The Boarding House

by James Joyce

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470

Mrs. Mooney

Mrs. Mooney is a shrewd and "determined woman" who is "quite able to keep things to herself." In other words, she takes in everything, seeing the truth about people regardless of how they might try to hide it, and she is able to manipulate them, all the while keeping her intentions to herself. She does not need any assistance in her plots, as she is quite capable of managing herself and others without consulting another person.

Mrs. Mooney married a man who seemed to have prospects, her butcher-father's foreman, but when her father died, her husband turned to drinking and stealing. He fought with her "in the presence of customers" and ended up ruining his business. One day, when he "went for his wife with the cleaver," she left him and took their children and what was left of their money. One wonders, or perhaps assumes, that Mrs. Mooney knew precisely what she was doing when she married him and was counting on being able to achieve an independent lifestyle one day (having fulfilled her social obligation to marry once)—especially given her adroit manipulation of her daughter and Mr. Doran later on.

Jack Mooney

Jack is Mrs. Mooney's son, who "had the reputation of being a hard case." He swears and stays out late (possibly drinking, gambling, engaging with prostitutes, etc.). He's also an adept fighter, "handy with the mits," and always has an entertaining story or song to share with the male boarders. His threats toward anyone who dishonors his sister help to compel Mr. Doran to marry her.

Polly Mooney

Polly is Mrs. Mooney's daughter and Jack's sister. She sings songs about being a "naughty girl." She also flirts with the young men and seems to silently investigate them, as if to learn which might make a good match for her. As this was her mother's hope all along, Mrs. Mooney does not intervene. Polly begins a relationship with one of the boarders, Mr. Doran, and only once she is pregnant—a sure sign that she is no longer marriageable to another man—does her mother intervene, demanding that he marry her. However, when we learn Mr. Doran's thoughts, it is obvious that Polly engineered their first tryst together, coming from her "bath" and wearing little but perfume.

Mr. Doran

Mr. Doran is Polly's soon-to-be husband and seems rather hapless. He is the unwitting pawn of both the mother and the daughter. He is paralyzed by the many pressures he feels—from his family, to marry well; from his priest, to stop sinning; from his boss, to behave honorably; from Polly, who threatens to kill herself; and from Mrs. Mooney, who demands that he marry Polly. How can he refuse? His character seems to emphasize how determined so many of our decisions actually are, despite our appearance of freedom.

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