The nameless narrator of the story talks about life on North Richmond Street. The former tenant of their apartment was a priest who died. Some books have been left behind, and the young boy narrator sometimes looks at them. He is raised by his aunt and uncle. One of his playmates is a boy named Mangan, and the narrator develops a crush on his friend Mangan's sister. Mangan and his sister live in a building across the street. The narrator watches her stealthily, waiting for her to leave in the mornings so that he can follow her on part of his way to school.
One day, the girl finally speaks to him, to ask if he will go to Araby. Araby is the name of an upcoming bazaar with an Arabian theme. She can't go, because she is going on a religious retreat that weekend. The narrator, full of romantic notions, says that he will go and find some kind of gift for her.
The boy can think of little but the girl, the Orientalist bazaar, and the gift he will get for her. He gets permission to go, and for days he cannot concentrate. The day finally arrives, and the boy reminds his uncle that he wishes to go to the bazaar that night. His uncle will have to get home on time to give him the money for a ride to the bazaar, as well as a bit of spending money.
That night, his uncle is late. The boy despairs of being able to go at all, but finally his uncle comes home. His uncle has forgotten about the bazaar, and by now it is quite late. But the boy still wants to go, and he takes the small sum of money for the train and heads off.
He arrives at the bazaar just as it is closing. Only a few stalls are open. He examines the goods, but they are far too expensive for him. The lights are being shut off, and the narrator despairs: "Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger."
As with "The Encounter," this story deals with longing for adventure and escape, though here this longing finds a focus in the object of the narrator's desire. The title, "Araby," also suggests escape. To the nineteenth-century European mind, the Islamic lands of North Africa, the Near East, and the Middle East symbolized decadence, exotic delights, escapism, and a luxurious sensuality. The boy's erotic desires for the girl become joined to his fantasies about the wonders that will be offered in the Orientalist bazaar. He dreams of buying her a suitably romantic gift.
The third story of the collection, it is the last story with a first-person narrator. It continues with the ages-of-life structure: we have had young boys for our protagonists in both "The Sisters" and "An Encounter," and here we have a boy in the throes of his first passion. As the boy is becoming a man, the bazaar becomes emblematic for the difficulty of the adult world, in which the boy proves unable to navigate. Boyish fantasies are dashed by the realities of life in Dublin. The first three stories are all narrated in the first-person, and they all have nameless boys as their narrators. All three narrators seem sensitive and intelligent, with keen interests in learning and a propensity for fantasy. Joyce, still in his early twenties when he wrote Dubliners, clearly drew on his own personal experiences more directly in writing these three tales. The namelessness of all three boys also encourages interpreters to identify them with Joyce, although from an interpretive point of view this move does little to illuminate the stories.
"Araby"'s key theme is frustration, as the boy deals with the limits imposed on him by his situation. The protagonist has a series of romantic ideas, about the girl and the wondrous event that he will attend on her behalf. But on the night when he awaits his uncle's return so that he can go to the bazaar, we feel the boy's frustration mounting. For a time, the boy fears he may not be able to go at all. When he finally does arrive, the bazaar is more or less over. His fantasies about the bazaar and buying a great gift for the girl are revealed as ridiculous. For one thing, the bazaar is a rather tawdry shadow of the boy's dreams. He overhears the conversation of some of the vendors, who are ordinary English women, and the mundane nature of the talk drives home that there is no escape: bazaar or not, the boy is still in Dublin, and the accents of the vendors remind the reader that Dublin is a colonized city.
The boy has arrived too late to do any serious shopping, but quickly we see that his tardiness does not matter. Any nice gift is well beyond the protagonist's price range. We know, from the description of the boy's housing situation and the small sum his uncle gives him, that their financial situation is tight. Though his anticipation of the event has provided him with pleasant daydreams, reality is much harsher. He remains a prisoner of his modest means and his city.