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Closing Time: "ten minutes to ten" and the End of Childhood in Joyce's "Araby"

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 49, Number 1, Fall 2011
pp. 153-154 | 10.1353/jjq.2011.0109

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Heyward Ehrlich identifies what he finds to be a "little puzzle" near the end of James Joyce's story "Araby" regarding "why Joyce fixes the time of the boy's arrival at the bazaar at exactly 9:50 P.M., even though other events in the story are only given approximate times." Ehrlich's solution to the puzzle is that, by having his young protagonist specify "'the lighted dial of a clock'" showing "'ten minutes to ten'" (D 34), Joyce is evoking, as part of an Irish Orientalist motif in the story, a "tradition of Arabic ciphers, which use letters of the alphabet and individual numbers as substitutes for each other" (326). Ehrlich continues, "If we regard 'ten' as a cipher in the Latin alphabet, we obtain the letter 'J,' and for two tens we get 'JJ,' Joyce's initials" (326).

I offer another solution to this puzzle but one that references the main character rather than the author. As Ehrlich states, we are invited to imagine "the position of the hour and minute hands . . . perfectly superimposed" (326). While clock hands regularly meet twenty-four times during the course of a day, their particular occurrence at 9:50 P.M. at the end of "Araby" may have a special contextual significance. Their juncture immediately precedes the boy's anguished self-revelation and what appears to be the near-simultaneous closing of the bazaar at ten o'clock. If we choose to see the longer minute hand of the clock as representing adulthood and the shorter one childhood, then "ten minutes to ten" would symbolically portend the moment that adulthood overtakes the boy's childhood, eclipses it, and begins to leave it behind—a simple visual icon for a widely acknowledged theme in the story.

This diagrammatic reading of a maturative passage implied by the rotating clock hands may, in fact, find a kind of corroborating visual analog in the next act the boy performs, virtually at the same moment as "ten minutes to ten." He looks from the clock to the bazaar and reports, "I could not find any sixpenny entrance and, fearing that the bazaar would be closed, I passed in quickly through a turnstile, handing a shilling to a weary-looking man" (D 34).

William Burto notes the boy's inability to find a child's sixpenny entrance, which forces him to use the general-admission shilling turnstile into the bazaar and anticipates the similarly imposed "adult" perspective on himself waiting inside. While, it seems, no evidence either from the 1904 bazaar itself or Joyce's recreation of it indicates the actual or fictional existence of such a cheaper entrance, the loss of this juvenile privilege in the character's mind, like the clock hands, foreshadows his greater disappointment soon to follow. Indeed, the turnstile serves visually to reiterate the clock face's symbolic rotational delivery of the boy to the end of his childhood.

As Ezra Pound observes in The Egoist in 1914, "Araby . . . is a vivid waiting," since the boy literally stares at a clock and listens to it tick before he leaves for the bazaar (D 33). In fact, the story contains several different instances of implicit or explicit waiting, starting with its opening sentence: "North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers' School set the boys free" (D 29). The anticipated rewards of these vigils for the protagonist of "Araby" are youthful ones: liberation from school, the joyful sight of Mangan's sister—"Every morning I lay on the floor in the front parlour watching her door. . . . When she came out on the doorstep my heart leaped" (D 30)—and, finally, the planned purchase of the boy's pledged gift for her from the bazaar.

But the salutary promise of time for Joyce's immature protagonist, after his perusal of the "ten minutes to ten" clock face, turns, in both visual and psychological terms, to a rotary of disappointment and, arguably, into one of the many cyclical correlatives of futility and paralysis found throughout Dubliners.

Steven Doloff  

Steven Doloff is Professor of Humanities at Pratt Institute in New York City. His scholarship has appeared in...



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