The story takes place in late 19th/early 20th-century Dublin, on North Richmond Street, a blind (dead-end) street on which stand several brown houses and the Christian Brother’s school, a Catholic school for boys. The street is quiet, except when school ends and the boys play in the street until dinner. At the end of the street is an empty house, offset from the others by its own square plot of land.
These details establish that the narrator is living in a sheltered environment with heavy religious influences. The symbol of blindness serves to foreshadow the narrator’s ignorance that comes with his infatuation with Mangan’s sister, and the color brown is used to emphasize the dullness of everyday Dublin.
The former tenant of this, the narrator’s house, was a priest who died in the back drawing room, but left some of his belongings behind. The narrator enjoys leafing through the yellow pages of the books left behind by the priest: The Abbot, The Devout Communicant, and The Memoirs of Vidocq. In the back garden near the apple tree, the narrator also once found the priest’s rusty bicycle pump under a bush. The narrator supposes the priest was a charitable man, noting that he left his money to institutions and his furniture to his sister after he died.
Joyce gives these details about the priest in order to provide a subtle commentary on the Catholic church. By listing his books, two of which are non-religious, Joyce shows that the priest was a person like any other who took interest in subjects other than religion. The bicycle pump that the narrator finds beneath a bush as though it had been hidden there suggests that maybe the priest had a private life in which he partook in secular activities, such as biking.
The boys usually meet in the street to play before dinner, even during winter when it has already become dark by then. They play outside in the cold until their bodies “glow,” exploring everywhere from the muddy lanes behind the houses and back into the street, which, along with the “areas” – sunken enclosures providing access to the basements of the houses – is now illuminated with light from the kitchen windows. When they see the narrator’s uncle coming home, they hide from him in the shadows.
The narrator establishes the habitual play that he soon grows tired of. The boys hide from the narrator’s uncle, suggesting that he is widely feared, or perhaps just very strict. The symbols of light and dark are introduced. In their innocent nights of play, the boys “glow,” presumably with carefree happiness. This contrasts starkly with the narrator’s later epiphany, which takes place in complete darkness.
Every night Mangan’s sister comes outside to call him inside for tea. Mangan, one of the narrator’s friends, usually teases her while the narrator looks on. The narrator begins to notice her physical characteristics, such as the way her dress moves and the “soft rope of her hair.” Every morning, he watches her door from a slit in the blinds in his front parlor, waiting for her to leave so he can walk behind her on the way to school. Just before they part ways, he always speeds up and passes her.
The narrator is developing a crush on Mangan’s sister as he begins to notice more physical details. However, he is clearly still a child in how he deals with his newfound attraction. He never attempts to talk to her, but instead walks to school behind her and then speeds up to catch her attention. The symbol of blindness appears again as the narrator watches for her through the blinds, perhaps indicating that he is “blind” to everything except her.
The narrator begins to fantasize about Mangan’s sister constantly—even as he walks through the noisy, dirty Dublin market with his aunt, passing street-singers singing about Donovan O’Rossa, a Fenian revolutionary. He imagines carrying the thought of Mangan’s sister like a “chalice safely through a throng of foes.” Even just her name begins to conjure up “strange prayers and praises,” which confuse even the narrator himself. Often he finds himself full of emotion and on the brink of tears for no apparent reason. Despite all of this, he does not make any plans to talk to her, but instead remains wrapped up in his fantasies.
Mangan’s sister becomes the narrator’s mental escape from his everyday life and in this case, an escape from the gritty Dublin market. The narrator begins to associate Mangan’s sister with religious imagery, such as the “chalice,” and his emotions become stronger and even more confusing. It seems as though he is worshipping her, even though if unintentionally so.
One rainy night, the narrator goes into the back drawing room where the priest died and lets his emotions take over. He presses his palms together as if in prayer and repeats “O Love” continually in the dark.
The narrator presses his hands together in a prayer that seems almost like heresy, since he is praying to someone other than God in a room where a priest has died. He also uses the word “love” as though he is finally giving a name to his feelings.
When Mangan’s sister finally speaks to the narrator, it is to ask if he is planning to go to the Araby bazaar. He is completely caught off-guard, and as he recounts the events, the narrator does not even remember if he said yes or no. She tells him she is unable to attend because she has a retreat for her convent, and he seizes what seems like an opportunity to impress her, promising to bring her back something if he goes to the bazaar. While this conversation is happening the other boys are fighting over their caps. The narrator notices the way the light catches Mangan’s sister’s neck, her hair, her hand, and finally the white hem of her petticoat sticking out from under her dress.
This scene takes place while the other boys are fighting over their caps, which emphasizes the narrator’s alienation from his friends. The Araby bazaar is introduced here, as well as the narrator’s perceived opportunity to win over Mangan’s sister. The light is used to highlight Mangan’s sister’s body as the narrator sees her in a new, more physical way, and perhaps also to symbolize his sexual awakening.
