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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

James Joyce's "Araby": What does the narrator's "chalice" represent and why must he protect it?

James Joyce characterizes the narrator in "Araby" as a lad gripped by an intense infatuation with the sister of his friend Mangan. This obsession, which borders on idolatry, permeates his thoughts and drives his desires. At one point the narrator reflects on how the very mention of her name plants a seed in his mind which remains throughout his daily routine. This is evident in the boy's trip to the market with his mother. Amidst the hustle and bustle of the market scene, the boy notices a crowd of Irish nationalists singing songs "about the troubles in [their] native land" (Joyce, 22). This event places the story within the context of colonial Ireland, where citizens find themselves facing both the immediate and lingering effects of British Imperial control.

It is in the market, bathed in nationalist song, that the narrator refers to the sacred name of Mangan's sister as his "chalice." He recalls how he "bore [his] chalice safely through a throng of foes" (22). The chalice itself is a prominent Christian symbol. It is an image often associated with the Holy Grail, or the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper. Such a sacred reference elucidates the importance and value the boy places on the very name of his love. In referring to the sanctity of his love's name as his chalice, the narrator elevates his infatuation to a level of idolatry and worship.

The boy's love for Mangan's sister creates a desire within him to protect the sacred vision of female perfection at all costs. When he refers to carrying the chalice through the throng of foes, he is referring to the nationalist singers. For a Irish boy to call his fellow Irishmen "foes" is somewhat shocking. Not only does this make the reader question the boy's devotion to his country, it also causes concern as to the nature of such nationalist groups. However, the boy might instead see the threat as being the internal turmoil which plagued Ireland during the early 20th century. In this case, the boy hopes to extricate himself and his passion for the girl from the realities of colonial Ireland. He strives to preserve the innocence and sanctity of the name which represents, for him, a complete dismissal of colonial reality.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with your assessment of Mangan's sister as the main character's idol. The last line of Araby sums up much of the boy's frustrations, but i think one thing it also points to is the boy's disappointment in himself for this foolish idolization. He gave into his vanity and that is a cause for anguish.

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