The Boarding House

by James Joyce

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Universality of Immorality

This short story conveys the idea that everyone is unethical, even sinful. Mr. Mooney waits until his father-in-law dies before revealing himself to be dishonest and irresponsible, even murderous—and so his wife leaves him. Jack Mooney is a "hard case" who cusses, fights, and bets. His sister, Polly, sings songs about being a "naughty girl" and manipulates a young man, Mr. Doran, into sleeping with and marrying her. Mrs. Mooney intends "to give her [daughter] the run of the young men" in the hopes that she will land a husband as well. Mr. Doran, a young man who sowed his oats in his youth and has been embracing celibacy of late, falls for Polly's manipulations and sleeps with her several times. No one is blameless here; all are guilty of some unethical, even sinful, behavior.

Paralysis by Social Expectations

In the story, individuals often suffer from a feeling of paralysis—some feeling of being stuck—as a result of social expectations. Mr. Doran, certainly, feels hemmed in by his job and the expectations of his employer, the admonitions of his priest, the social impropriety of marrying someone beneath him, Jack's threats to anyone who dishonors his sister, and Mrs. Mooney's coercion and demands for reparation for her daughter's honor. He clearly does not want to marry Polly, and yet he feels obligated to do so. He is paralyzed by all these forces outside himself and almost feels as though he has no choice. Polly, meanwhile, says that she will "put an end to herself" as a result of her pregnancy out of wedlock, due to social expectations and the like. People are not often free to choose without regard for their place in society.

Marriage as a Business Contract

In "The Boarding House," love and marriage do not often go together; more often, it seems, marriage is a business contract predicated on money. Mrs. Mooney is a shrewd woman, and it seems unlikely that she would marry such a good-for-nothing man without some understanding of his real nature. However, he has a good job with her father, and she obviously knows how to manipulate him to gain control of their finances so that she could take any remaining money with her. Later, she knows how to orchestrate and manipulate her daughter and boarders to find a suitable match for Polly. Mr. Doran does not really feel himself to be in love with Polly; however, he marries her because he realizes that he has materially damaged her prospects.

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