by James Joyce
Characters in "The Boarding House"
You can't hide anything from Mom. Not if your mom is Mrs Mooney. As readers, we don't even find out the secret until she does: the first time we get wind of an affair between Polly and Mr Doran is when Mrs Mooney "noticed that something was going on" (The Boarding House.4). We should have known from the start that she'd be in control of things, this woman who got a divorce from her drunk husband when you couldn't just like a divorce lawyer's Facebook page and annul your holy matrimony. Oh, did we forget to mention that she ran a butcher's shop? Yeah, don't mess with this mom.
It's not like Mrs Mooney cuts to the chase, though. At first, "she watched the pair and kept her own counsel" (that means she didn't say anything to anyone). This strategy had exactly the effect she intended because it started to get to Polly and Mr Doran. They knew she knew about them, and they knew she would pounce, they just didn't know when. It's got all the suspense of a horror flick, but it's supposed to be a love story.
Let's take sides for a minute and give Mrs Mooney credit for being not only cool, but also calculating. Unlike Mrs Kearney in "A Mother," Mrs Mooney doesn't ever lose her temper. Unlike Eveline's father, Mrs Mooney doesn't freak out as soon as she finds out about an affair. This is a rare display of calm in the face of adversity for Dubliners.
Does this make her a good parent, though? Well, not really. Like those other two parents, Mrs Mooney is out to protect numero uno. She actually wants Mr Doran to marry Polly because she'd been thinking of sending Polly back to typing school anyway, and because she knows that it's probably a better marriage than Polly would get otherwise.
If Mr Doran thinks that Polly's "disreputable father and […] her mother's boarding house" will count against Polly's value as a wife, you better believe that Mrs Mooney knows this, too. Before she talks, she looks at herself in the mirror and thinks "of some mothers she knew who could not get their daughters off their hands" (The Boarding House.10).
And check out how Mrs Mooney isn't even nervous when she confronts Polly and then Mr Doran. She plans the whole thing out so she has time to sit in her rocking chair before she talks to Polly and then catch mass after she talks to Mr Doran.
Her cool, calm, collected demeanor helps us see through her argument that the whole thing is about saving her daughter's honor. The real thing she's interested in is getting Polly hitched and off her hands. The fact that she uses the phrase, "sure was she would win" two separate times pretty much gives it away that Mrs Mooney doesn't want to resolve a matter or have a conversation or look out for Polly's well-being: she wants to triumph.
The real question that we should ask is whether, at the end of the story, there's really much change between the Mrs Mooney of the butcher shop and the Mrs Mooney who takes down Mr Doran. Even though Joyce doesn't actually reveal the outcome of the argument, we're talking about a former butcher here. What would you do in the situation? Yeah, that's what we thought.
So Far, So Not Good
Enter the nineteen-year-old daughter of Mrs Mooney. After working briefly as "a typist in a corn-factor's office," her mom brought her back home to keep her from having any contact with her father (The Boarding House.4).
First of all, poor Polly for having "bad grammar" (The Boarding House.12). It's one thing her lover, Mr Doran, thinks about her when he's listing the pros and cons of marrying her, and we at Shmoop just want to use this opportunity to remind you, readers, that good grammar can really go a long way.
But also poor Polly because she may seem to have a lot of freedom in the story, and to be (apart, perhaps, from Miss Ivors in "The Dead") one of the more liberated women of Dubliners, but, as we find out, this is hardly the case. Still, she's pretty, and vivacious, and she sings provocative songs with lyrics that are just about as Katy Perry-esque as you can get: "I'm a […] naughty girl […] You know I am." She has her fun.
But even though Polly gets to flirt with all the men in the boarding house, this isn't really flirtation. It's more like working for her mother: "As Polly was very lively the intention was to give her the run of the young men" (The Boarding House.4). Basically, Mrs Mooney is using her daughter's beauty and flirtation to keep the men in order, and it all happens under her eyes to make sure it's safe and on the up and up (sort of). Just imagine if this were your part-time job. It's not exactly fulfilling.
Once she has to tell her mother of the affair, we get a surprising glimpse of both Polly's intelligence and her immaturity. On the one hand, we're told that she's "awkward" when she spills the beans to her mother not only because it's always awkward to talk about boys to her mother, but also because she's smarter than her mother thinks, and the last thing she wants is for her mother to figure that out (The Boarding House.6).
Basically, even though she seems "innocent," she's also "wise." Polly knows that her mother is going to try and get Mr Doran to marry her, and the last thing she needs is for her mother to realize she's known it all along. That would only make the punishment worse.
