In “The Boarding House,” Joyce presents his case for the victimized male impressed into domesticity through deception, coercion, societal and economic pressure. The result is a sham Annunciation predicting a stumbling future for a timid Joseph, bound and gagged in holy matrimony.
Mrs. Mooney, a failed butcher’s wife, fell even lower into the role of a metaphorical madam (Dubliners 98). Her establishment lands hard on Hardwicke Street, serving tourists, a residency of clerks, rowdy music hall performers, and a rough commercial crowd not timid about the proximity to the brothels of Monto (99). The Joyce family knew the street well, having lived at Number 27 in one of their many brief occupancies. The street name also recalls the Hardwick Act of 1754 that regulated marriage in Edwardian Ireland (James Joyce’s Dubliners 53).
The “Madam” Mooney’s boy, Jack, enforced her cute and cunning rules. Jack “was fond of using soldiers’ obscenities” and who, working on Fleet Street, is likely bi-lingual, also fluent in nautical vulgarities. He showed himself often to be fancy with his fists but “sang comic songs” to hide his darker side (100). Although Mrs. Mooney’s only son made boarders toe the line according to house rules, he might carry two bottles of Bass into his room while “entertaining company.” Still, the house enforcer was quick to defend his sister’s slight honor when a slight at her honor was offered, even when Sister Polly invited the offense by vamping a suggestive song at the piano (Dubliners 100).
The establishment is convenient to a variety of after-hours houses, churches, and brothels. This locale affords itself the comforts of both the profound and the profane. The pro-cathedral is near at hand, but for express salvation, Marlborough Street worshipers might avail themselves of “a short twelve” at a side altar that will be adjourning just as the celebrant at the main altar begins his homily. Adam and Eve’s on Merchant Quay was, appropriately to this story, once a mass-house disguised as a tavern (Torchiana 112). Intrusive bells call from the belfry of Church of Ireland’s Saint George’s. George slew the dragon of evil in defense of a maiden’s virtue. Vaults under Saint George’s stored potable spirits (Torchiana 118). From Monto, it’s just a short walk to confess at either of the Catholic churches. The locale offers every brand and packaging of salvation.
Mrs. Mooney was the daughter and the wife of butchers. When her husband went after her with the cleaver, she left his house for a neighbor’s. She separated from Mooney using the protections of Canon Law and carved out a new occupation for herself. After ruining the butcher shop’s trade, her husband earned a meager living sitting on the sheriff’s bench waiting to do some dirty business in the name of the law. Meanwhile, Mrs. Mooney kept her butchering ways honed even after selling the shop. The Mooney’s shop had been on Mud Island, where rogues lived under a rough code of law (Torchiana 111). There she learned to administer a rationalized justice, dealing “with moral problems as a cleaver deals with meat” (Dubliners 102). Her authority was a stew of “religious and secular” ingredients under “‘cleaver’ morality,” according to Gerald Doherty (473-74).
Like an Etruscan soothsayer, Madam Mooney read the entrails as she made her incantations and observed the smoke (Doherty 477). She bides her time and allows events to transpire until the time is ripe to privately, then publicly, declare what she has known, allowed, and encouraged.
Things were as she had suspected: she had been frank in her questions and Polly had been frank in her answers. Both had been somewhat awkward, of course. She had been made awkward by her not wishing to receive the news in too cavalier a fashion or to seem to have connived and Polly had been made awkward not merely because allusions of that kind always made her awkward but also because she did not wish it to be thought that in her wise innocence she had divined the intention behind her mother's tolerance. (Dubliners 102-03)
Daughter Polly’s eyes vacillate grey and green. Green is the color of sexual predation elsewhere in Dubliners and Ulysses. She is, at times, demure, at others, “a little perverse madonna” (Dubliners 101). Mrs. Mooney’s daughter is an attraction of the house, singing suggestive songs and coquetting with the clientele. Her mother, The Madam, oversees her friendly flirting with an eye out for suitable suitors. In critical moments, the Boarding House Venus falls into a trance, lost to the events around her. She rests her chin on the bedstead and loses the memory of the symbolic pillows that lay on Doran’s bed. Halper attributes the unfolding to her “immaturity, (and) tenacious adolescence.” But those feather pillows, instrumental to her impregnation, are also symbolic of the Holy Ghost (Torchiana 114). Halper further objects to the story’s older adolescent “protagonist,” Doran, age thirty-five or thirty-six. All the other protagonists in this group of stories are very young. With all respect to Halper, it seems the protagonist here is not Doran but Polly, and the story is a retelling of a perverse annunciation to that “little perverse madonna.”
Even Halper agrees that “In her wise innocence, Polly Mooney has divined what her mother is doing” (Halper 75). She is not an active conspirator. Torchiana shows her consciousness to be adrift as if waiting for some mystical empowerment. When her senses reset, she looks into the mirror, perhaps not from vanity but to be sure that she has returned to her familiar body. Her mother had also looked into the mirror as she dispatched Mary to fetch Doran. Finally, Scholes and Litz point out that the word epicleti shares its origin with Joyce’s central theme of epiphany.
Epiklesis, the Greek term, is used by the Eastern Church for the role of the Holy Ghost in transforming the consecrated wafer and wine into Christ’s body and blood (250). As the Annunciation transforms the Virgin into the Mother of God, so is Miss Mooney transformed with her mother’s summons. With less than a page remaining in the story, as Torchiana notes, Joyce cleaves the page with a string of ellipses marking Polly’s Annunciation. It’s here that the story partitions, all before or after (109).
