Commentary by Karen Bernardo
In James Joyce’s “The Boarding House,” we meet Mrs. Mooney, a working-class woman who rents rooms in her house to young male lodgers. Running a boarding house is a difficult life for a woman, but Mrs. Mooney has shown herself to be as resourceful in business as she was in emancipating herself from her drunken, abusive husband. She proves to be equally resourceful in seeking a husband for her nineteen-year-old daughter Polly, whose morals leave something to be desired. She astutely watches Polly become involved with a middle-aged wine salesman, Mr. Doran, and then calls in the chips when Polly’s “virtue” is compromised.
On the surface, this scenario seems like the perfect setup for a comedy. But there is nothing comic about Joyce’s vision, for each of the three principal characters are trapped in a web of social expectations and constraints from which it proves impossible to escape.
For example, society expects Mrs. Mooney to be the passive spouse in a patriarchal household. Even though Mr. Mooney is repulsive, divorce is not an option. But Mrs. Mooney’s failed marriage forces her to find a way to support herself and her two children, and she does so through her boarding house. Society expects Mrs. Mooney to keep herself and her establishment above reproach, even as it makes that goal unattainable.
Society also expects Polly Mooney to marry and raise a family of her own. But, as Joyce notes, the boarding house is “beginning to get a certain fame,” and therefore inducing a respectable man to propose to Polly would be difficult. Some leverage has to be applied, and ironically, that leverage turns out to be the unfortunate Mr. Doran’s fear of a sullied reputation, and the very real possibility of his losing his job when the news of his indiscretion comes out. Society forces Mr. Doran’s hand as well, and the story ends with his shotgun proposal to Polly.
All three of Joyce’s principal characters in this story are motivated by the basest instincts for survival. Mrs. Mooney needs to rent out rooms to itinerant men, even though this—together with her cold and calculating nature—places her beyond the pale of polite society. Polly needs to find a husband, both to take her place in the adult world and to quash the rumors about her rampant hormones. And once Mr. Doran’s affair with Polly is revealed, Mr. Doran needs to marry the girl in order to preserve his own reputation and livelihood. Even though this story ends with the prospect of marriage, it is not a happy solution, for all three characters are trapped inside the narrow boxes of Dublin society.
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