Wednesday, October 3, 2012

James Joyce's Dubliners--"The Boarding House"

I'm now about half through reading and blogging about James Joyce's collection of short stories, Dubliners. What makes these stories so fascinating is the subtle connections between them--the first stories are from the point of view of a young boy, the next stories are from the point of view of adolescents.  "After the Race" and "Two Gallants" are from the point of view of young men, possibly in their twenties. But "The Boarding House" is from the point of view of adults.  Now that I'm re-reading them, it's clear that Joyce intended to arrange the stories in this particular order--it's like the reader is growing up in Dublin, with the perception of the city deepening as the characters age.

"The Boarding House" actually has three points of view: the story begins with Mrs. Mooney, a tough woman who's had a hard life and struggled to build something with it.  She has noticed that her daughter, Polly, is having an affair with Mr. Doran, one of the men who lives at her boarding house.  She waited until she was sure the affair had been consummated, then confronted Polly about it.  Although she and her daughter both avoided appearing to collude with each other, it's clear that Mrs. Mooney is satisfied that Mr. Doran is likely to marry Polly to avoid a scandal.

The next point of view is Mr. Doran's; he is so anxious that he can't manage to shave himself.  He knows he must marry Polly--his Catholic boss will fire him if he doesn't, and he feels terribly guilty about his "sin." But he realizes that Polly is "a little vulgar"--she's depicted as singing a risque song at one of the musical evenings at the house--and he "had a notion that he was being had." Polly's seduction of him mimics a famous scene from La Boheme so completely that the reader can't help but wonder if she deliberately staged the entire moment (she knocks on his door because her candle went out, and asks him for a light--just as Mimi meets Rodolfo for the first time in Boheme).  Yet, although he is vaguely aware that the affair is not entirely his fault, he knows he still must make "reparations" for it by marrying her. He enjoyed their affair in the moment, but he knows that his "delirium" will pass.  Helpless and miserable, Mr. Doran longs for escape, but even as he trudges down the stairs to his doom, he passes Polly's thuggish brother, Jack Mooney, who eyes him coldly.  Mr. Doran knows that Jack will be enraged and possibly dangerous if he doesn't marry her.

The final point of view character is Polly herself.  In a clear contrast to her distressed lover, Polly quickly forgets her sorrow, and falls into a reverie of "hopes and visions [] so intricate that she no longer saw the white pillows on which her gaze was fixed or remembered that she was waiting for anything." Marriage does not represent a trap for Polly, but a dream.

Joyce juxtaposes "The Boarding House" and "Two Gallants". These two stories depict predatory, scheming relationships between the sexes in Dublin.  In "Two Gallants" the two men of the title conspire to seduce a woman and manipulate her for money.  The reader cringes at their cruelty and callousness.  Yet, in "The Boarding House," Joyce depicts two women who subtly conspire to trap a man into a marriage he does not want. Though they are more subtle, their manipulations are as predatory in their own way.  What drives this merciless war between the sexes?  Although Joyce does not give a conclusive answer, he suggests that an unforgiving society and a prurient, judgmental church encourages this divide.  Mrs. Mooney "[deals] with moral problems as a cleaver deals with meat," and when a distressed Mr. Doran seeks solace in confession, "the priest had drawn out every ridiculous detail of the affair and in the end so magnified his sin that he was almost thankful at being afforded a loophole of reparation." How can men and women show kindness and respect for each other when their natural affections are so vilified?

Dubliners blogs:

"The Sisters" and "An Encounter"

"After the Race" and "Two Gallants"

"A Little Cloud" and "Counterparts"

"Clay" and "A Painful Case"

"Ivy Day in the Committee Room"

"A Mother"


"The Dead"

Blogs for James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five

Blogs for James Joyce's Ulysses: 

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