Boyhood and the Coming of Age Narrative (Part I)

(The Depressing Reality of Coming of Age)

Our readings this week comprise two coming of age stories in two different settings, James Joyce’s early 20th century Dublin, Ireland in “Araby” and William Faulkner’s 19thcentury Mississippi in “Barn Burning.” Both of these writers have become icons for their homes and have shaped the way people view and understand the history and culture of urban Dublin and rural Mississippi respectively.

Additionally, both writers are united in being known as important voices of modernism, a literary and artistic movement that dates roughly from the late 19th century to about World War Two. Modernism was characterized by a break from tradition. Modernist writers and artists saw that society was rapidly changing due to the rise of industrial capitalism, the introduction of new technologies (telephones, the assembly line, film, the airplane), and changes in global politics. Thus, they sought to change the way we write and visually depict the world around us so as to better fit and understand the new pace and challenges of modern life.  While modernists were fascinated with new technologies and the changes in modern society, they also criticized how industrialization dehumanized workers and how urban society had become more alienating and isolating. You’ll see a great example of this in a few weeks when we read Franz Kafka.

A famous example of modernism is the work of Pablo Picasso. All of us can envision his paintings, portraits of people with their body parts in strange positions, bright and vivid colors, the breaking down of objects into crude geometric shapes. Picasso and other modern artists saw that the invention of the camera and other technologies that could depict life “realistically” mandated that art needs to capture another element of the human experience. Picasso’s art depicted the psychological experience, how things felt, and how new forms of depicting objects could symbolically speak to our modern lives. Picasso used this method in his famous painting Guernica, which used his famous painting techniques to protest against the bombing of a Spanish town on the eve of WWII. He used modernist expression to condemn modern technology that could so easily and indifferently destroy lives.

(Picasso’s “Guernica”)


As modernists, Joyce and Faulkner were both known for the same literary technique: Stream of Consciousness. Inspired by Freud’s theory of the unconscious, this technique stressed writing as fast as ideas appeared in the writer’s head without censoring or pausing to think about whether or not the ideas made logical sense. This attempted to mimic the real psychological experience of thinking. Often we associate objects and ideas very subjectively, without much reason to it. Stream of consciousness writers believed that by exploring the unconscious, they could capture how we truly think and feel before we impose logic and reason on our thoughts.

“Araby” does not use much stream of conscious, but the rest of Joyce’s work uses it heavily, to the point where it is very difficult to follow what he means. Check out his book Ulysses sometime. It is one of the most influential books of the 20thcentury and it was often banned due to obscenity. You can see the stream of consciousness techniques in Faulkner’s story much more easily. Notice how some of his sentences seem to go on and on with many clauses and sometimes are interrupted by the characters’ thoughts.  It flows like a stream with many twists and turns and changes of direction. Thought is not naturally ordered according to reason; we instead impose reason on our thoughts to achieve clarity. Faulkner and Joyce wanted to challenge the idea that human experience can be completely clear and objective. By taking on the experiences of young boys trying to emerge into the adult world, both authors find characters that personify how life lacks clarity and a definite path.

Tips for Reading James Joyce’s “Araby”

(James Joyce, literary icon and fancy pirate)

James Joyce (1882-1941) was one of the most influential and inventive writers of the 20th century. His modernist innovations (like stream of consciousness as previously defined) changed the way authors wrote novels in the 20thcentury, moving from objective, “realistic” depictions to fiction that centered on the subjective experience of the individual, regardless of how irrational, vulgar, or disorienting it may be.

Joyce’s most famous book Ulysses is 900 page stream of consciousness updating of The Odyssey set in Dublin, Ireland. Today, literature fans from around the world come to Dublin and retrace the main character, Leopold Bloom’s path around the city according to the novel. Even though Joyce was an expatriate and lived most of his life outside of Dublin, most of his work (including “Araby”) is set in that town.

Check out this preview of a fantastic comic book adaptation of the story:

(Araby in Comic Form)

Here are some tips for reading “Araby”:

Consider the question of young love. Mangan’s Sister is clearly the young boy’s first crush. How does Joyce use this crush to explore how we deal with our first feelings of love and desire for the opposite sex? What effect does it have on us and what kinds of other changes does it signal?

How does this first feeling of attraction play into the “coming of age” theme of this novel? Coming of age often means thinking for ourselves for the first time, taking on responsibilities for the first time, entering into the adult world for the first time. All of these aspects of coming of age play a role in the story, but they are all set into motion by the boy’s attraction to Mangan’s Sister. Does his young love help his maturation process or hurt it? Does he learn something about growing up in the process?

