Polonius Reviews the Last Line of "Araby"

Hearkening Back to 10th Grade English Class

I don't suppose you remember the short story "Araby." I, myself, didn't remember it until I happened to pick up an old abused copy of Dubliners, here, in a misguided attempt to celebrate the work of James Joyce on this beautiful Bloomsday. I say 'misguided' because I am doing this rather than attending a so-called "mandatory" meeting with a tax attorney regarding a little disagreement I am having with the U.S. government. You would not believe how difficult it is to reschedule a meeting like that, but here I am, reading short stories by James Joyce when I should be there. I'm not even going to call to cancel the meeting. I mean, what will I say? Sorry, I can't make it, it's Bloomsday?

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Anyway, there it is, "Araby," third story from the beginning (after a somewhat forgettable "Sisters" and the disturbing "An Encounter"), and the name of the story sparks a faint memory of 10th grade English class. Yes, I believe it was in tenth grade that I first read it. I do remember some things about that haphazard tour of short fiction and poetry, in which Robert Frost is abutted to Mark Twain for no other reason than a tenuous connection to American travelers. A theme of pathways, that was it, as in The Mississippi River vs. The Road Not Taken. Ah, I was an awkward kid in tenth grade. Once, in that very same English class, I sneezed so prodigiously that I covered both my hands with a slick of dripping nasal effluvium. The teacher (whose name and face are both missing from my memory) was clearly disgusted. With a sneer, she ordered me to the restroom. Like a '90's sitcom, the other students laughed and pointed.

But "Araby." What theme does it serve again? This, like the story and the teacher's face, has escaped my memory. Perhaps, on this Bloomsday, I can recover it.

How to Overanalyze Literature

As I read the story, I can sense that it is building to something. It has that drum-roll kind of sense to it, you know? I fidget more and more with the tension of the coming cymbal crash. I pull at my eyebrows. I bounce my feet. I tap my pen on the page (missing, somehow, the unfortunate reality that my pen is beginning to leak). And when I arrive at the last line, I am prepared for something monumental, you see, something to make me sit back and exhale and say "huh." And that's just what Joyce gives me.  Here it is:

Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.
— from "Araby" by James Joyce

Holy shit, right? I'm sure you can see why I just about lose my mind when I read that. Let's start with the first word, "Gazing," an indicator that we are concluding with a thought about sight, and that sight, we shall see, is moral rather than physical. On reading that word, my thoughts leap back to the beginning of the story. Something about a "blind" street, right? Yes, it seems to me that that is how the story began. I flip back to the very first line of the story, and sure enough, there it is: "North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers' School set the boys free." Blindness, you see? That phrase, "being blind" sticks in my eye like a lash under a contact lens. And then there is the end of that first sentence, too, the phrase, "set the boys free." Something there too, isn't there?

"Oh my," I say aloud to myself. "What is Joyce up to?" I ask.

Blindness and Gazing, beginning and end, ah ha! It is, then, a story about revelation. Once he was blind but now he sees, you see?

"Wow," I think as I scratch my nose with a pen cap. "Wow."

But the final sentence doesn't end there, of course. Where is he gazing? "...up into the darkness" that's where! The thing that he has learned to see is in the darkness. Now this darkness could represent ignorance or evil or obscurity, right? But the interesting thing to me, here (also realizing that it wasn't a pen cap that I was using to scratch my nose, but the pen itself), is that it seems to me that gazing into darkness is not a huge improvement over blindness. So, has our protagonist made any real progress? That depends on what he sees in the darkness, eh?

As it turns out, the pen with which I am scratching my nose is leaking badly and now I have a thick smear of ink on the side of my face. After tearing the copyright page out of the front of the book and trying to wipe the ink from my nose with it, I return to the sentence.

Where am I? Oh yes, our protagonist is gazing up into the darkness. He started out on a blind street. Now what? What can he possibly see in that dark corner? Here's the kicker...he sees himself!

 This guy knew what he was doing!

This guy knew what he was doing!

Cymbal Crash! He sees Himself! Ka-bam!

And not only that, but he sees himself "as a creature driven and derided by vanity"! Listen to that alliteration! "Driven and derided"...the unforgiving hammer of those three D's, matching up with the previous "darkness," emphasize how disgusting (another D!) he feels. And look at that image! He sees that he is like a bat or a rat or some other deplorable (and another D!) creature hiding in the dark corner of the closing bazaar. It's self-revelation of the worst kind. I'm so freaking excited!

My attempts to clean the smear of ink from my nose with the copyright page have gone awry, I fear. Touching my face with the last of my clean fingers, I find that I have succeeded only in spreading the ink more thoroughly across it. I set the page down on my desk and try to forget the problem.

So, what is it that drives and derides our poor unnamed narrator? Vanity, of course, and what is vanity except an uncensored sense of self. His unfiltered self drives and derides himself, see? He sees himself and the self he sees derides himself. It's a moment of pure narcissism.

The second half of the sentence works to confirm all of the suspicions I have had from the first. "...and my eyes burned," he says. There are those eyes again. And think about it, he's both the seer and the seen. And in both roles he is miserable! As the seen, he is "driven and derided." Now, as the seer, his eyes burn and the sight of himself. This is how it is to see yourself for who you really are, right? He finishes with a final instance of alliteration, "...with anguish and anger." Now, those final words could be considered phonetic intensives, really, with the repetition of the sound, "ang", that we associate with painful constriction. The sound conjures a whole constellation of discomfort like "anxiety" and "angst" and "anger" and "angina" and even "hang-nail".

The phone rings and, stupidly, I answer it. I say "Hello" and I feel the phone press wetly against my cheek. I have two nearly simultaneous regrets. First, the phone is now also covered in ink. Second, this must be the attorney's secretary, who I was planning to avoid completely.

She asks me if I am aware that I am late to my meeting. I say that I am.

She asks me if I am aware that missing the meeting is a violation of certain legal agreements I have been subjected to.

I look into the dark corner of my living room and my eye burns with the ink that has been smeared into it. It does, indeed, feel like anguish and anger.