The Boarding House: a Socio-Political Commentary of James Joyce’s Ireland Essay
The Boarding House A Socio-political Commentary on James Joyce’s Ireland “The Boarding House” is a typically oriented short story in the James Joyce style beginning with a recollection of the characters backgrounds. In this story, Mrs. Mooney escapes a troubled marriage from her drunk and abusive husband and opens a boarding house. Her son and daughter, Jack and Polly, work in the boarding house with her where she rules with a heavy hand and is referred to as ‘The Madam. ’ As Joyce leads us to believe, the constant flow of young, single men through the boarding house eventually lead to Polly having an intimate relationship with Mr.
Doran, an employee of a respected, Catholic wine dealer in the area. While Joyce lets us know that the relationship is far from covert, Mrs. Mooney refrains until what she deems to be the right moment before intervening. When this intervention finally occurs, in the form of a meeting between Mrs. Mooney and Mr. Doran, he has become aware of the fact that his innocent relationship with Polly was quite the opposite and he was now faced with the option of disgracing his reputation and leaving his home and his job or requesting her hand in marriage.
Joyce ends the story with Polly walking down the stairs of the boarding house as her mother has summoned her to come speak with Mr. Doran as he has a question to ask her. The notion of boarding houses in James Joyce’s writing as open and fluid is not unique to this story. In Julieann Veronica Ulin’s criticism, “Fluid Boarders and Naughty Girls: Music, Domesticity, and Nation in Joyce’s Boarding Houses” she brings to light the idea that the open and transient nature of the boarding house is symbolic of the Irish nation at that time.
Further, she uses the relationships and situations within the boarding house as metaphors or symbols for some of the other domestic problems Joyce views in his home nation. The boarding house image and symbolism is unmistakable and can be analyzed in a variety of ways. During the time when Joyce was writing this story, from 1900-1910, Ireland was still under rule of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and the British Parliament ruled over the nation. While not well received, this style of government was not largely disliked until the famine of 1840 which left Irish nationals feeling betrayed and stranded by their own country.
This birthed the Irish Home Rule movement which created a grass roots following for the rule of Ireland to be entirely internal and free of ulterior motives from outside nations. As the 19th century progressed, the frequency of migrants leaving and entering Ireland increased tremendously and diluted the Irish culture and the purity of the Irish race. The ‘floating population’ living in Ireland can be related to the rotating cast of boarders in the boarding house and Ulin compares the dissolving purity of the Irish nation to the declining purity of Polly as she is essentially an object of sexual affection for boarders.
As Ireland can no longer be pure, and the process by which the nation has lost its purity is irreversible, Polly has also lost her purity, and her only hope for salvaging any purity is through Mr. Doran asking her hand in marriage. This ideal of the pure Irish woman is at the root of the Catholicism based Irish culture which James Joyce is critical of in much of his literature. The idea of the boarding house resulting from a broken home is indicative of Joyce’s criticism of the Catholic ideal in the culture.
The metaphor is extended through using Polly as the idea of the tainted woman as Ireland is now a tainted nation, overrun with foreigners. The issue of outside government is also shown as Polly, while she has free reign of the house and particularly of the male boarders, is ultimately manipulated by her mother in a quest for her to trick or corruption of the boarders into marrying her. This idea is paralleled in the notion that Ireland has little control over its rule and governance and is essentially at the will of the United Kingdom.
As is the case in most of James Joyce’s short stories, the ideas of paralysis and the gnomon are present. The context of the story makes the reader feel as if much takes place during the story because the reader is privy to a great deal of information about multiple characters, while in reality, the characters remain frozen or paralyzed. The only action in the story occurs when Mr. Doran and Polly speak briefly in the bedroom and then Mr. Doran walks down the stairs to speak with Mrs. Mooney. Mr.
Doran is entirely paralyzed throughout the story as he realizes that his reputation is certainly going to be tarnished and he has little recourse to prevent it. This paralysis is another reflection on the paralyzed nature of the Ireland during the time period. The country was largely unemployed and in poverty which was compounded by the constant flux of citizens and foreigners moving domestically and internationally around the country. The nation is paralyzed with uncertainty despite the fact that the citizens know what is wrong which is the same situation facing Mr.
Doran during the story. The idea of the gnomon is a prevailing theme is Joyce’s writing and he lets the reader complete his sentences. This style adds an aura of confusion and uncertainty but also makes the reader avoid making false assumptions. The ultimate gnomon in this story occurs when Polly is called down as Mr. Doran has to ask her a question. While marriage is never explicity discussed, it is all but assumed the Mr. Doran is seeking to cut his losses and Polly has won the game which she and her mother have eloquently executed.
James Joyce’s “The Boarding House” is in his typical style and reveals his socio-political criticisms of his Irish homeland in the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. His criticisms are enhanced by studying Julieann Veronica Ulin’s criticism, “Fluid Boarders and Naughty Girls: Music, Domesticity, and Nation in Joyce’s Boarding Houses” which examines the ideas of purity in the nation and the transient nature of nationals and foreigners.