The Similarities Between John Updike’s “A&P” and James Joyce’s “Araby”

There are easily apparent similarities between John Updikes short story, “A&P” and James Joyces short story, entitled “Araby.” Upon closer inspection, however, there are many subtle differences as well. It is my goal to present some of these points of contact and separation to the reader for further consideration, and to share my perspective of the subject matter of each author in relation to that man’s personal history. Finally, I wish to discuss the epiphanies of the two main characters of each story, the reasoning behind their chosen actions, and the possible consequences that may be in store for each. In order for me to do so effectively, I believe it is first necessary for us to take a closer look at the authors.

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John Updike was born in 1932 in Schillington, Pennsylvania, and James Joyce was born in 1882 in a town located near Dublin, Ireland, called Rathgar. Possibly both the fifty-year distance in their ages and the countries of their births played significant roles in the development of Updike and Joyce. Both men headed towards higher education. Updike attended prestigious Harvard University. Joyce entered into advanced schooling at Clongowes Wood College at the age of six, after which, he attended Belvedere College under a full scholarship. He followed this up with attendance at Dublin University College. In 1900, Joyce wrote and published his first review about a Henrik Ibsen play, making Joyce a known man. As for Updike, his first short story, “Friends of Philadelphia” was published in 1954, and brought him national attention. Clearly, the two men as authors appear to have much in common on the surface level, but in examining their creative works, there are quite a number of differences that must have manifested themselves within the distinct differences in their life experiences.
Although John Updike had stuttering difficulties as a child, this did not hold him back from his place in the world of written artists. He seemed a natural. Going from the “Harvard Lampoon” while attending Harvard University, Updike seemed to move forward into the acceptance of an audience that was not as available or embracing to the work by James Joyce. In fact, Joyce had much difficulty getting almost all of his works published, and without the aid of a
wealthy benefactor, perhaps these works might never have come into public print at all. In respect to Joyce’s collection of short stories entitled “The Dubliners”, “publication had to be abandoned due to fears of prosecution for obscenity and libel” (encyclopedia). Updike is still alive today; Joyce died in 1941 after an operation for a perforated duodenal ulcer (encyclopedia). He also suffered many years from glaucoma prior to his death. Perhaps the biggest advantage for John Updike was his life of stability, which clearly was not a factor in James Joyce’s existence. Joyce frequented prostitutes and was a heavy drinker. His rebellion against Catholicism may quite possibly be the factor that seems to have added a level of “darkness” to his works. “Joyce called some of his early sketches ‘epiphanies’. The term epiphany, often used in a religious context, means an understanding that comes about through a sudden intuitive realization”(Encarta). And this is what I believe to be the contributor for the differences found in the comparison of “A&P” with “Araby”. Different life experiences cannot help but cast shadows upon one’s perspectives and ways of viewing the world.
In both “Araby” and “A&P”, the main characters are young men expressing interest in young women. Both stories are written in first person narrative, although in “A&P”, we know the main character is Sammy, whereas in “Araby” we are never so personally introduced to the main character through knowing his name. Actually, in “Araby”, we are never told the young woman’s
name either. In “A&P” we know the nicknames given the young women. In each case, the men in the stories attempt to rise up and impress the young women by offering something they perceive to be of value to the women. Sammy defends the honor of the young women in relation to their bathing suit attire; in “Araby”, a trinket is promised. Both young men fail in their missions, yet before looking at the epiphanies, there is something more to mention about the contrasts in the stories in relation to the writers themselves.
“A&P” is staged within a New England town during summer season. It speaks of lighness, and sun, and bare-skinned girls in the supermarket. The adjectives used to describe the physical qualities of the girls speak of sexuality. The main character, Sammy, is drawn to the unusual amount of unclothed skin being displayed in the most abnormal setting: the supermarket. This aspect of the short story seems fitting to the New England lifestyle that housed John Updike, the author.
In contrast, “Araby” has a shadow over its presentation. The descriptions are heavier and mention death and empty buildings. There are no sunlit moments, as much of the story takes place within, and when without, there is the night and its sounds. The main character’s attraction to the young woman expresses more of an agony of the heart than it does the lightness of love. Ironically enough, the attraction to the young girl expressed by the young man is not of a sexual nature, but of a sensual nature. There is not nudity. There is mention of the convent to which she belongs. The narratives in reference to her read as dark, untouchable sensuality, as if it is the possession of being untouchable that calls him to her. “She was waiting…her figure defined
by the light. Her dress swung as she moved her body, and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side” (Joyce). Or how about, “While she spoke she turned a silver bracelet round and round her wrist…She held one of the spikes, bowing her head towards me…The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there, and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing…It fell over one side of her dress and caught the white
border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease” (Joyce). The mention of the bracelet, whereas there was only bareness of skin in Updike’s “A&P”,seemed to be the central theme in his story. Joyce’s character is drawn to the purity of the young woman, rather than to the budding female form. He is ignited by the sensuality of her hair, the back of her neck, the smallest glimpse of a petticoat, and yes, her hands. I believe the difference in the focus on purity and
sensuality rather than sexuality is clearly in connection to the lifestyles of the authors. Since Joyce was a frequent visitor of prostitutes, he had no need to convey sexuality in his characters, for he had already come to understanding such matters in his own life experience. Rather, he and his character seem to be drawn to innocence and purity. That resemblance is comparable to the type of purity that can be found within Catholic religious beliefs.
As for the epiphanies, Samy sprang to the rescue of the young girls by quitting his job under some misunderstanding that by defending their “honor”, he would be given that which he “rescued”. The reality is that he never had a chance with these summer vacationers. The character in “Araby” promised to bring the young woman something from the bazaar. He arrived too late to have a chance to find that “meaningful” token of his emotions, albeit, an affordable one. So he also failed to meet his goal. And yet, here too, the reward he sought would not have been granted either, as the young woman was a member of the convent.
The causes of both men’s actions were the emotions they felt towards young women. Both acted hastily in speaking, both failed to be the heroes they envisioned themselves to be. The causes of their actions almost seem irrelevant. What becomes relevant is what awareness into themsleves they have gained. We do not know whether the “hero” in “Araby” will continue along his routine of spying on and following the young woman. What we do see here is that the lives of the authors have played a large part in each of their works. And that explains the differences of these two short stories.