The Historical Context Of James Joyce’s "Araby" & "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been" By Joyce Carol Oates

Historical context is an important aspect of literature, and recollections, narrative, and characters within a given literary piece will be devoid of meaning without it. The historical context analyzes political, socio-economic, and religious characteristics of a literary piece when it was authored. This information helps readers to understand the motivation behind characters, actions, and behaviors. The historical context in James Joyce’s Araby and Where are you going, Where have you been? by Joyce Carol Oates is analyzed through the terms of poverty, religion, materialism, sexual permissiveness, and the erosion of the family values.


Araby by James Joyce is grounded on the narrator’s attendance of the Araby bazaar, one of Dublin’s main attractions in the 19th century. The story is set in Ireland, and the narrator’s accounts seem to reflect the poverty that was common in the country at the time (Joyce 1). It is seen in his description of his neighborhood as the one that was characterized by muddy lanes and smelly stables. Religion also seemed to be an integral aspect of the life in Dublin. The author is Roman Catholic, including other characters who are mentioned in the narrative. It also seems like a vast majority of the Irish were actually Catholics, and this had an impact on the daily lives of the Dublin residents.

The fact that Catholicism played an important role in the life of the narrator was evident in his reference to the things using the Catholic ideas and metaphors. For example, the author compares his crush to a chalice he protects from his rivals and even seems to worship when he confessed that “Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand” (Joyce 2). In addition to this, there seems to be some form of rivalry between Catholics and other denominations (Joyce 3). This is seen by the fear of the narrator’s aunt that he was actually planning to attend a Freemason event instead of going to the Araby bazaar. However, Joyce’s narrative seems to portray the narrator’s society as the one that was materialistic and result-oriented.

With regards to materialism, the young boy’s experience at the fair seemed to be determined by the amount of money he had. The realization that he could not afford what he wanted and would be handled by sellers according to the amount of money that he possessed seemed to dampen his spirits (Joyce 5). The fact he equated his ability to purchase what Mangan’s sister desired as being able to win her affection by impressing her alludes to the pressure to deliver positive results level of materialism in the society at the time. He states that, “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger” (Joyce 5). This realization bridges his fantasy to reality.

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? is a short story by Joyce Carol Oates that focuses on the life of a beautiful teenager obsessed with her look, and who always seems to be at loggerheads with her mother and elder sister. Oates’ narrative documents the life in America during 60s and how societal changes influenced the lives of young people. There seems to be a lack of community cohesiveness which in turn had an impact on the family bonds and values. This is displayed by Connie’s parents who seemed to be too permissive in addition to having a father who had no interest in the lives of his family and did not have time to communicate with them (Oates 1). The society at this time also seems to be characterized by sexual permissiveness and youth culture that derived its individuality through music and other pop culture forms. This is seen by Connie’s obsession with sexual relationships and the belief that romantic love is “sweet, gentle, the way it was in movies and promised in songs” (Oates 2). Thus, the historical context of the time is reflected in the short story.

Like Araby, Oates also focuses on the narrator’s awakening to the reality, but in this case the major conflict lies in a Connie’s realization that her concept of love is rather distorted. Connie is forced to contend with the fact that her definition of love is different from what Friend was trying to offer her. For instance, she realizes that his romantic words were unoriginal and actually derived from popular songs, and he thought of himself as a hero in a movie (Oates 4). As the realization that she was not as smart as she thinks begins to set in, Connie panics as it becomes evident when she was “hollow with what had been fear but what was now just an emptiness” (Oates 6). Thus, the fantasies are broken by the reality. In conclusion, Joyce uses his narrative as a platform to showcase the religious, materialistic, and poverty riddled society that characterized his story’s setting.

Conversely, Oates’ short story portrays a sexually permissive society that was not family oriented in any way. Both authors also use their narratives to drive the point that not everything that people perceive is actually a reality. In this case, Joyce’s narrator realized that his feelings were built on a fantasy, and Connie understood that the fantasies she had about love were not a reality.

11 February 2020
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