‘The Boarding House’ is one of the 15 stories that make up James Joyce’s 1914 collection of short stories, Dubliners. As we’ve remarked before, Dubliners is now regarded as one of the landmark texts of modernist literature, but initially sales were poor, with just 379 copies being sold in the first year (famously, 120 of these were bought by Joyce himself). You can read ‘The Boarding House’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of the story.
In summary, ‘The Boarding House’ focuses on Mrs Mooney, a married woman who has separated from her violent husband, a butcher, and set up a boarding house on Hardwicke Street in Dublin. She has a steady stream of lodgers staying with her, especially men from Liverpool and the Isle of Man, and is known by many of her guests as The Madam on account of her imposing figure (and manner). In the course of learning about Mrs Mooney’s boarding house, where she lives with her son, Jack, and her daughter, Polly, we discover that Polly, who was known to flirt with the guests, had been taken advantage of by a man lodging in the boarding house, an older man in his mid-thirties named Mr Doran. Mrs Mooney reasons that, having slept with Polly, Mr Doran should make reparation for damaging her honour: he should make an honourable woman of Polly by marrying her.
The focalisation of the story then shifts from Mrs Mooney to the other people involved: first, to Mr Doran, the lodger who has had sex with Polly, and then to Polly herself as she waits to go and have a frank conversation with her mother and Mr Doran about the situation, a conversation in which, it is implied at the end of the story, Mr Doran will propose to Polly. During these last few pages we learn that Mr Doran is unsure of whether he should do the honourable thing and marry Polly, since he worries his family will disapprove of the match, because of Polly’s background (living in a boarding-house, father a violent drunk who is separated from her mother: Dublin, we learn, is a small city where gossip soon gets round). He wonders, tentatively, whether he and Polly could be happy together. When the narrative shifts to Polly’s thoughts, we see her quickly race through a sequence of different moods and emotions, from upset (she is crying on the bed at first) to worry, to cheerful resignation.
‘The Boarding House’, like all of the stories in Dubliners, has its own style, which Joyce subtly but expertly tailors to the characters whose story he is telling. When the story is told by a first-person narrator, such as is the case in ‘The Sisters’ and ‘An Encounter’, this is clearer because the person telling the story is the same as the character experiencing it, so we expect them to narrate it in their own peculiar way. But in the later stories which are narrated in the third person, this is harder to pick up on, but by using free indirect style and by utilising things like punctuation or language in a particular way, Joyce reveals the characters to us. Or by not using punctuation, even. Take this excerpt from ‘The Boarding House’, where Mrs Mooney is reflecting on the frank discussion she had with her daughter the night before about Polly’s sexual relationship with one of the lodgers:
Both had been somewhat awkward, of course. She had been made awkward by her not wishing to receive the news in too cavalier a fashion or to seem to have connived and Polly had been made awkward not merely because allusions of that kind always made her awkward but also because she did not wish it to be thought that in her wise innocence she had divined the intention behind her mother’s tolerance.
This is just two sentences, the second of which contains no commas, no colons or semi-colons, no pauses for breath. We are being encouraged not only to observe but to experience Mrs Mooney’s hurried, no-nonsense train of thought as she sets about deciding what to do about her daughter’s ‘sin’. Of course, in recounting the conversation between mother and daughter, the sentence also might be intended to capture the frenzied and impatient way the two women fight their corner when confronted with each other in an emotionally fraught moment.
‘The Boarding House’ is an emotionally powerful story precisely because, as in other stories from Dubliners (‘A Painful Case’, about a non-affair, springs to mind), the emotions of the characters are complex and constantly in flux. Joyce doesn’t melodramatise the events but instead allows everything that impinges on it – the impropriety of Mr Doran and Polly having sex outside of marriage in the Catholic, gossip-friendly environment of turn-of-the-century Dublin, the feel of the boarding house itself, and the careful analysis of the events which Mrs Mooney lays out in her own thoughts – to come out slowly and in understated sentences rather than heightened drama. It is all the more effective because of this.