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Study Help: The Boarding House from James Joyce's Dubliners

I attend Wellesley College, where I am earning my degree in studio art and English with a concentration in creative writing.

James Joyce

James Joyce

Joyce's Vision for Dubliners

James Joyce’s Dubliners was for Joyce an intense project with a very specific vision and purpose. One so specific, that he famously refused to make nearly any changes to the proposed material. He wanted badly to let the Irish people have “one good look at themselves in [his] nicely polished looking-glass” and come to terms with the causes of the “paralysis” that he found so rampant. “The Boarding House” accomplishes this well because it shows how the restrictive forces of society push people to compromise their personal integrity and vision in order to escape the social ramifications of their actions. Mrs. Mooney, the mother of Polly and “The Madam” of her own successful boarding house, is a compelling character because she uses the customs that would normally hinder her daughter’s prospects, to instead secure a better future than the one she experienced with her abusive husband. She knows that she does not have the power to defy the rules, so she shrewdly learns and uses them to exact her will. Joyce too is acutely aware of the rules imposed on the Irish people and believes that the paralysis that he wishes to describe in Dubliners is caused in part by the restrictive forces at work that seek to control the moral lives of the people.

What's at Stake

The first social custom that Mrs. Mooney makes use of concerns her daughter’s virginity and innocence. She knows that for a young woman in this time, the thing of the most social value to a prospective husband was her virginity. Mrs. Mooney knows that her daughter does not have the benefit of coming from a wealthy or socially affluent family, so she must scheme in order to get her daughter a good husband. Joyce tells us that Mrs. Mooney was “a butcher’s daughter” who “had married her father’s foreman,” signaling to the reader that she, and by extension, her daughter are of a less-educated working-class background (56). Despite her savvy business skills and presumably their comfortable income, they do not enjoy the educated status that a man like Mr. Doran does. Polly may not have the social or economic status, but she does have the beauty and allure of a “perverse madonna” (57).


Mrs. Mooney's Plan

With these assets in mind, Mrs. Mooney devises a strategy. She first sends her daughter “to be a typist in a corn-factor’s office” presumably in order to meet reputable men under gainful employment. This attempt is unsuccessful because Polly is bombarded with attempts by her “disreputable” father to come in and have a word with her, so her mother brings her back home to do housework (57). Joyce tells us that “the intention was to give her the run of the young men,” but what he does not explicitly tell us is that Mrs. Mooney brings her back to the boarding house in order to watch her daughter, and assure that she makes a good selection (57-58). She brings Polly back to flirt with, and entertain the men, making room for the reader to draw uncomfortable connections between Mrs. Mooney’s nickname, “The Madam” and the job that she sets her daughter to do (57). This, however, is part of Mrs. Mooney’s design. She encourages through her silence, for her daughter to allow her virginity to be taken. Joyce is highlighting this repulsive scheme to show the Irish people what lengths the ridiculously strict moral restrictions force people to go to. It also shows that in order to appear to follow the rules, one must often compromise their moral or personal integrity, exposing the shallowness of Irish values, in which the appearance of morality is more important than the reality, a fact that Joyce felt was particularly infuriating.

Mrs. Mooney understands fully that to take a woman’s virginity is no small matter and therefore is willing to take the risk. She knows, “there must be reparation made in such cases. It is all very well for the man: he can go his ways as if nothing had happened, having had his moment of pleasure, but the girl has to bear the brunt of it” (59-60). Mrs. Mooney has taken into account the gender disparity because she has allowed her daughter to become involved with a man “thirty-four or thirty-five years of age, so that youth could not be pleaded as his excuse” (59). She also, “picked a man who had seen something of the world” and therefore could not claim ignorance. If Mrs. Mooney bothers to check these excuses off her list, then they must have been employed by other men with success.

