26 pages 52 minutes read

James Joyce

The Boarding House

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1914

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Boarding House”

“The Boarding House” by Modernist author James Joyce is a short story published in his larger collection, Dubliners, in 1914. Most of Joyce’s works focus on the Irish working classes during the country’s conflict with Britain over assimilation into the United Kingdom. His trademark “stream of consciousness” style is a postmark of the Modernist movement in literature and the arts. However, Dubliners is a series of short stories written early in Joyce’s career, before he honed his “stream of consciousness” style. “The Boarding House” appears in the middle of the book, between the short stories “Araby” and “Counterparts.” The story interrogates social class and how women and men navigated their status, and reflects the culture of Dublin in the early 1900s as Joyce saw it. “The Boarding House” is sometimes published as a standalone short story, but the other short stories published in Dubliners alongside it add context that is important to consider.

This study guide refers to the e-book edition of Dubliners hosted on Project Gutenberg; all citations refer to paragraph number.

The story is set in Dublin and begins in omniscient third-person point of view. The narrative introduces Mrs. Mooney, a butcher’s daughter, whose marriage to Mr. Mooney fell apart after he became dependent on alcohol, and attacked her with a meat cleaver. After obtaining a separation from him from a priest, Mrs. Mooney took her children and set up a boarding house on Hardwicke Street with the money from her butcher shop. She made a success of the boarding house and became known by the young men staying there as “The Madam” (Paragraph 2).

Mrs. Mooney’s adult children also live at the boarding house. Her son, Jack, works on Fleet Street as a clerk to a commissions agent. He has a reputation for getting into fights and often returns to the boarding house in the early hours. Polly, Mrs. Mooney’s daughter, is 19. She formerly worked as a typist, but Mrs. Mooney insisted on Polly giving up the job when Mr. Mooney kept calling the office and attempting to talk to his daughter. Polly flirts with the young boarders and sometimes performs music-hall songs with vaguely provocative lyrics. Mrs. Mooney keeps a watchful eye on these flirtations and notices when Polly begins a sexual relationship with a lodger named Mr. Doran. However, she remains silent, biding her time. Mr. Doran is wealthy and works in the Catholic wine merchant’s office.

One Sunday, Mrs. Mooney prepares to meet with Mr. Doran to pressure him to marry Polly. She is confident of her success for several reasons. Mr. Doran is in his mid-thirties, and she can therefore argue that he has “taken advantage of Polly’s youth and inexperience” (Paragraph 8). She also knows that Mr. Doran values his respectable reputation and will want to avoid a scandal. Furthermore, he could lose his job with his Catholic employer if his behavior became public knowledge. She anticipates that Polly’s marriage to a relatively wealthy and respectable man will elevate the family’s social status.

Mr. Doran stresses over the upcoming meeting with Mrs. Mooney. He thinks about his confession to a priest over the romantic affair, and knows, after his harsh reprimand by the priest, that he must either marry Polly and save his reputation or run from the situation and ruin the reputation he worked so hard to build. He comes to believe that he has been tricked into making a marriage proposal by the family. Mr. Doran thinks discontentedly about Polly and her family’s low social class, indicated in their bad grammar and lack of manners. He tries desperately to think of a way to remain unmarried and free to do as he pleases. Then, Polly enters the room, interrupting his thoughts, and threatens to end her life out of unhappiness over the situation. Seeing her again reminds Mr. Doran of why he was enthralled with Polly but he is still unsure about whether to propose to her.

After comforting her, Mr. Doran goes to speak with Mrs. Mooney, leaving Polly alone in the room. On the stairs, Mr. Doran bumps into Jack Mooney and recalls the aggressive response of Polly’s brother when a music hall artiste made a disrespectful joke about her.

Polly jumps onto the bed and sinks into it, dreaming of a future with Mr. Doran. She soon hears her mother calling to her, saying that Mr. Doran would like to speak to her. As she leaves the bed to go to him, she “remembered what she had been waiting for” (Paragraph 33).