To know why these two forces conflict, it is necessary to comprehend a bit of Joyce’s background. Raised as a Roman Catholic in Ireland, he would have been taught that sex is a wicked thing, to be used only for the conception of children. In Catholicism sexual intercourse has no other purpose---it is not meant for pleasure. Carnal desires are seen as giving in to the temptations of the Devil, and thus are to be avoided. The ‘Immaculate Conception’ of Mary, mother of Jesus, is a prime example of how the Catholic Church tried to snuff out sexual connotations at the heart of their religion. If Mary had had sex with her husband, Joseph, to conceive Jesus, it would have sullied the aura of purity she, and the Church, were meant to convey. With this knowledge, it becomes plain why the usage of sex and religion as symbols in Araby is so powerful. The garden behind the boy’s house depicts two strong sexual symbols. It “contained a central apple tree and…the late tenant’s rusty bicycle pump”. The former owner referred to was a priest. The apple tree represents the man’s desires for women, while the pump signifies his unused sexuality. Members of the clergy were supposed to remain celibate their entire lives while wearing the collar. This points to an inner conflict of belief and yearning.
Faith and desire are very separate things experienced by the human mind; they cannot easily be reconciled. It’s simple: faith is a belief in something you cannot see. You just assume it’s there; there is no possibility of it being otherwise. Yet with desire, you are focused on something you can see, whether it is a person or a thing. But it’s also more than that. Faith is based on belief and a certain viewpoint of how reality works. With desire, you feel like you need something. You must have it. Such potent feelings at both ends of the emotional spectrum make for a stark contrast. It’s amazing that these two forces are present in the human mind. It is this paradox that Joyce uses to drive his story.
The boy becomes insatiable. “I had hardly any patience with…life…now that it stood between me and my desire…” (emphasis added). He is blinded by it. How do you couple faith with desire? You can’t. That’s what makes Araby so compelling.
“I recognized the silence like that which pervades a church after a service…”. James Joyce knew what he was doing when he placed such imagery in the tale, for after that point the boy discovers that the thing he loves is not what he really wants or needs. The boy’s faith is like a fruitful plant, yet the other seed, his desire, grows into a weed, strangling the fruit of belief. It is plausible the story is a reflection of Joyce himself, rejecting his religion and country because they either could not meet his needs or he felt abandoned by them. He is able to use his own experience to propel Araby beyond the typical ‘coming of age’ story. Rather than being a mere narrative of a boy’s first feelings of love, Joyce illustrates the loss of the boy’s conviction in his beliefs. The love story is simply a veneer covering the clash of sex and religion, lust and creed.
In his crafting of symbolism into Araby, James Joyce produced a thought-provoking piece of short literature. It is a showcase of his strengths as an author; subliminal yet accessible, obvious but hidden. To grasp its meaning is to identify the internal quarrel of what you believe and what you crave. All of this makes Araby a classic example of symbolic storytelling, timeless and inspiring.