Symbolism of Darkness and Light in James Joyce’s “Araby”

1000 words | 4 page(s)

James Joyce’s short story “Araby” (1914) is a Modernist work that details a young boy’s transition from adolescent romanticism to a more fully-realized and, ultimately, disillusioned maturity. “Araby’s” main narrative revolves around the adolescent protagonist and his quest to impress the sister of one of his friends, Mangan. To do this, he must bring the girl back something from a local bazaar happening in Dublin—a bazaar called Araby. The boy’s idealized notions parallel the bazaar’s exotic romanticism, and Joyce creates a dynamic in which the boy’s journey to the bazaar becomes a kind of hero’s journey, as outlined by Joseph Campbell in his book, The Hero with the Thousand Faces.

Detailing the process of the Hero’s Journey, Campbell identifies several different elements, i.e., the call to adventure, test, threshold struggle, flight, elixir, etc. (Campbell 210). On the surface, Joyce’s “Araby” does seem to conform to this structure. However, as the story reaches its conclusion, and the boy does not return with the elixir (i.e., the gift for his friend’s sister), we see that the hero’s journey is unsuccessful. What are we to make of this departure from classic form? Clearly, Joyce wants the reader to feel something other than triumph at the end. Furthermore, Joyce’s explicit use of color—especially light and dark—can point us toward the symbolic meaning in his departure from the classic hero’s journey. The interplay between darkness and light in “Araby” create meaningful contrast that brings out the story’s true thematic intent, where light symbolizes romantic idealism, while darkness typifies the transition to a more hardened sense of maturity and self-awareness.

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The call to adventure, as described by Campbell, “marks what has been termed the ‘awakening of the self’” (42). For the protagonist in “Araby,” this “awakening” is initiated by his infatuation with his love interest, Mangan’s sister. She effectively sets the boy on his journey, and what better place to consummate his initiative with Mangan’s sister than to bring her back something from the exotic bazaar? To show the symbolic importance of the boy’s call to adventure, Joyce uses images of light. As the boy spies Mangan’s sister on the stairs, she is bathed in shades of light that contrast the darkness of their surroundings: “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” (2). Joyce repeats the terms “light,” “white,” and “lit” here for effect, contrasting with the dark dreariness of the environment—“It was a
dark rainy evening” (2). As a result, Mangan’s sister takes on a mystical, almost otherworldly appearance, appearing like an angel from the darkness. The fact that she is elevated on the staircase as she appears to the boy amplifies this symbolism.

We also see examples of Joyce’s light/dark contrast at the story’s end, where the boy reaches the fabled bazaar and finds it does not meet his romantic expectations. This section of the narrative most closely parallels Campbell’s final “threshold struggle” of the hero’s journey, where the hero must pass a kind of trial in order to reach the “elixir.” Here, the threshold struggle in “Araby” is represented by the protagonist’s uncle, who returns late from work with the money the boy needs to take to the bazaar and, thus, threatens the entire venture. However, the uncle arrives just in time, and the boy is able to make it to the bazaar, albeit late in the evening (here we see darkness recur). At the end, Joyce departs from the traditional hero’s journey. In the bazaar itself, the boy should find romantic light in the darkness, as evinced before with the image of Mangan’s sister. However, at the bazaar, the boy finds only gloomy emptiness: “Nearly all the stalls were closed and the greater part of the hall was in darkness” (4).

The reader begins to understand that the journey will not end as expected, with the hero’s triumphant return with the elixir to win the favor of the girl. It is far too late for the boy to participate in the magic of the bazaar (if there were any at all), and he does not have the money to buy anything he might be able to bring back. Instead, Joyce mirrors the darkness of the bazaar with that found in the boy’s dawning realization in the story’s final line: “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity” (5). The recurring images of darkness dominate the story at the end, drowning out the romantic visions of light found in the beginning.

The evocative image of the “adored female” recurs throughout Joyce’s works (Stone 355). In “Araby,” Joyce uses Mangan’s sister as a romanticized image of light appearing from the darkness. However, the fact that the boy is unable to fulfill his journey and bring back Campbell’s “elixir” points to the notion that Joyce intentionally seeks to depart from the typical hero’s journey. Instead of adhering to romanticized motifs, Joyce draws in line with the Modernist conventions prevalent in literature of the early 20th century. The protagonist’s failure, symbolized by the “darkness” he sees within himself at the end is emblematic of a more realistic transition to adulthood than the kind of idealized journey put forth by Campbell. The protagonist fails to consummate the journey, but he does reach a higher plane of both self-awareness and worldly knowledge, both of which mark the transition from naïve innocence to more a more hardened cognizance of the realities of adulthood.

  • Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 3rd ed. Novato: New World Library, 2008.
  • Joyce, James. “Araby,” 1914. Retrieved from
  • Stone, Harry. “Araby” and the Writings of James Joyce.” The Antioch Review, Spring 2013:
    348-80. ProQuest. 16 Feb. 2017.

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