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  • Joyce’s “Araby” and the Mystery of Mangan’s Sister
  • Richard J. Gerber (bio)

Mangan’s sister is . . . the boy’s inamorata . . . a goddess shrouded in mystery.

—Suzette Henke, James Joyce and the Politics of Desire

For decades, readers have speculated about why James Joyce does not reveal the first name of Mangan’s sister in his short story “Araby,” despite the fact that the story’s narrator refers to it repeatedly in terms expressing his passion and worship: “[H]er name was like a summons to all my foolish blood” (D 21) and “Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand” (22). “Araby” is a recollection of the protagonist’s young love, his adoration of Mangan’s sister. So why does Joyce leave her first name a mystery?

Within a single paragraph of a note entitled “Naming in Dubliners,” Fritz Senn succinctly summarizes the nature and effect of Mangan’s sister’s missing first name in the context of Joyce’s story:

[In “Araby,”] the girl is no less enchanting than the associations of the geographical name . . . [our] attention is drawn here to the kinetic and physiological power of a mere name. Ironically, [the girl’s name] is one we are never told. It is withheld from us; the girl is introduced as a mere adjunct, “Mangan’s sister”; she lives in the genitive case and further on leads a mere pronominal existence: “she, her.” . . . [In] “Araby,” that tale of magic names, [Mangan’s sister] remains anonymous . . . [and] paradoxically, the word “name” [in reference to her] . . . mainly calls up its own absence . . . [whereas, in contrast,] a name like “Araby” may cast a spell, can be “magical” . . . or [it can evoke] a glamour that may collapse.1 [End Page 186]

Other readers have attempted to explain Joyce’s rationale for leaving the heroine of his story so notably without a first name, proposing explanations that shed light on the story’s thematic aspects.

William Bysshe Stein has suggested that Joyce’s omission of Mangan’s sister’s first name is a “brilliant religious trope” based on Judaic tradition. He argues that this trope is “signaled by the [boy’s] choric repetition of [the word] ‘name,’ “ and that “whenever the hero conjures her vision, her name dies on his lips in mute rapture.” Stein describes the young boy’s adoration of Mangan’s sister, and his reluctance to speak her name, as a form of religious devotion: “This awe and reverence literally manifest an impulse toward deification . . . a blasphemous tendency . . . [since] only the One who from all eternity has existed ever commanded such love and veneration, the One whose secret and unutterable name was YHVH (Yahveh). So holy was this [name] that it was sacrilege . . . to pronounce it.”2

Ben L. Collins, on the other hand, puts a Christian spin on his religious reading of Mangan’s sister’s omitted first name, proposing that Joyce is making a kind of inside joke about Jesus Christ to explain why the name is hidden. Collins cites Joyce’s well-known allusion to Irish poet James Clarence Mangan (and his poems about love, religion, and nationality) as the source for the family name of the girl in the story. Finding symbols of betrayal (the silver bracelet) and crucifixion (the railing spike) in the scene when Mangan’s sister speaks to the young boy, Collins suggests that we are to see her through the boy’s eyes as a representation of God. Pursuing this line of argument, Collins concludes by contending that Joyce’s use of the last name Mangan alone for the girl carries a covert, subliminal suggestion for the story’s readers: “The role of Mangan’s sister as deity is made known, if it cannot establish itself in any other way, comically, for one little knows Joyce who feels he is unaware of or incapable of using Mangan’s initials—J. C.”3

Garry Leonard, in his Lacanian view of Mangan’s sister, has cleverly offered a subtle answer to the inquiry about the missing first name; it is an answer in the form of a question found in...


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pp. 186-194
Launched on MUSE
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