The Boarding House

by James Joyce

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In "The Boarding House," how would you classify Mrs. Mooney and Polly in terms of character types?

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Mrs. Mooney is the clear protagonist of "The Boarding House" in James Joyce's short story collection Dubliners. The story begins with her perspective, and her concerns and actions drive the narrative action. Trapped by the social mores of her time, place, and class, she works all the angles to secure a good marriage for her daughter, Polly, to the hapless Mr. Doran. Mrs. Mooney is also a dynamic character—she has a backstory, and we are exposed to her doubts and concerns, as compared to relatively flat characters like Mr. Mooney and her son Jack. Joyce gives detailed descriptions of her interior state of mind, and her actions drive the drama in the story: "She dealt with moral problems as a cleaver deals with meat: and in this case she had made up her mind," he writes.

Polly can be considered a major character, and perhaps a secondary protagonist, but only a small section of the text is devoted to her perspective, even smaller than the section told from Mr. Doran's perspective. The majority of the story revolves around Mrs. Mooney's attempts to negotiate her daughter's affair, making Polly a passive presence until the end. At first Polly seems to be a relatively flat character, representing more of a "type" than an individual, but the story ends with her point of view and, by so doing, reveals more dynamism and complexity in Polly than Joyce initially lets on.

The story lacks a traditional antagonist, as the author doles out sympathy at various points to Mrs. Mooney, Mr. Doran, and Polly. The antagonist in this case might be considered to be the social constrictions that the characters are forced to work within—navigating the expectations and opinions of their community is the central challenge they face.

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In James Joyce's short story "The Boarding House," Mrs. Mooney is a major character because she is the protagonist. [Protagonist: the character whom the author focuses on and through whom the narrative is often focalized (directing the focus of reader attention).] Polly is in some sense a second protagonist, and therefore a major character, since the story cannot happen without her and because she is central to everything Mrs. Mooney does in the boarding house after Polly takes up with Mr. Doran. However, it is wimportant to note that critics classify Mrs. Mooney as one of Joyces's "monstrous" mothers who feature prominently in The Dubliners.

Even though Polly has such little direct involvement in the narrative, Joyce paints her as a living individual, a dynamic character with round qualities by giving her psychological qualities ("Polly knew that she was being watched ... There had been no open complicity"); a complex personality ("She sang: I'm a ... naughty girl"); and motivation ("Polly had been made awkward [because]... she did not wish it to be thought that in her wise innocence she had divined the intention behind her mother's tolerance"); and by giving various stages of progress through the story, stages that are evident after Polly is taken out of typewriting.

Similarly, Joyce has constructed Mrs. Mooney as a dynamic character with round qualities for the same reasons. Mrs. Mooney has psychological qualities ("She would give him neither money nor food nor house-room"); a complex personality ("She governed the house cunningly and firmly"); and motivation ("She watched the pair and kept her own counsel."); and she progresses through various stages in the development of her character that begin with her own marriage and liberation and end with her hope that she "wins" and her triumphant announcement: "Mr. Doran wants to speak to you."

In contrast, Mr. Mooney is a minor character and in some senses the antagonist since his harmful interaction with Mrs. Mooney precipitated, or incited, the action. Additionally, though he is a well-described character, he is neither round nor dynamic--his psychology, his personality and his motives are narrowly defined and he is left sitting in the bailiff's office signed up as a sheriff's man waiting for an offer of work.

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