In my own writing I’ve often struggled with notions of human beauty and desire. If a character is infatuated with someone, how can an author convince readers to sympathize with those feelings—to understand, and to the greatest extent possible to participate in, a protagonist’s emotional and/or physical desire? It’s one of the greatest challenges of fiction writing, in my view, as evidenced by ubiquitous examples of failure.
In his great short story “Araby,” James Joyce succeeds with remarkable economy in establishing exactly the kind of effect I’m talking about. The story is written in the first person retrospective. First person is perhaps the natural POV for this kind of thing because it can focus exclusively on the protagonist’s moment-to-moment emotions. First person retrospective, moreover, lends itself easily to an elegiac tone fit for describing lost love and/or innocence.
We first glimpse Mangan’s sister, the object of the narrator’s longing, at the doorstep of her house. The protagonist is at the railing looking at her, and we get our first physical description:
Her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.
It’s a brief description, and in common with those that follow, it does not directly address the specifics of Mangan’s sister’s features or body. Instead, we get a vague but pleasing image of universal femininity. We get the graceful motion, the silky clothing, the long soft hair. The suggestion of feminine beauty is there, but the reader is allowed to fill in the details. Joyce is betting on the power of the reader’s imagination. He is assuming that the reader will paint in his own most powerful personal version of Mangan’s sister.
But Joyce doesn’t place all is eggs in the limited basket of physical description. His most effective cues come from the protagonist’s internal responses to Mangan’s sister.
I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires. . . All my senses seemed to desire to veil themselves and, feeling that I was about to slip from them, I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled, murmuring: “O love! O love!” many times.
Joyce is very good at using physical sensations to stand in for emotions. Not only does the reader understand what this boy is experiencing—having no doubt experienced something similar himself—but the descriptions of the sensations are so accurate and proximate—so universal—that they engender a sympathy within the reader that is in itself almost physical.
Additionally, the first person retrospective voice affords the narrator a healthy self-deprecating perspective—“my confused adoration”—keeping things from sliding into melodrama. The image of the boy in the drawing room pressing his palms together and murmuring “O love!” is not only poignant, it’s very funny.
We get one more physical description:
While she spoke she turned a silver bracelet round and round her wrist . . . The light from opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand on the railing. It fell over one side of her dress and caught the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease.
Note that the description is again indirect: Joyce does not describe Mangan’s sister’s lovely blue eyes, her long aquiline nose. He doesn’t even mention the color of her hair. Instead, we get a refracted image—a silver bracelet, the white curve of a neck, light falling on the border of a petticoat. It is an image of feminine beauty, a compelling one edged with hints of purity and innocence, but it’s generalized enough to let the reader fill in the blanks.
The first time she speaks to him it is a momentous conversation. He’s confused and exultant and carried away by his love for her. In the course of their exchange he promises to get her something at the Araby bazaar, which she won’t be allowed to attend.
And that’s the last glimpse we get of her. The rest of the love affair is played out within the protagonist himself.
What innumerable follies laid waste my waking and sleeping thoughts after that evening!
His whole worldview is altered, and everything in his life other than Mangan’s sister and his promise to her subsides into “ugly monotonous child’s play.” He does see her one more time, but only in his imagination, “touched discretely by the lamplight,” as she was the last time he saw her.
In the end, of course, he’s unable to buy her anything at Araby, his mission fails, and he comes to a stinging realization about himself and the folly of his infatuation. Once again, the potential melodrama of the moment is mitigated by the wistful humor of the first person retrospective voice.
“Araby” is a skillful story about an abiding, passionate desire, and how such a desire can advance a protagonist toward a painful coming of age. Mangan’s sister is never directly described, yet she stands as an archetype of feminine grace and purity. But it is the narrator—portrayed with both poignancy and humor in the first person retrospective voice—who gives life and meaning to beauty, by witnessing it and by desiring it.