The Boarding House

by James Joyce

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Analysis

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Joyce makes use of a third-person omniscient narrator in "The Boarding House." This means that the narrator is not a participant in the story's action and events but does know and can report on the thoughts and feelings of all of the characters.

It is because the narrator tells us what Mrs. Mooney, Polly, and Mr. Doran are thinking that we understand the extent of the manipulation and paralysis in the story. Mrs. Mooney operates with the "intention" of giving her daughter "the run of the young men" in the boarding house. She absolutely manipulates her daughter and her boarders, biding her time until Polly finds a suitable potential match—even, it seems, allowing her daughter to seduce Mr. Doran.

Further, when the narrator conveys what Mr. Doran himself is thinking, readers learn that Polly rapped on his door late at night, wearing very little and purposely perfumed; Polly, evidently, is capable of some manipulation on her own. We also learn of Mr. Doran's reservations about marrying Polly—his own lack of love for her, his concerns about what his family and friends will think of her "vulgar[ity]"—as well as all of the pressures he feels to marry her from his boss, from his priest, and from Polly's mother.

The flashback, then, is also an extremely important device in this story. The story itself takes place, perhaps, within the space of an hour—maybe even less than that. Mrs. Mooney sends her servant to ask Mr. Doran to come down and speak with her, he readies himself to do so, Polly comes into his room in a panic, he reassures her, and he goes downstairs to speak with Mrs. Mooney. The story ends when, a short while later, Mrs. Mooney calls her daughter down in order to receive Mr. Doran's proposal of marriage.

These two narrative strategies—use of a third-person omniscient narrator and the flashback—seem to go together to enable the story to occur at all. Without readers' being able to know what has happened in the past and what various characters are thinking, there would hardly be a story to read.

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