Think about this story as a take on the heroic journey just like Joyce’s most famous book, Ulysses. In classic stories of chivalry, knights had to journey to far off lands in order to perform some task to prove their love or rescue their “damsel in distress.” Think of classic stories of the brave journeyer like The Odyssey, the King Arthur tales, or others. How might this story play off those themes? How does the boy’s experience compare to them and why might Joyce have invited this comparison?

“Araby” also suggests the foreign and the exotic. A bazaar gets its name from the word for markets in Persia and the Middle East. Heroes that journey go off to foreign lands and experience new delights and dangers in these areas. This is most vividly illustrated in the following passage from page 103, “The syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me.” How does the young boy’s experience at the bazaar match up? How does Joyce compare the boy’s idealized vision of the bazaar with the way Dublin is depicted around him.

Finally, think about the ending of the story? Why do you think Joyce ended the story with the bazaar being nearly empty and the boy unable to buy a trinket for Mangan’s Sister? The boy has a sudden realization from the experience, but Joyce doesn’t say what it is. What do you think it is?


Tips for reading Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s “The Erl-King” 

(Goethe: The Romantic)

The Erlking

Who’s riding so late through th’ endless wild?
The father ‘t is with his infant child;
He thinks the boy ‘s well off in his arm,
He grasps him tightly, he keeps him warm.

My son, say why are you hiding your face ?
Oh father, the Erlking ‘s coming apace,
The Erlking ‘s here with his train and crown!
My son, the fog moves up and down. –

Be good, my child, come, go with me!
I know nice games, will play them with thee,
And flowers thou ‘It find near by where
I live, pretty dress my mother will give.”

Dear father, oh father, and do you not hear
What th’ Erlking whispers so close to my ear?
Be quiet, do be quiet, my son,
Through leaves the wind is rustling anon.

Do come, my darling, oh come with me!
Good care my daughters will take of thee,
My daughters will dance about thee in a ring,
Will rock thee to sleep and will prettily sing.”

Dear father, oh father, and do you not see
The Erlking’s daughters so near to me?
My son, my son, no one ‘s in our way,
The willows are looking unusually gray.

I love thee, thy beauty I covet and choose,
Be willing, my darling, or force I shall use!
“Dear father, oh father, he seizes my arm!
The Erlking, father, has done me harm.

The father shudders, he darts through the wild;
With agony fill him the groans of his child.
He reached his farm with fear and dread;
The infant son in his arms was dead.

Goethe (1749-1832) was one of the most famous and influential German writers who ever lived. He was what we might think of today as a “renaissance man”, someone well educated and talented in a variety of fields and subjects. Along with writing poetry, fiction, dramas, and criticism, he was also a botanist, a meteorologist, an anatomist, and an illustrator. Although today he is remembered for his literature, he believed that one of his great accomplishments was hisTheory of Colors, on the color spectrum.

Goethe became a huge success at age 25 with his novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, about a young man heartbroken over a love he could never possess. It was wildly popular among young men and women. It was like The Catcher in the Rye of the 18th century. Young men would dress and talk like Werther and a wave of suicides in Europe was blamed on young men copying Werther’s own suicide at the end of the story.

Goethe was associated with two literary movements. “Sturm und Drang” (German for storm and drive) was used to characterize literature of the mid 1700s that emphasized extreme emotion and attacked the oppressive logic and reason of 18thcentury Enlightenment thought.  Sturm und Drang was a precursor of Romanticism, which we previously explored through the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley. As you may recall, romanticism also stressed themes of intense feeling, exploring topics like obsessive love, adventure in the wild, free creative expression, and sublime, awe-inspiring visions like storms, rugged nature, and the sea.

Goethe was also interested in German mythology and folk tales. “The Erl King” was composed in 1782 and adapted from Elveskud, a Danish ballad.As you read this poem imagine what the scene looks like. Think of it like a kind of fairy tale, just more like the darker original Brothers Grimm stories than a Disney adaptation.

Think about the symbolism of the Erl-King. Describe his actions and what he offers the child. Consider the fact that only the child and not the father could hear him. What might this mean?

Think of the death of the child as a metaphor. What may have “died” in the child after he hears the Erl-King and his offers?

Finally, I want you to consider how both “The Erl King” and “Araby” similarly treat the idea of coming of age? In particular, consider the question of “innocence” in both tales. How do both young boys lose their innocence? How is this dramatized and depicted. How does this change how they see the world around them?

About drdimock

Dr. Chase Dimock teaches Literature and Composition at Broward College
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