Study Guide

The Boarding House

by James Joyce

The Boarding House Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Mrs. Mooney, a coarse, shrewd, and determined woman, connives to marry off her daughter to one of the more responsible lodgers in her shabby, questionably respectable boardinghouse. Having given her daughter the run of the young men, Mrs. Mooney watches in silent approval as Polly seduces a meek, middle-aged clerk. As the story opens, Mrs. Mooney, having ascertained the facts of the situation from her daughter, prepares to confront the lover, Bob Doran. She is determined to make him marry the girl, under the weight of social, religious, and economic pressure. The story, told almost entirely through narrative flashbacks, recounts the collusion between mother and daughter in the entrapment of Doran. Although Doran balks inwardly against this coercion, he finds himself surrendering to the admonitions of his priest, to the middle-class conventions of Dublin life, and to his fears of scandal, of losing his job, and of reprisals by Polly’s rowdy and violent brother. Despite his affection for Polly, he is repelled by her vulgarity and fears that he will be lowering himself socially by marrying her. Indeed, the narrative substantiates Doran’s “notion that he was being had,” while it makes clear that his capitulation is a foregone conclusion.

Because most of the story is told through exposition and flashback, very little happens in the course of the narrative, which spans only about an hour on a Sunday morning. Doran, the reluctant lover and the even more reluctant husband-to-be, is very agitated after having confessed the affair to his priest on the previous day. His anxiety increases when Polly enters, cries on his shoulder, and tells him that she has “made a clean breast of it to her mother.” Feebly reassuring Polly that everything will be all right, he is summoned to an interview with Mrs. Mooney. While Mrs. Mooney has the matter out with Doran, her daughter obediently awaits the outcome of the interview, her mind filled with pleasant reminiscences of her trysts with her lover and with still more pleasant “hopes and visions of the future.” At the end of the story, Mrs. Mooney, whose name recalls “money,” calls Polly downstairs to inform her of the “reparation,” a promise of marriage, which she has extracted from Bob Doran.