The Unconscious Conflicts in the James Joyce's Short Story "Araby"

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The Conflicts Within

In 1914, Irish author James Joyce published the short story “Araby,” in which an unwitting boy falls prey to his instinctual desires. Instead of carefully considering the full implications of his actions, he allows his premature sexual drive to take over, ultimately leading himself down a path of self-destruction. Even the strict Catholic environment that surrounds him proves insufficient to stop him from acting upon the base desires that are inherent in everyone. Though he realizes afterwards what he has done, it is too late; the shame he feels cannot be taken away. This story illustrates the unconscious conflicts that take place inside all of us between the id, the ego, and the superego.

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In “Araby,” the boy’s id manifests itself in his attraction to his friend’s older sister, while the ego strives to devise a realistic method of fulfilling his desire to possess her. Whenever he sees the girl, his “confused adoration” for her takes control of his mind and supplants all other thoughts and feelings. This reaction is purely instinctual, arising from within him without any conscious action on his part. He lacks an understanding of his unconscious sexual drive, but he feels the physical and emotional consequences of it nonetheless. His desire for the girl underlies his actions throughout the story, as the ego seeks to find a way to actually satisfy this desire by winning her affection.

The first opportunity presents itself when she reveals to him that though “she would love to go” to a bazaar being held in town, she is unable to do so. In response, the boy promises to bring her a gift from the bazaar if he goes. The boy believes that by doing so, he may finally win her over, thereby fulfilling the wishes of his unconscious libido (though of course he does not know that this is the ultimate goal). He does not consider the possibility that the girl is simply using him to get things she wants and is not actually interested in him; he does not consider the adverse consequences that his excessive devotion to her will have on other aspects of his life. He is completely driven by the id’s animalistic desires and controlled by the ego’s plans to achieve pleasure. However, there is another unconscious force inside him; one that is continually struggling against the id and the ego for control of his actions.

The superego is the boy’s moralistic defense against his id’s base desire for the girl and the amoral strategizing of his ego. Though it is unconsciously working inside the boy throughout the story, it does not manifest itself in his conscious thoughts until after he arrives at the bazaar, when he says that he saw himself as “a creature driven and derided by vanity”. The Catholic environment that surrounds the boy instilled moral principles within him, and when his id and ego cause him to undertake actions that contradict with these values, the superego fights back. It is not strong enough to repel the drive of the id at first, but when reality finally sets in, the ego has to accept the superego’s insistence that the boy’s actions are damaging in the long-term and must cease.

This realization is what allows the boy to, in hindsight, criticize himself as he narrates the story, such as by labelling himself “foolish” and saying that “innumerable follies laid waste his waking and sleeping thoughts” after his conversation with the girl. These reflections reveal the superego’s power of self-judgement, which strengthens the boy’s defenses against his id’s instinctual desires in the future. The next time a girl attracts his interest, for instance, his superego may overpower the id in the beginning, saving him from having to experience all the grief he did. By acting as a counterbalance to the id and influencing the behavior of the ego, the superego performs a valuable service to the boy as the third force in his unconscious.

The id, ego and superego wage a constant battle in the unconscious mind of the boy in “Araby,” struggling for control over his actions. The id and ego, while necessary for the survival and prosperity of the human race, can also cause one to run into trouble, just as the boy does while trying to capture the object of his affection. Without the superego, the boy would be enslaved to his desires, causing his life to become a never-ending search for pleasure that would most likely culminate in violence, as the ego would feel no constraint against using and abusing others for his own satisfaction. The three forces each have their purpose; when acting properly, they are able to maintain balance in one’s mental state by keeping each other in check. “Araby” provides a great example of this process, and it is worth analyzing the text further to see what other unconscious conflicts might exist in the story.

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