The Boarding House: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 948

New Characters:
Mrs. Mooney: owner of the boarding house

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Polly Mooney: her 19-year-old daughter

Bob Doran: boarder with whom Polly has become romantically involved

Polly Mooney, 19, lives in her mother’s boarding house with her brother and the young male boarders and tourists who make up its inhabitants. Polly is pretty, and she receives flirtatious advances from many of the boarders and reciprocates, but Mrs. Mooney is frustrated by her daughter’s lack of progress in finding a husband. When Polly begins to have a not-too-subtle affair with one of the boarders, Bob Doran, Mrs. Mooney stays surprisingly quiet and her daughter wonders if she’s acquiescent. In fact, Mrs. Mooney waits until the relationship between them is quite advanced before she decides to talk—first to Polly and then to the young man.

When Polly turns to Bob, she confesses that she’s frightened of her mother’s suspicions and the consequences of their situation; Bob reassures her limply. Soon thereafter, Mrs. Mooney asks to speak with Bob in private. Although he understands the content of their meeting and feels full of dread, he complies.

Meanwhile, Polly composes herself in her room and relaxes as she thinks of her liaisons with Bob. When her mother calls her from below, she tells Polly to come downstairs because Bob wants to speak with her. The reader never learns the exact content of either of the two conversations.

The overt theme of prostitution in “The Two Gallants” is played out more subtly in Mrs. Mooney’s boarding house. Joyce begins the story with a synopsis of Mrs. Mooney’s dreadful marriage: struggling to succeed as a woman in a patriarchal society, she married Mr. Mooney and suffered through his alcoholism and ruinous business practices. Owing to Mrs. Mooney’s common sense and ferocious determination, she succeeds in spite of her husband, running a boarding house and supporting her family. Thus, it’s highly ironic that Mrs. Mooney—having been almost destroyed in a wretched marriage—is so eager to enter her daughter, Polly, into a union that is flawed at best and disastrous at worst.

Having looked over the many boarders with whom Polly has flirted, her mother decides that Bob Doran is the most likely marital prospect among them. Therefore, even when Polly and Bob’s liaison becomes obvious in the house, Mrs. Mooney pretends not to notice. If she noticed, her obligation as a Christian and mother would force her to demand its end. If she doesn’t recognize the affair, she can let it progress so far that Doran will have no option but to marry Polly when confronted. In effect, Mrs. Mooney allows Polly to sell herself to Doran in exchange for the marital obligation he will ultimately owe her. The arrangement is a manipulative and exploitive one, highlighting Mrs. Mooney’s nickname among the boarders as “The Madam,” since she’s prostituting her daughter.

As far as Polly’s culpability in the arrangement is concerned, she senses her mother’s plan and cooperates tacitly with it. The song she sings (“I’m a naughty girl…/You know I am”) indicates her character, and her brazen seduction of the meek Bob Doran shows the reader that Polly has inherited her mother’s determination. With Bob, however, Polly behaves timidly and remorsefully; she leans on him to assume the burden of guilt and fear, and Bob ambivalently complies. The reader should rightfully suspect Polly’s meekness, since she has already identified herself as a “naughty girl,” and the author describes her as resembling “a little perverse madonna.” This contrasts ludicrously with the hapless and limp image she presents to Doran; the reader can easily see the disingenuousness of this guise. Further, the description of Polly at the story’s end shows a fully composed woman reliving the “secret amiable memories” of her tryst with Doran. Far from penitent, Polly is portrayed as a sensual woman relaxing at the very scene of her seduction.

Polly’s melodramatic reaction over the situation only heightens Doran’s guilt and recognition that “reparation must be made for such a sin.” The term reparation means financial repayment, but it also bears a religious meaning: the amendment(s) made to God for sinful acts. Doran thinks of this affair as a sin, and his career with a Catholic employer demands that he maintain a spotless record. He has discussed penance with a priest in terms of seeking “a loophole of reparation” but realizes that under the circumstances, the church allows him no option besides marriage.

It is significant that Doran wants to amend the sin only to secure his position and not for the sake of his soul. Likewise, Mrs. Mooney and her daughter see amendment for the “sin” in financial terms, since Bob has a “good screw” (job) and “a bit of stuff” (savings) as well. Considering the situation, Mrs. Mooney’s thoughts are appropriate for a deal-maker or gambler rather than a mother concerned with her child’s honor: “[s]he felt sure she would win” and deals with moral problems “as a cleaver deals with meat.”

Doran’s situation is hopeless, since Mrs. Mooney knows she has Catholic tradition and Irish societal values on her side. In this, Joyce condemns the parochial Irish beliefs that would force a marriage between so unlikely a pair. Polly, for her part, leaves the direct confrontation to her capable mother and manipulates Bob in more beguiling and subtle ways. Because of this tradition and its flaws, the author tells us, both Polly and Bob are doomed to unhappiness, as was Polly’s mother when she married out of financial necessity years before.

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