restricted access The Question and the Quest: The Story of Mangan's Sister
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The Question and the Quest:
The Story of Mangan's Sister

I had read "Araby" several times before I noticed, and became curious about, the fact that the Araby Bazaar is really the place where Mangan's sister wishes to go. The surprise and confusion of the boy's aunt when he asks if he may go make it clear that he has made no mention of the event until after his conversation with Mangan's sister. She is the one who introduces "the magical name" that is also the title of the story, but what is her story? If she is not the protagonist of the story, can she be seen as the contagonist whose powerful absence makes the boy's presence in his own narrative possible? Blanche Gelfant, in her introduction to a panel entitled "A Frame of Her Own: Joyce's Women in Dubliners Reviewed" at the Ninth Joyce Symposium, cites the boy's fantasy relationship to Mangan's sister as typical of what male critics have done with the women they have come upon in Joyce's fiction: "The reader can see Mangan's sister only as she has been appropriated by a male viewer—indeed, three male viewers: the deluded boy, the retrospective narrator, and the author. A fourth must be added, the male critic, whose objectivity as observer of Joyce's women has until recently gone unchallenged" [End Page 459] (263). One has only to look over some of the male commentaries on "Araby" from the Sixties and Seventies to see that Gelfant's indictment of the male critic is justifiable.1

But is Joyce really the third male appropriator standing between us and Mangan's sister? I don't think so, and Marilyn French, in the panel that Gelfant introduces, also suggests otherwise: "Joyce's women are not mere mythic figures, types, such as appear in the work of so many other male authors. They have a reality of their own which is palpable even though the men who occupy the foreground of the stories largely ignore it" (267). Male critics have often appropriated the women in Joyce's fiction with at least as much ingenuity as any of the male characters in Dubliners. Mangan's sister, for example, has been featured as a virgin, a whore, Ireland, simony, and so on in various essays. Like the boy of the story, male essayists have too often discovered that Mangan's sister represents the very thing they fear is lacking in their own argument. And yet it is her frustrated desire that calls the boy into being. What I will be suggesting, in an approach illuminated by some of the insights of Jacques Lacan, is that her unspoken story speaks who the narrator becomes in the course of what he presents as his story.2

The narrator tells us: "I kept her brown figure always in my eye" (D 30). Once we refuse to take his word for it, we see that this is not so. What he "always keeps," as the symmetry of this phrase suggests, is his "I," which is constructed in relation to the representation of Mangan's sister that he has appropriated by his "eye." It is this that allows him to believe in the fictional unity of his masculine identity, which in turn grants him the illusion of bearing his chalice (his presumed subjectivity) safely through a throng of foes (what Lacan terms the Real) (Ragland-Sullivan, Jacques Lacan 187).3 I would go even further and suggest that the subject of "Araby" is the desire of Mangan's sister in the sense that her function in the boy's narration as absence and lack is what permits his subjectivity. He represses awareness of the question of her desire by incorporating it into what he presents as his quest. As a result, what he takes to be his identity has been constructed in relation to another [End Page 460] (Mangan's sister) and is destined to be taken apart in relation to someone else (the shopgirl at the Bazaar). The boy sees Mangan's sister as a representation of what Lacan calls "The...