Like Chekhov, James Joyce rejects highly plotted stories in favor of seemingly static episodes and "slices" of reality. Also like Chekhov, he depends on unity of feeling to create a sense of storyness, and he creates significance out of the trivial by judicious selection and ordering of detail.
Joyce's most famous contribution to the development of short fiction is of course his concept of epiphany, which his protagonist Stephen Hero, in the novel of that name, describes as "a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself." It is the task of the person of letters, Joyce says, to record these revelations, because they are the "most delicate and evanescent of moments."
Joyce's technique, a method that critic Allen Tate calls "dissociated metaphor," is to transform the casual into the causal by repetition of seemingly trivial details until they are recognized as part of a significant pattern. His most famous story to use this technique is "The Dead," in which three fourths of the story seems to consist of mere realistic detail until the final lyrical one-fourth reveals the significance of the repetition of meaningful details that have lead up to the final section. "Araby" is a story that end with decisions or revelations that seem unprepared for, that is, until the reader reflects back on the story and perceives the patterned nature of what at first seem only casual detail.
What Joyce achieves in "Araby" derives from Chekhov's experiments with creating symbols out of objects by their very role or context, not by their preexisting meaning. The primary counterpoint throughout the story consists of those images which suggest ordinary reality and those that suggest unknown romance. The result is a kind of realism that is symbolic at the same time. "Araby" is effective because it embodies the spiritual romanticism of the boy in the realistic objects of his world. Like the young girl in Chekhov's "After the Theatre," the boy needs to find something to objectfy his romanticism; this is the point of his trip to the bizaar.
Mangan's sister is identified by "her powerful absence," a suggestive phrase, for all the boy's actions are predicated on her not being there; her reality depends on him although he thinks that his reality depends on her. This is a story about the ultimate romantic projection, for the boy sees the girl as a religious object, a romantic embodiment of desire. Her name is like a "summons" to all his "foolish blood," yet it is such a sacred name that he cannot utter it. Her image accompanies him "even in places the most hostile to romance"; thus, when he has the opportunity to visit Araby, a place he fancies the most sympathetic to romance, what he seeks is a sacred object capable of objectifying all his unutterable desires.
The trivial conversation that he overhears causes his realization precisely because of its flirtatious nature, for what the boy discovers is that there is nothing so sacred that it cannot be made to be profane. To see his most holy desire for Mangan's sister diminished to mere physical desire is to see a parody of himself; it is to hear his unspeakable desire spoken and thus reduced. The result is the realization not only that he is driven and derided by vanity, but that all is vanity; there is no way for the most sacred desires that human beings store up in their ghostly hearts to be actualized and still retain their spiritual magic.
Tomorrow: Frank O'Connor's "Judas"