The Pressures on Mr. Doran

Though the punishments for young women in such cases were more severe, a man too had much to lose if he enjoyed a spotless reputation prior. Like the fallen Parnell, the affair could cost Mr. Doran “the loss of his sit” at the Catholic wine-merchants office. Mr. Doran knows this too and spends many moments in the story fretting over it. He laments “all his long years of service gone for nothing! All his industry and diligence thrown away!” In fact, the “implacable” face of his employer is in fact one of the “forces” that “pushed him downstairs step by step” toward The Madam (63). However, it isn’t only the loss of his job that forces Mr. Doran’s hand, it is also the expectations of religion. “The recollection of his confession the night before was a cause of acute pain to him; the priest had drawn out every ridiculous detail of the affair and on the end so magnified the sin that he was almost thankful at being afforded a loophole of reparation” (60). Although Mr. Doran “had boasted of his free-thinking and denied the existence of God to his companions in public houses” in his youth, he is deeply affected by the judgements of the priest (61). If the case of Parnell offers any comparison to this situation, it is that the transgression of a religious rule can have far-reaching ramifications for a person's general public reputation. Though he may not really believe in God and only attends “to his religious duties” he feels the force of its power as a tool of social control. He cites this as one of the reasons that he must marry Polly even though his heart cries out to him, “once you are married you are done for” (61).

Disparities in Social Class and Education

Mr. Doran’s objections to his soon-to-be bride are twofold; she is not of the same social status as Mr. Doran and she is not as well-educated as him. His hesitations concerning the socio-economic status of his lover are meant to be repulsive and unsympathetic to the reader. He claims that he does not want to marry her because his “family would look down on her” and because he “could imagine his friends talking of the affair and laughing” (61). He is of course deflecting the reasons for his hesitation onto others. It is not so much that he is concerned with their actual feelings on the matter, he is concerned with looking ridiculous and being made fun of, both of which are selfish motives. The reason behind his repulsion of her education and grammar is of a similar vein. He worries, “she was a little vulgar; sometimes she said I seen and I had‘ve known” (61).

But What About Love?

Only once does the question of love and true feeling interrupt his inner monologue when he wonders “what would grammar matter if he really loved her?” In a tone which implies that since he does not really love her, it cannot make up for her faults (61). He once admits that maybe they could be happy together, but only because of her “thoughtfulness” and willingness to serve him (62). Again his reasons for and against marrying her have everything to do with his own self-interests and nothing to do with Polly’s feelings or dreams.

Are There Any Winners in this Game?

Mrs. Mooney has brought all these things into her calculations. She has “counted all her cards” and is “sure she would win” (60). Mrs. Mooney’s conniving, war-like language makes her too unlikable as Joyce intended, but the reader can sympathize with her because she is a woman who is smart enough to use the restricting systems set in place that would normally strangle her and her daughter into lowly poverty, to raise her daughter up and find her a husband. Mrs. Mooney knows this is a warlike game where valuable reparations will be made, but also like war both parties are often left bruised and ragged. Mr. Doran has lost some social prestige and Polly has lost her virginity, but sacrifices must be made for the maximum good in the Madam’s eyes. Yet, if the beginning of the story offers a window into Polly’s possible future, Mrs. Mooney may have caused her daughter more harm than good. It is possible that The Madam’s father pulled a similar trick—if we can call it that—on Mr. Mooney to get his daughter off his hands since she “married her father’s foreman” (56). The evidence in support of this can be found in the lines that describe her mistreatment following her father's death. Her husband “began to go to the devil,” squandering their money, going into debt, buying bad meat, verbally assaulting his wife in front of customers, and even going “for his wife with the cleaver” (56). Once the social constraints personified by her father were removed, Mr. Mooney’s resentment and hostility toward his wife were allowed to escape. This could suggest a less than happy future for her daughter Polly if the social constraints that “forced” Mr. Doran to ask for her hand are ever compromised (63). This is essential to the meaning of the story because it shows that even when characters attempt to work within the system or make their lives better, they are paralyzed at both ends between social restrictions and human nature.