Deoradh, the Irish word at the source of the Doran surname, indicates a stranger or exile. This Doran considers a self-imposed exile to escape his fate. That suggests a break from tradition, from family, and from his employer. Mrs. Mooney resolved her marital problems in that way too. She put aside her husband, giving up the butcher shop that had belonged to her father, and moving to Hardwicke Street to host tenants. Bob and the Madam also share an interest in the mixing of business and religious practice. Doran has worked “for thirteen years in a great Catholic wine merchant’s office.” Either exile or scandal would end his career of handling that eucharistic species. His counterpart shares her name with J.G. Mooney public houses and bakery and John Mooney’s Clonliffe Bakery (Torchiana 109). He deals in the grape; she the grain.
Confession summons Bob Doran. Doherty even calls Doran “a compulsive confessee” (475). His clerical confessor wrings the smallest details of his sin from him, maximizing guilt. This transforms the “loophole of reparation” into an apparent gateway to salvation. In this case, the sacrament is insufficient. The bridegroom must face three confessors, each offering a different brand of penance. They are priest, madam, and enforcement agent Jack. The steam rising from his confessions fogs his glasses, blinding him to the future (Dubliners 110).
In his analysis, Bruce Rosenberg calls Doran “a diminished Jesus,” pushed toward decency. The boarder agrees to become the victim. Moreover, Gifford and Seidman suggest that “Manuo,” Doran’s Monto pseudonym, originates in manu or hand, suggesting one who works with his hands– like a carpenter. These are all Christlike attributes. Torchiana, however, objects, saying that the other joiner, Joseph, is a better fit “in his justness, his kindness, basic celibacy, thoughtfulness,…his wish to spare (Polly) disgrace” (114). Like Joseph, Bob Doran might have questioned the justification of his call to imposed husbanding. In fact, Doran had “a notion he was being had.”
Despite malleability, a reader would not call Groom Doran heroic. Hubert and Mauss say, as a victim, he mediates “between the sacred and the profane” (Doherty 475). Even his greatest asset as a husband and provider comes cloaked in a corrupted vocabulary. His job lists as a “good screw,” which Jackson and McGinley tell us also means a good wine (and he will drink to excess). That term also has a sexual connotation (56). The “tumbler of punch” Polly served him combines two sexually charged terms. A “tumble” is well known to readers of Shakespeare; “punch” suggests lost virginity. Approaching middle age, he still read Reynolds Newspaper that courted a Red and anarchist readership. His annual drunken binges included consorting with shawls in Monto brothels. During these prolonged escapes from marital obligations, he referred to Christ as a “bloody ruffian” (Torchiana 112). Even the name “Bob” means to cheat (James Joyce’s Dubliners 57). By the first Bloomsday, Bob Doran is known to be the “lowest blackguard in Dublin” when binging. https://jamesjoycereadingcircle.com/2020/05/26/episode-8-lestrygonians-pp-149-181/
“The Boarding House” title also conjoins Hubert and Mauss’ sacred and profane, recalling the biblical invocation to marriage: “a man … shall cleave to his wife.” “Boarding,” however, is also the Shakespearean term for sexual advances (James Joyce’s Dubliners 53) and suggests a coffin, carpentry, and crucifixion (Torchiana 122).
James Joyce, author and sinner, evaded formal responsibilities as a spouse and parent until 1931 when Nora made him an honest man. He finally succumbed for legal considerations related to inheritance rather than for reparation, reputation, or redemption. Dubliners’ stories use misgivings about marital commitments to drive plots (“A Painful Case,” “Eveline,” and “The Boarding House”), and “A Little Cloud” and “Counterparts” present disastrous or unsatisfactory marriages. The possibilities plagued Joyce, so he equivocated a defense for his delayed commitment. He objected, “Some people in Ireland think…the whole duty of man consists in paying one’s debts” and generalized his defense even more in correspondence to Stannie “…the whole structure of [male ] heroism is, and always was, a damned lie” (Doherty 477). He has now exacted his revenge against another societal norm with his weapon of choice, the pen.
Doherty, Gerald. “There Must Be Reparation: A Sacrificial Reading of ‘The Boarding House,'” James Joyce Quarterly Vol. 49, No. 3/4, Spring-Summer 2012, pp. 473-491.
Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce, Oxford University Press, New York. 1983.
Halper, Nathan. “The Boarding House,” James Joyce’s Dubliners, Critical Essays, editor Clive Hart. First edition. Viking Adult, 1969, pp. 72–83.
Joyce, James. Dubliners. Enhanced Media, https://books.apple.com, 2016, Retrieved 26 April 2021
Joyce, James. James Joyce’s Dubliners: An Illustrated Edition with Annotations, edited by John Wyse Jackson and Bernard McGinley, St. Martin’s Press, 1993, pp. 21-27.
Joyce, James, et al. Ulysses. Modern Library, 1961, 149-181.
Kenner, Hugh. Joyce’s Voices. Dalkey Archive Press, 2007.
Scholes, Robert and A. Walton Litz, Editors, “‘Epiphanies and Epicleti” and “Evidence of the Letters.” Joyce, James. Dubliners: Text and Criticism, edited by Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz, Penguin Books, 1996, pp. 247–285.
Tindall, William York. “Dubliners.” A Reader’s Guide to James Joyce, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1959, pp. 25-26.
Torchiana, Donald T.” ‘The Boarding House’: The Sacrament of Marriage, The Annunciation, and The Bells of Saint George’s,” Backgrounds for Joyce’s Dubliners, Allen & Unwin, 1986, pp. 109-124.
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