The adolescent perspective as depicted in the short stories of Joyce, Faulkner, and Cather
The search for higher social status as a form of personal fulfillment and self-definition all mark the coming-of-age stories of James Joyce, William, Faulkner, and Willa Cather, despite the distinct differences between the three male protagonists created by the authors in their seminal short stories “Araby,” “Barn Burning,” and “Paul’s Case.” All three short stories feature a young protagonist whose illusions of finery and higher class status are shattered. Because these aspirations are also often connected to sexual desires, this fall from grace is particularly difficult for the young men to tolerate.
In “Araby,” the young male protagonist becomes enamored with a young woman who seems innocent, above his own class, and charming. When she professes to wish to go to the Araby bazaar but cannot because she must go on a retreat with her convent, the narrator decides to go for her. However, Araby itself does not live up to the promise of his dreams: it contains a stall with women with English accents and its general atmosphere is crass rather than alluring. The boy’s desire to go to Araby and also by extension his desire for the young woman quickly fizzles: “I lingered before her stall, though I knew my stay was useless, to make my interest in her wares seem the more real… 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). Youthful idealism and sexual desire are quickly extinguished: the boy also seems upset that he could be so quickly taken in by the appearance of beauty and class which is really cheap and tattered beneath the surface (both Araby and the young woman)
“Barn Burning” by William Faulkner also features a young narrator who is somewhat ashamed of his lower class background. Abner’s father Sarty Snopes has a strong sense of honor which once led him to burn down the barn of a man he thought wronged him. When Sarty seeks similarly take his revenge against Major de Spain, the man for whom he is a sharecropper, his son warns the Major and eventually decides to flee and create a new life for himself at the end of the story. The boy wishes to create a new identity that is no longer allied with his father. For all of Sarty’s airs, his son clearly is repulsed by what he sees as his father’s lack of real ethics. But even after the son leaves, he is still desperate to believe his father had some honor and cut a romantic figure: “My father, he thought. ‘He was brave!’ he cried suddenlyâ€¦’He was in the war! He was in Colonel Sartoris’ cav’ry!” not knowing that his father had gone to that war a private in the fine old European sense, wearing no uniform, admitting the authority of and giving fidelity to no man or army or flag, going to war as Malbrouck himself did: for booty – it meant nothing and less than nothing to him if it were enemy booty or his own” (Faulkner).
Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case” also features a protagonist who wishes to rise above his station. Paul models himself as an aesthete but comes from a middle-class family and has to work for a living. He seems vaguely effeminate, which alienates him from his classmates. He steals money from his father to have a brief weekend pretending to be an Oscar Wilde-like dandy and gallivanting around with young men. His fantasies are quickly dashed when he realizes he cannot live the life he aspires to (and by extension cannot realize his sexual desires). This ultimately results in his suicide by throwing himself in front of a train. Before Paul dies, he notices: “the carnations in his coat were drooping with the cold, he noticed, their red glory all over. It occurred to him that all the flowers he had seen in the glass cases that first night must have gone the same way, long before this. It was only one splendid breath they had, in spite of their brave mockery at the winter outside the glass; and it was a losing game in the end, it seemed, this revolt against the homilies by which the world is run” (Cather).
All three young men are at a crossroads, still defining their identities. For Joyce’s protagonist, his desire for the young woman and his aspirations for a more elevated lifestyle are simultaneously raised and dashed upon realizing that her fantasies are no different from those of his close relatives. For Abner, breaking with his father is essential for him to become the type of person he wishes to become in the future and he is even willing to betray his father to do so. For Paul’s confused sexuality, emulating a different lifestyle than the one he can actually afford briefly becomes an outlet until reality intrudes. These examples show how status as well as sexual awakening and personal ethics are equally important in shaping a young man’s sense of himself — all of these stories would be profoundly different if the young men were of a higher class and did not have to worry about their social and financial status.
Cather, Willa. “Paul’s Case.” Full text available at:
Faulkner, William. “Barn Burning.” Full text available at:
Joyce, James. “Araby.” Full text available from Project Guttenberg at:
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