Joyce's short story "Araby" is filled with symbolic images of a church. It opens and closes with strong symbols, and in the body of the story, the images are shaped by the young, Irish narrator's impressions of the effect the Church of Ireland has upon the people of Ireland. In addition to the images in the story, there are descriptive words and phrases that add to this representational meaning.
The story opens with a description of the Dublin neighbourhood where the boy lives. Strikingly suggestive of a church, the image shows the ineffectuality of the Church as a vital force in the lives of the inhabitants of the neighborhood. North Richmond Street is composed of two rows of houses with "brown imperturbable faces" (the pews) leading down to the tall "uninhabited house" (the empty altar). The boy's own home is set in a garden the natural state of which would be like Paradise, since it contains a "central apple tree"; however it stands desolately amid "a few straggling bushes". At dusk when the boy and his companions play in the street the lamps of the street lift their "feeble lanterns" to the sky of "ever-changing violet" (timid suppliants to the far-away heavens). Since the boy is the narrator, the inclusion of these symbolic images in the description of the setting shows that the boy is sensitive to the lack of spiritual beauty in his surroundings. Outside the main setting are images symbolic of those who do not belong to the Church. The boy and his companions go there at times, behind their houses, along the "dark muddy lanes," to where the "rough tribes" (the infidels) dwell. Here odours arise from "the ash pits" which symbolise the moral decay of his nation.
Even the house in which the youthful main character lives adds to the sense of moral decay. The former tenant, a late priest, is shown to have been insensitive to the spiritual needs of his people. His legacy was a collection of books that showed his confusion of the sacred with the secular, and there is also evidence that he devoted his life to gathering "money" and "furniture".
Despite these discouraging surroundings, the boy is determined to find some evidence of the love his idealistic dreams tell him should exist within the Church. His first love becomes the focal point of this determination. In the person of Mangan's sister, his longings find an object of worship. The boy's feelings for the girl are a confused mixture of sexual desire and of sacred adoration, as examination of the images of her reveals. He is obsessed at one and the same time with watching her physical attractions and with seeing her always surrounded by light, as if by a halo. He imagines that he can carry her "image" as a "chalice" through a "throng of foes"- the cursing, brawling infidels at the market to which he goes with his aunt. All other sensations of life "fade from his consciousness" and he is aware only of his adoration of the blessed "image".
Later in the story when he arrives at Araby, he is struck by a "silence like that of a church". This is followed by another image that calls up the image at the beginning of the story, that of the aisle leading to an altar. In this case, it is a hall leading to the booth displaying porcelain vases (chalices for the Eucharist), and flowered tea sets (the flowers on the altar).The great jars guarding the stall can be interpreted as symbols of the mysticism standing guard over the Church.
For the boy, the girl attending the stall, like Mangan's sister, becomes an object of faith. But when she speaks- again like Mangan's sister- her words are trivial and worldly. In a sudden flash of insight the boy sees that his faith and his passion have been blind. He sees in the "two men counting money on a salver" a symbol of the moneylenders in the temple. The lights in the hall go out; his "church" is in darkness. Tears fill his eyes as he sees in himself a "creature driven and derided by vanity", whose "foolish blood" had made him see secular desires as symbols of true faith. He has discovered in his Church and in love (both traditional symbols of ineffably sacred love) only a shoddy imitation of true beauty. Understandably his disillusionment causes him "anguish and anger".