In his brief but complex story, Araby, James Joyce concentrates on character rather than on plot to reveal the ironies inherent in self-deception. On one level "Araby" is a story of initiation, of a boy's quest for the ideal. The quest ends in failure but results in an inner awareness and a first step into manhood. On another level the story consists of a grown man's remembered experience, for the story is told in retrospect by a man who looks back to a particular moment of intense meaning and insight. This double focus- the boy who first experiences, and the man who has not forgotten- provides for the dramatic rendering of a story of first love told by a narrator who, with his wider, adult vision, can employ the sophisticated use of irony and symbolic imagery necessary to reveal the story's meaning.
The boy's character is indirectly suggested in the opening scenes of the story. He has grown up in the backwash of a dying city. Symbolic images show him to be an individual who is sensitive to the fact that his city's vitality has ebbed and left a residue of empty piety, the faintest echoes of romance, and only symbolic memories of an active concern for God and fellow men. Lonely, imaginative, and isolated, he lacks the understanding necessary for evaluation and perspective. He is at first as blind as his world, but Joyce prepares us for his eventual perceptive awakening by tempering his blindness with an unconscious rejection of the spiritual stagnation of his world.
Religion controls the lives of the inhabitants of North Richmond Street, but it is a dying religion and receives only lip service.The boy entering the new experience of first love, finds his vocabulary within the experiences of his religious training and the romantic novels he has read. The result is an idealistic and confused interpretation of love based on quasireligious terms and the imagery of romance. Despite all the evidence of the dead house on a deadstreet in a dying city the boy determines to bear his "chalice safely through a throng of foes". He is extraordinarily lovesick, and from his innocent idealism and stubbornness, we realize that he cannot keep the dream. He must wake to the demands of the world around him and react.
The account of the boy's futile quest emphasizes both his lonely idealism and his ability to achieve the perspectives he now has. The quest ends when he arrives at the bazaar and realizes with slow, tortured clarity that Araby is not at all what he imagined. It is tawdry and dark and thrives on the profit motive and the eternal lure its name evokes in men. The boy realizes that he has placed all his love and hope in a world that does not exist except in his imagination. He feels he is a "creature driven and derided by vanity" and the vanity is his own.
At no other point in the story is characterization as brilliant as at the end. Joyce draws his protagonist with strokes designed to let us recognize in the "creature driven and derided by vanity" - both a boy who is initiated into knowledge through a loss of innocence and a man who fully realizes the incompatibility between the beautiful and innocent world of the imagination and the very real world of fact. In Araby, Joyce uses the character of the boy to embody the theme of his story.