Wednesday, October 17, 2012

James Joyce's "The Boarding House" and Irish Culture

James Joyce once famously remarked that "the modern writer must be an adventurer above all". "The Boarding House" in Joyce's collection of short stories, Dubliners, takes place in the center of Irish culture at the turn of the century.

Mrs. Mooney runs a boarding house for mostly men who come to stay while working. Polly is her nineteen year old daughter who attracts all these men by flirting and singing to them by the piano. As a manipulative and strong figure, Mrs. Mooney has no qualms about asserting herself, made clear after she leaves her dangerous and alcoholic husband. As a very controlling woman, it is somewhat surprising that Mrs. Mooney allows her daughter to be so flirtatious with all these men. It is odd that she seems to be putting her daughter in the same situation she had to escape herself, believing that a woman must marry.

Mr. Doran is an older, Catholic wine merchant who becomes romantically involved with Polly. After Polly confides in Mr. Doran and her mother that she is pregnant, Mrs. Mooney insists that the two marry, and even speaks with Mr. Doran, himself, to assure that he keeps her honor. Mr. Doran then goes through extreme conflict with himself. He recognizes that the right thing to do is to stay with Polly and marry her. However, he also seriously contemplates running away, knowing that Polly is part of a lower social class and a baby means serious commitment. Here comes the subsequent theme to maintaining honor, the weight of consequence.

Mrs. Mooney eventually convinces Mr. Doran to stay and marry Polly. As a story completely run by the two females, mother and daughter, Mr. Doran is completely at the mercy of the two. Polly sits waiting upstairs and has the typical epiphany Joyce writes into many of his stories, such as "Araby," where Polly realizes what she has been waiting for, the  husband that Mr. Doran proves to be. This ending leads to the question of Joyce's attitude to Irish culture.

In my opinion, I do not think that Joyce supported this notion that Mr. Doran had to marry Polly to maintain her honor. I believe he saw Irish culture as hypocritical and wrong, how Polly can seduce this man and force him to retire his entire life to succumb to her will. Also, I feel that Joyce questions how Mrs. Mooney can leave her husband after being the victim to terrible abuse, yet still push Polly into a marriage. I see Joyce on the side of Mr. Doran, supporting the man in the situation of the two controlling women. James Joyce surely does write dangerously in "The Boarding House," making a strong statement on not only a controversial issue of pregnancy out of wedlock, but also by posing the question of the values in the Irish society.

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