Posted by: gdevi | February 12, 2015

“Perverse Madonna”

Every year I teach James Joyce’s fantastic story The Boarding House. It is a great story. Joyce tells the story of a scheming, “determined woman,” Mrs. Mooney, who wants a husband for her daughter Polly, who traps a weak-minded man, Mr. Doran into marrying her, after encouraging Polly to flirt and seduce Mr. Doran. Mr. Doran is riddled with guilt at having had sex with her and ends up agreeing to marry her even though he knows that she and her mother are both vulgar people. He knows he has been had. It is a sad story. So anyway, in the story, Joyce describes Polly like this:

Polly Mooney, the Madam’s daughter, would also sing. She sang:
I’m a … naughty girl.
You needn’t sham:
You know I am.
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.

After we read this today, I asked my students, what does Joyce mean by characterizing Polly Mooney as a “perverse madonna”? Who is Madonna, I asked. Students didn’t know who Madonna was. They thought for a while. Then one student said, “a singer.” I was struck by how this generation knows only Kim Kardashians Kanye Wests and Madonna, the singer. I told the student, “You know, Madonna was only “Like a Virgin.” The singer Madonna is not the Virgin Mary, the Madonna, mother of Christ.”

Isn’t it amazing?

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