“She is described as quietly standing in the door way, thus appearing as a statute…”

I have a feeling this student was trying to write about Mangan’s sister, the object of her young brother’s friend’s crush in James Joyce’s “Araby.”

When I teach “Araby,” I like to ask my students to identify all the words and images in the story that have, or could have, religious connotations. It’s a great way into understanding the way Joyce creates the urgency, depth, and complexity of the first stirrings of attraction and romance. I cherish the memories of my adolescent crushes, and I think a lot about the components of those passions and the ways in which such attachments mediate between childhood and adulthood. Joyce’s mature narrator is looking back at such an experience in his own life with pity and amusement—and tender admiration too, I think: love exalts the boy in the story; his crashing disillusionment at the end can’t be understood unless the reader can appreciate the exaltation (the narrator calls it “confused adoration”) that precedes it.

In class we take a look at these religious images (most of which I have to point out and, quite frequently, explain, heigh-ho), and I always suggest that the narrator’s description of the light falling on Mangan’s sister as she stands in the doorway of her house is suggestive of light falling on a statue of Mary in a church niche, even though in Joyce’s story the light picks out details that imply sexuality (her hair, the hem of her petticoat, for example):

…She was waiting for us, her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door. …and I stood by the railings looking at her. Her dress swung as she moved her body, and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.

And later, on the same stoop on another evening,

…She …bow[ed] 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, just visible as she stood at ease.

And my student here seems to have been trying to write about that. But he takes it in entirely the wrong direction. Here’s his sentence:

“She is described as quietly standing in the door way, thus appearing as a statute, something that is cold and hard and does not change.”

For a moment let’s pretend he wrote “statue,” which is obviously what he meant. The equation of girl with statue is accomplished much too quickly: just a “thus” and the process is evidently complete. Teacher immediately suspects that student didn’t really follow the discussion and therefore can’t explain the point beyond stating it, thus the “thus.” And what follows bears out that suspicion, I’m afraid. He didn’t catch the idea that describing a girl as if she were a holy statue in a Catholic church sanctifies her attraction and mystery; he thinks “statue” and gets “stone,” despite the narrator’s characterization of her hair as a “soft rope.” “Cold and hard” would never enter the mind of Joyce’s narrator here: the boy is fascinated and silently adoring. It’s true that Mangan’s sister “does not change” in the story: she remains her sweet self, oblivious of the boy’s worship even when he offers, in what he hopes seems a mature and casual way, to buy her something at the bazaar called Araby that’s being held while she’s away on a religious retreat with her school. After all, the story isn’t about Mangan’s sister, but about the boy’s romantic dreams of Mangan’s sister. The fact that she does not change, then, is not a fault; it is a fact of life, as all of us who have had and survived crushes can attest, alas.

Reading the student’s intended sentence, then, is depressing for the person who tried so hard to get him to read the story with his whole self. But my Book of Horrors isn’t full of depressing misinterpretations; I put things in that book that, horror or not, make me laugh.

And I did laugh at the “statute” error, which was probably an uncorrected typo rather than a mistaken word choice. I laughed because the definition that follows the word is certainly one way to view the law. Certainly laws are cold, in that they define and describe acts held to be criminal without regard to the individual human stories that might prompt commission of those acts. They are hard in a similar way, unyielding to attempts to color or blur their definitions and thus weaken their sway. And although laws can be changed, they do not change of their own volition, and making changes to them takes sustained and vigorous effort. Justice, I believe, involves factoring human realities into the legal equation; but my student has offered a legitimate definition of a statute in his sentence—even though he had intended to discuss love, not law.

Finally, Bob Dylan sneaks into my thoughts: “Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall.” As my student accurately (!) observes, Mangan’s sister stands quietly in the doorway, not stubbornly or implacably or defiantly or obstructively. Putting myself in the narrator’s place and looking up at her, I see promise, benevolence, beauty, sanctified presence. But my reader sees something cold and hard and unchanging, and if that’s what she is, then she’s got to be blocking the (half-open) door, shutting the narrator out, shutting the reader out. Where is the story, then? Where is the wonder?

Reading isn’t just being able to “decode” the words. The sentence my student wrote betrays not just a failure of proof-reading, but a failure of reading itself.

I probably shouldn’t have even tried to talk about the ways in which an image pattern can enrich a literary work. Imagery of religion seems particularly opaque to them, even at the Catholic-related university that is one of the places I currently teach. None of the students who read the sentence “I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes” even noticed the word “chalice,” so beautifully chosen, evoking not only communion but also the Holy Grail and the knights who sought it. The name of the bazaar, “Araby,” makes the boy a crusader on a holy quest (and, for the reader, Valentino in The Sheik of Araby, and the popular song “I am the sheik of Araby, Your love belongs to me…,” both of which appeared some years after Joyce wrote the story but both of which also complement the images in the story. Actually my mother used occasionally to sing that song, even though she was just a kid when it was popular). That the boy’s uncle drunkenly recites “The Arab’s Farewell to His Steed” emphasizes the exotic romance of the word.

What makes me really sad is that I did recognize the pattern of religious allusions when I read this story for the first time as a freshman in college. I hope popular culture has given my students some new rich trove to replace what has evidently been lost. But what has been lost provided a link between reader and writer that can’t be supplied by newer references, and that means that the readers are steadily losing the means to enjoy the wonderful works of writers dead and gone—and with that, I fear, the understanding of the worlds that words can evoke.

Anyway, clicking on my first mention of “Araby” will take you to the full text of the story. Read it for yourself, or re-read it if you’ve already read it. Read it once for the story; read it a second time for the resonances. Daydream about your own first “love.” Offer up a little tear at the boy’s moment of disillusionment. Try not to think of statutes.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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