Symbolism/Imagery in James Joyce’s “The Boarding House” (A story in Dubliners)

The Boarding House (a story in Dubliners) by James Joyce is a rare piece of literature, which contains symbolism. This story is a study of mirrors, mirror-like characters and the self-revelation inherent in viewing one’s own image. The author has used color symbolism throughout the story. As in his other works Joyce has utilized his talents not merely as an author but also his expertise as a musician. This story also reflects the strange love-hate relationship that he had with Dublin.

A distorted reflected on the mirror misleads and entraps the viewer/reader and a undistorted picture reveals the true nature. Mrs. Mooney, the owner of the boarding house, is a dangerous reflector, who deals “with moral problems as a cleaver deals with meat”. She is very sure of her sight and purpose. She is sure that Polly and Doran have slept together. As she prepares herself to confront Doran, she is able to carefully examine her demeanor, ‘She stood up and surveyed herself in the pier-glass. The decisive expression of her great florid face satisfied her…’  Mrs. Mooney’s world is signified by pier-glass and her reflection enables her to assess her own character.  Joyce describes of Bob Doran, one of the boarders, as someone unable to obtain a clear vision of reality.  When he is attempting to shave a ‘mist’ gathers on his spectacles forcing him to ‘polish’ them. As he descended the stairs to meet Mrs. Mooney ‘…his glasses became so dimmed with moisture that he had to take them off and polish them’. ‘He had made two attempts to shave but his hand had been so unsteady..’ – all these are symbolic of Doran’s desperate attempts to achieve a clearer insight of himself.

Yellows and browns indicate decay and Joyce has used color symbolism to depict this. The yellows appear in “yellow streaks of eggs,” “butter safe under lock and key,” “the little gilt clock,” and it is a “corn-factor for whom Polly works”.  Examples of browns are the “beer or stout,” “bacon-fat,” “pieces of broken bread,” and Jack Mooney’s bottles of Bass ale.

Joyce uses musical allusions for the purpose of characterization. His allusion to a song in the musical “A Greek Slave” blatantly characterizes Polly Mooney as a “little perverse Madonna.” The first lyric that Joyce samples, “I’m a naughty girl,” obviously points to Polly’s “liveliness” in having “the run of the young men,” and her seduction of Doran.

Likewise, his love-hate relationship for Dublin is evident when Joyce describes the contrasting emotions of Doran. ‘He longed to ascend through the roof….and yet a force pushed him downstairs step by step.’

Joyce has used wonderful imagery and symbolism throughout the story, which makes the reader actually get a vivid picture in the mind. The subtle expressions used as reflectors or those that portray the disturbed mind, the color symbols used, all express the authors proficiency and creativity as one of history’s foremost authors. Joyce’s imagery has gazed through the minds of readers all over the world and is works are nothing but amazing.

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