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THE BOARDING HOUSE
A boarding house in the seedier part of the city of Dublin. The guests are a mixed bunch of tourists, clerks and music hall performers. The landlady who has survived a hard life is seen manipulating her children and her lodgers to achieve her own ends.
LIST OF CHARACTERS
Her unhappy past has made this butcher’s daughter as sharp as an axe.
A young, reserved, sober employee at a wine merchant’s, he is Mrs. Mooney ideal son-in-law and ideal victim.
Young and reckless, Polly has no scruples about letting her mother arrange a comfortable life for her.
Mrs. Mooney’s "hard case" son who is "handy with the mitts."
Mrs. Mooney, the landlady who has refused to be victimized by a parasitic husband, and has become hard and manipulative in the process.
There is a victim rather than an antagonist in this story. Bob Doran, a quiet, rather introvert lodger is Mrs. Monney’s target as a son-in-law.
Whether Bob Doran succumbs to Mrs. Mooney’s plans and her daughter’s charms or escapes to freedom is the source of tension in the story.
Doran gives in, crushed as much by traditional values and the church, by his own weakness as by his fear of Mrs. Mooney and the scandal if he refuses to marry her daughter.
The mood is one of satirical humor and skepticism as Joyce exposes Mrs. Mooney’s methodical planning and the unspoken agreement between her daughter Polly and herself. He observes Doran with some sympathy and fellow feeling, but reveals his moral weakness and confusion without pity.
Mrs. Mooney who runs the boarding house is the central character. She has had an unhappy marriage to her father’s alcoholic foreman. He had run up heavy debts and ruined her family business-a butcher shop. One night, he had threatened her with a meat cleaver, after which she had promptly got a separation order from the priest. Thrown out by her, he had joined up as a "sheriff’s man"- a part-time bailiff. He is a shabby, stooped little drunkard, with a white face and a white moustache and white eyebrows, "while Mrs. Mooney is "a big imposing woman."
She then opens a boarding house where her regular clients are clerks from the City, while occasional ones are tourists and music hall performers. She has a son, Jack, who is "handy with the mitts", "a hard case", and works at a commission agents office. She also has a daughter, Polly, a slim girl of nineteen who is like a "perverse little Madonna." Polly is an attraction for the younger lodgers and she flirts with all of them. Mrs. Mooney’s chief concern is Polly’s marriage and she knows most of the clients are not seriously interested. She then notices something deeper between Polly and one lodger. There is gossip at the boarding house, yet the mother is silent. Polly gauges her intentions and keeps her own counsel.
One Sunday morning, Mrs. Mooney strikes "as a cleaver does with meat." She has questioned Polly and feels the time is ripe. She sends the maid to summon the "guilty" lodger, after breakfast has been cleared away. The man, a Mr. Doran, is a serious, quiet man of about thirty-five. He has a steady job with a firm of wine-merchants, and a good salary. All the clients know about the affair, so social opinion would support the mother. She hopes he would fear the loss of his job in case of a scandal. She will argue that he had "simply taken advantage of Polly’s youth and inexperience." She feels virtuous about the fact that while some mothers would have been happy with monetary compensation, she will take nothing less than marriage.
The story shifts to Doran waiting anxiously in his room. He has admitted to the affair at confession the night before. He feels his choices are "to marry her or run away." On the one hand, he is ashamed of her family and uneducated speech. He also fears the loss of his freedom. While he broods over this, Polly enters, weeps and throws herself into his arms.
He suddenly remembers that she had taken the first step in their affair-giving him supper after working late; kissing him good night. He teeters between a feeling of the inevitable duty, and a fragile feeling that "perhaps they could be happy together." Then the maid enters with "Madam’s" summons. Doran comforts Polly and goes down, seeing Jack’s belligerent face on the way.
As soon as he leaves Polly stops crying and repairs her appearance. She slips into a pleasant daydream and waits " almost cheerfully." Her mother calls for her, saying Mr. Doran wants to speak to her. Polly remembers what she had been waiting for.
This story depicts yet another angle of the shallow relationships people drift into ending with their being trapped. Mrs. Mooney has herself had a hard life and a bad marriage and has built up her business with determination. She has clearly few illusions about love or marriage. She is only concerned with getting her children settled, and "getting her daughter off her hands" is her first priority knowing that her "floating" lodgers are not good husband material, she plans to snare one of the stable City clerks. Without her planning, a girl with Polly’s background wouldn’t be considered eligible by the clerks.
Joyce’s subtle handling is at its best when he describes the daughter’s confession and the mother’s response to it. Mrs. Mooney "had been made awkward by not wishing to seem to have convinced." While Polly is equally awkward because she doesn’t want it known that "she had divined the intention behind her mother’s tolerance." Mrs. Mooney calculates all the odds as a lawyer would before a court appearance. All the three characters are shown to be selfish, but Polly and her mother show up as the more manipulative. While "Two Gallants" shows an overt trade in sexual favors, this story reveals marriage also to be a commercial transaction in veiled form, with one party being an unwilling participant.