The narrator of “Araby” is surrounded by religion. He attends a Roman Catholic school and all of the people around him, just like he himself, are steeped in the Catholic religion that held sway in Ireland at the time when the story was set. Joyce does not clearly indicate how strongly the narrator believes in his faith, but Catholicism plays a large role in his upbringing and he often explains things through Catholic ideas and imagery.
Most obviously, the narrator over and over again thinks about and describes his crush, Mangan’s sister, in religious terms. At one point he compares her to a “chalice” that he is protecting from a “throng of foes,” a reference that seems to compare her to the Holy Grail. At other times, he literally seems to worship her: “Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand.” That the narrator doesn’t even understand his prayers to Mangan’s sister seems to imply that he is not idolizing Mangan’s sister on purpose. Instead, it seems as if his Catholic upbringing has defined the form of how he understands anything for which he feels strong emotion. Up until this point, being a child, the narrator has only ever experienced familial love and love for God (or at least an attempt to love God, one founded in the religious language he is surrounded by), which he does not know how to differentiate from romantic love. And so he thinks of romantic love in religious terms.
At the same time, the sort of idolizing of Mangan’s sister that the narrator engages in would have been seen as deeply irreligious by serious Catholics. The idolization of anything or anyone above God was considered a kind of blasphemy. When looked at in this light, it might be argued that the story exposes or at least questions the narrator’s relationship with religion. The protagonist’s infatuation with and distraction by Mangan’s sister might suggest that he is not strongly devoted to his faith. After all, while thinking of her he begins to see his studies as childish, suggesting that he is not fully invested in his religious education. However the protagonist’s regret at the end of the story could suggest a return to his religious roots. The narrator’s realization that he is a “creature driven … by vanity” is stated in religious terms, and indicates that out of individualist desire (love or infatuation) he has strayed from his true duty. The choice of the word “creature” could have religious connotations as well, in the sense of the creations of God being described as his “creatures.”
At the same time, it is also possible to interpret the text as criticizing Catholicism and religion, as implying that the narrator’s religious background may have set him up to be unsatisfied, because nothing can meet divine standards. Or, conversely, that, just as the narrator’s “worship” of Mangan’s sister is shown to be impossible because nothing can match his imaginative ideals, the story is implying that the same applies to religion in general – that worshipping anything is unreasonable and bound to end in disappointment. More broadly, the story seems to indicate that whatever the particular nature of the narrator’s epiphany, he has come to recognize that what he thought was simple – including his Catholic religion – is in fact complicated and difficult to live with, promising not just salvation but also guilt and anguish.
Religion and Catholicism ThemeTracker
Religion and Catholicism Quotes in Araby
These noises converged in a single sensation of life for me: I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes. Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand.