing] a silver bracelet round and round her wrist” Joyce 22) when she first propositioned him to attend Araby. In this single exchange between the two characters, the young boy’s affections for Magnan’s sister are finally reciprocated. Her playful gesture intensifies his craving for the Orient; “I hardly had any patience with the serious work of like which, now that it stood between me and my desire, seemed to me like child’s play” (22). Because Magnan’s sister does not accompany the young boy to the bazaar, his appetite for Oriental otherness must be satiated by the bazaar itself. Contrary to his expectations, upon his arrival to the bazaar he goes unnoticed by the shop girl working at the dreary stall. This allows him to briefly eavesdrop on her flirtatious back-and-forth with two young gentlemen until she detects his presence. Unlike the young boy’s conversation with Magnan’s sister, in his interaction with the shop girl “the tone of her voice was not encouraging; she seemed to have spoken to [him] out of a sense of duty” (Joyce 4). The demonstrative demeanor the young boy encountered with Magnan’s sister and observed between the young lady and the two gentlemen is denied to him in his own concrete conversation with the shop girl. His illusory memory of Magnan’s sister withers against the unwelcoming physical presence of the bazaar.

As he prepares to leave he overhears a “voice call from one end of the gallery that the light was out” (28). The timely light outage at the bazaar is also a reference to Magnan’s sister’s light. The ethereal glow that persistently cloaked her silhouette and captivated the young boy is eclipsed by “…the harsh reality of the necessary world” (Brugaletta, Hayden 17). His gaze, which had relentlessly been aimed at the light emitted by his beloved (“we waited to see whether she would remain or go, her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door” (23)) now shifted (“Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself…” (28)). Because Magnan’s sister’s florescent presence exists in synchrony with the boy’s expectations for Araby, when the bazaar disappoints him the result is a total absence of light (“The upper part of the hall was now completely dark” (27)). The boy’s frustration at the story’s end, epitomized in his fiery eyes, is the fruit of his dissatisfaction. Essentially, his anguish is aimed at the female for her failure to keep pace with his imagination’s expectations.

The unknown can create a crippling desire in the curious mind. It captivates because it provides the imagination with infinite possibilities for creating an idealized fantasy. For a young Irish boy in “Araby,” the unknown is a woman, foreign in her unfamiliarity to him. Her identity is muted by her missing name and face; she is Magnan’s sister, a shadowy figure, and the essence of anonymity. Like an Oriental bazaar, she can quench his thirst for the exotic. The collision of the boy’s imagined reality of woman and the actual reality of woman leaves him wallowing in a hateful disappointment.


[1] Kershner, R. Brandon. Joyce, Bakhtin, and Popular Literature: Chronicles of    Disorder. UNC Press Books, 1992. Print.

[2] Leonard, Garry M. “The Question and the Quest: The Story of Mangan’s Sister.” Modern Fiction Studies 35.3 (1989): 459-477. Web. 15 Dec. 2014.

Works Cited

Brugaletta, John J., and Mary H. Hayden. “The Motivation for Anguish in Joyce’s Araby.” Studies in Short Fiction Newberry, SC 15.1 (1978): 11-18. 14 Dec. 2014

Butler, Judith. Interviewed by Liz Kotz. “The Body You Want: Liz Kotz Interviews Judith Butler” Artforum 31.3 (1992):82-9. Web. 20 Dec. 2014.

Cheng, Vincent J. Joyce, Race, and Empire. Vol. 3. Cambridge University Press, 1995. Print.

Frye, Marilyn. “The Necessity of Differences: Constructing A Positive Category of Women.” Signs (1996): 991-1010. Web. 14 Dec. 2014. 

Gelfant, Blanche. “A Frame of Her Own: Joyce’s Women in Dubliners Re-Viewed:

Introduction; Proc. of Ninth Internat. James Joyce Symposium, Frankfurt, 1984.” James Joyce: The Augmented Ninth. Ed. Bernard Benstock. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1988. 263-266. Web. 16 Dec. 2014

Joyce, James. “Araby.” Dubliners. The Merry Blacksmith Press, 1914. 21-28. Web. 14 Dec. 2014.

Leclerc, Annie. “Woman’s word.” French Connections: Voices from the Women’s Movement in France (1987): 60. Web. 2 Jan. 2015.

Mulvey, Lara. “Visual Pleasure in the Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (Autumn 1975): 6-18.

Norton, Caroline. “The Arab’s Farewell To His Steed.” Ed. Frothingham, Robert. Songs of Horses: An Anthology Selected and Arranged. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1920. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.

Rains, Stephanie. “Joyce’s’ Araby’ and the Historical Araby Bazaar, 1894.”Dublin James Joyce Journal 1.1 (2008): 17-29. Web. 2 Jan. 2015.