by: James Joyce

Important Quotations Explained

3. I watched my master’s face pass from amiability to sternness; he hoped I was not beginning to idle. I could not call my wandering thoughts together. I had hardly any patience with the serious work of life which, now that it stood between me and my desire, seemed to me child’s play, ugly monotonous child’s play.

In this quote, the young boy of “Araby” has just spoken with Mangan’s sister, and now finds himself entirely uninterested and bored by the demands of the classroom. Instead, he thinks of Mangan’s sister, of the upcoming bazaar, and of anything but what rests before him. This scene forecasts the boy’s future frustration with the tedious details that foil his desires, and it also illustrates the boy’s struggle to define himself as an adult, even in the space of the classroom structured as a hierarchy between master and student. Just as mundane lessons obstruct the boy’s thoughts, by the end of the story everyday delays undermine his hopes to purchase something for Mangan’s sister at the bazaar. In both cases, monotony prevents the boy from fulfilling his desires.

This scene articulates the boy’s navigation between childhood and adulthood. He sees the routine boredom of school as child’s play—it is easy, unengaging, and repetitive. Desire, on the other hand, is inspirational and liberating. His thoughts, after all, wander everywhere, rather than remain fixed to the place they should be. Yearning for the freedom of adulthood, the boy remains chained to the predictability of childhood. The irony underpinning the word idle reflects the hypocrisy of this situation, and as such forms one of the moments in the narrative when the subject’s voice speaks through the detached third person. What exactly, the passage asks, is idle about excited desire? Idle activity, rather, defines the activity in school, and thus childhood.