The narrator now begins to fantasize not only about Mangan’s sister, but about the Araby bazaar as well. He is fascinated with the exotic Eastern nature of the market, and even the word, Araby, seems foreign and exciting to him. He asks his aunt if he can attend the market and she is skeptical at first, asking if it is a Freemason affair, but assenting when he says it isn’t. Meanwhile, the narrator cannot focus in school and his master begins to notice and becomes stern with him. The narrator starts to feel like school and everyday life are “ugly monotonous child’s play.”
The narrator starts to fantasize about the exotic Araby market, using it as a mental escape, but also hoping it provides a physical escape from his everyday life, even if only for a night. He begins to see himself as superior to his peers, who are occupied with seemingly less important activities, such as school. This is a significant indication that he is coming of age, and it also contributes to why he feels alienated from his friends.
On Saturday morning, the narrator reminds his uncle that he wishes to attend the Araby bazaar that night. He leaves for school in a bad mood, already anticipating future disappointment. When he returns for dinner that night his uncle is not home yet. The narrator anxiously paces the house. From an upstairs window he sees his friends playing in the street and then looks over at Mangan’s sister’s house, seeing her “brown-clad figure” in his mind.
The narrator is already anticipating that something will go wrong, even after his uncle reassures him, and this perhaps indicates that the narrator is aware that he has unrealistic expectations for the bazaar—but he still can’t help clinging to them. As he is restlessly pacing, he catches a glimpse of his friends playing in the street, but all he can think of is Mangan’s sister.
When the narrator goes back downstairs, Mrs. Mercer, the pawnbroker’s widow, is there. They wait for the narrator’s uncle to arrive for over an hour and Mrs. Mercer leaves, saying she cannot wait any longer. The narrator’s aunt suggests that he may not be able to attend the bazaar. At 9 pm, the narrator hears his uncle’s key in the door, and can tell from the way his uncle is moving that he has been drinking. The narrator waits until his uncle is halfway through his dinner before asking for money to go to the market. His uncle admits he had forgotten about the market, but when he tries to brush it off by saying it is late, the narrator is not amused. The narrator’s aunt encourages his uncle to let him go and finally his uncle agrees. As the narrator leaves, his uncle begins reciting the poem The Arab’s Farewell to his Steed.
The narrator’s impatience shows that he still has his childlike tendencies, but at the same time he is also aware of some of the more adult issues that his uncle is dealing with, such as debt and alcoholism. Mrs. Mercer’s presence suggests that his uncle may be in debt, and his late return and stumbling in the hallway suggest that he is drunk. These are both issues that the narrator is becoming more aware of as he loses his innocence and gains knowledge about the adult world.
The narrator walks to the train station and boards the empty third-class section of the train. After a delay, the train finally leaves, passing run-down houses before pulling up to the makeshift platform. The narrator notices that it is ten minutes before 10 pm, when the market is supposed to close. Unable to find a sixpenny entrance, he quickly enters through a more expensive entrance to get into the market before it closes. As he timidly enters the bazaar, the narrator notices that nearly all of the stalls are closed, and compares the silence to that of a church after the service has ended. He walks toward the few stalls that remain open; one of them displays the name Café Chantant written in colored lamps. He continues on to a stall that is selling porcelain vases and flowered tea sets. He observes the female shopkeeper of the stall flirting with two men, all of them speaking with English accents.
Joyce subtly highlights the poverty of Dublin by mentioning the run-down houses and also including that the narrator is in the third-class compartment of the train. The narrator uses religion as a point of comparison in describing the silence in the bazaar like that of a church after service, showing how he regards the Araby market with similar admiration and awe that he regards Mangan’s sister, and can only describe them using religious references. However, inside the bazaar his awe disappears, as he encounters a stall with a French name, and porcelain vases and flowered tea sets (very un-exotic things). The narrator’s realization that people flirt to pass the time, even at the bazaar, makes his feelings for Mangan’s sister seem commonplace.
The shopkeeper asks the narrator if he’s going to buy anything, but seems to only be asking because it is her job. The narrator responds “No, thank you,” and the shopkeeper returns to her conversation, glancing back from time to time to keep an eye on the narrator. As the narrator leaves the stall he hears someone announce that the lights are going off, and as he is left in darkness, he realizes how foolish he has been, how he has let vanity blind him. He is filled with “anguish and anger” as his eyes sting with tears of disappointment.
The narrator quickly loses confidence as he realizes that the shopkeeper does not take him seriously, and he also realizes that both the bazaar and his feelings for Mangan’s sister are something more common than what he had built them up to be. The narrator has an epiphany as he is plunged into darkness, realizing that his feelings were not actually love, that his desires and the market itself were not special or exotic at all, and that he was motivated by vanity and the desire for approval.