The Boarding House

by James Joyce

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Last Updated on July 23, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 545

Polly was a slim girl of nineteen; she had light soft hair and a small full mouth. Her eyes, which were grey with a shade of green through them, had a habit of glancing upwards when she spoke with anyone, which made her look like a little perverse madonna.

Polly is the daughter of Mrs. Mooney, the owner of the boarding house in the story's title. Mrs. Mooney deliberately keeps her daughter at home so that she might meet and marry one of the young men at the boarding house. Polly has two sides to her: she is at once beguiling and manipulative. One of the boarders, Bob Doran, forms a romantic relationship with her, and Polly becomes agitated and tells him that she will kill herself if he does not marry her. Joyce's description of Polly highlights her double nature. Her eyes shift shades, and she looks upward in the manner of a madonna (the Virgin Mary) who is not quite right⁠—she is at once a madonna and perverse. She has all the innocence of a madonna but is also twisted.

Mr. Doran was very anxious indeed this Sunday morning. He had made two attempts to shave but his hand had been so unsteady that he had been obliged to desist. Three days’ reddish beard fringed his jaws and every two or three minutes a mist gathered on his glasses so that he had to take them off and polish them with his pocket-handkerchief.

As Mr. Doran readies himself to go downstairs to speak with Mrs. Mooney about marrying Polly, he shaves himself as if he were a sacrificial lamb. He tries to shave himself, preparing for the sacrifice that he will have to make, but he is too unsteady to do so. The fact that he still has scruffy hair shows that he feels undecided about the sacrifice he is about to make in marrying Polly. His glasses are misted, symbolizing that he cannot really see clearly at this moment. He keeps removing them to polish them, but they keep clouding up. His choices are confused, and he is not able to see the path forward clearly.

Going down the stairs his glasses became so dimmed with moisture that he had to take them off and polish them. He longed to ascend through the roof and fly away to another country where he would never hear again of his trouble, and yet a force pushed him downstairs step by step.

As Mr. Doran goes downstairs to face Mrs. Mooney, he is descending into a kind of hellish depression. The stairs symbolize his descent in life as he submits to what is expected of him. As he has spent time with Polly, he is expected to marry her, but he feels divided about doing so. His more idealistic instincts urge him upward, up through the roof, but this is an impossibility. Instead, all the forces around him push him downward, as he walks down the stairs. The forces pushing him downward (and literally down the stairs) include the priest he spoke with and the expectations of Polly and her mother. Therefore, society and religion are forcing him downward into making the choice to marry Polly, even though he doesn't want to do so.

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