That Teenage Feeling
But for all her calculating wisdom, which makes her a little like Mrs Kearney and a little like Miss Ivors, Polly's not all that different in age from Eveline. And she's got Eveline's tendency to emotional upheaval and a kind of adolescent confusion. At least Polly goes to her boyfriend and tries to let him in on things, though, and asks him to console her. To keep up the comparisons, the scene when Polly cries in Mr Doran's arms is the only scene in Dubliners in which lovers embrace. Crazy, right? (Not that her openness really gets her a lot of comfort: Mr Doran is a little like Eveline in his uncommunicative indecisiveness.)
It's almost alarming—and somehow totally realistic—that Polly calms down enough in the last scene of the story to forget that she's waiting for the most important verdict of her life. In fact, she's gotten so full of "hopes and visions of the future" that it doesn't seem like she's worried about marrying Mr Doran at this point (The Boarding House.25).
Given what we know about marriage in Dubliners, and even in Polly's own family, it's hard to imagine that this calm and hope is really what's important. The last line of the story, though it doesn't tell us exactly what Polly's feeling as she "remembered what she had been waiting for," feels to us a lot like the moment when you wake up really well rested and feel great about the day until you realize it's the day of the SAT and you've already slept late (The Boarding House.29). The fact that we don't know what happens with Mr Doran only emphasizes that whatever Polly has been hoping for is probably less important than the fact that what's about to happen isn't up to her at all, and what happens after that probably won't be, either.
"A Boarding House" stands alone in Dubliners for giving us a balanced portrait of what both members of a couple feel and think about their relationship. In "Araby," we really only heard things from the narrator's perspective; in "Grace" we only got Mrs Kearney's thoughts on her husband, and in "The Dead" we only know how Gabriel feels about Gretta (with the exception of Gretta's saying, "You are a very generous person, Gabriel"). Here, we see that, by the time Mrs Mooney has confronted Polly about the affair, Mr Doran starts having serious, serious doubts about how compatible he is with her.
Well, to be honest, this isn't really what he's concerned about primarily. Once he finds out that he's been caught and will have to face the music, he mostly thinks of himself. He could lose his job, which would be a waste of "all his long years of service" (The Boarding House.12). He used to be a liberal with a lot of liberal and hippie-like friends, and even though he does have some money saved up, he's not quite sure he's ready for it. "Once you are married, you are done for," he thinks (The Boarding House.12). And he's smart, too: he knows that Mrs Mooney is trying to trap him in a marriage just to get Polly to a better position in life. "He had a notion that he was being had," or being taken advantage of. Sure, it's not the most optimistic outlook, but the dude's not wrong.
The Only Girl I Ever Loved
What's sad about this is that they've had a really good relationship. The way he talks about her is reminiscent of the way the narrator of "Araby" talked about his passion for his best bud's sister. It's almost like he's bewildered by it.
At times, Mr Doran remembers, he would come down to dinner and he "scarcely knew what he was eating, feeling her beside him alone, at night, in the sleeping house." His memory of the night that the affair began, when she tapped on the door of his room, is as powerful and as detailed as Mr Duffy's hallucination of Mrs Sinico's touch after she's dead: "Her white instep shone in the opening of her furry slippers and the blood glowed warmly behind her perfumed skin" (The Boarding House.17).
Maybe that helps explain why he's so nervous before his meeting with Mrs Mooney. Anxiety's not a word that's been used often in Dubliners, even though many of its characters (like Eveline, Gabriel, and the narrator of Araby) seem to feel it. The reasons for his anxiety are many. Not only is he scared of getting fired, he's also worried about his soul, and decides to go to confession.
And besides that, he happens to pass Polly's sister Jack, who is known as a tough guy, on the steps, and this reminds him of a time when Jack threatened to beat up anyone who even talked about Polly. It does seem like Mr Doran's having an unfair time of it now, so maybe we will go ahead and sympathize with him, too. On three: one, two, three: "Poor Mr Doran." Good, we feel better about "The Boarding House" already.
A former sheriff's deputy, he was a terrible husband to Mrs Mooney, especially after her father died and he felt like he could start drinking, embezzling money from the butcher shop, and accruing debts. Once Mrs Mooney gets a divorce, he's pretty bad off, "a shabby stooped little drunkard" (The Boarding House.2). If the fact that Mrs Mooney doesn't even give him enough money to live on doesn't say something about how bad he was, it certainly tell us that she's not someone to mess with. But we already knew that.
Mr Mooney doesn't play much of a role in the rest of the story, which is pretty much the point. He does try to keep in touch with his daughter, and as soon as Mrs Mooney catches wind of it, she brings her daughter back home and far from his influence. Add Mr Mooney to the list of bad parents and drunkards and give him a good, disappointed sigh.