Literature Study GuidesDublinersThe Boarding House Summary

Dubliners | Study Guide

James Joyce

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The Boarding House

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of "The Boarding House" from James Joyce's short story collection Dubliners.

Dubliners | The Boarding House | Summary



Mrs. Mooney sets up a boarding house after separating from her alcoholic husband, a former butcher who once worked for her father. Mrs. Mooney's house hosts tourists as well as music hall performers. She has a number of permanent tenants, most of whom work as clerks. The men in the house get along well with one another, sharing stories and gossip and gathering on Sunday nights in the drawing room to stage musical performances. Sometimes Mrs. Mooney's daughter Polly sings.

Mrs. Mooney tried to settle Polly into a job as a typist in an office, but Mr. Mooney came by the office too often for comfort, so now Polly works as a housekeeper in the boarding house. Mrs. Mooney encourages her to be friendly with the men, but then Mrs. Mooney notices Polly paying more attention to one particular man. Mrs. Mooney does not say anything, even as the other tenants start talking. Instead, she chooses her moment carefully, after breakfast on a Sunday morning in early summer.

After a conversation with Polly about the man in question, Mr. Doran, Mrs. Mooney has determined where things stand between her daughter and her tenant. Knowing she occupies the moral high ground, she demands "reparation." Polly's reputation will be ruined, and Mr. Doran could lose his job working for a Catholic wine merchant if word of the affair spreads. If he agrees to marry Polly, they can control the damage.

As he waits to meet with Mrs. Mooney, Mr. Doran is nervous. He has been to confession, but he knows he must either marry Polly or run away. He knows he will lose his job once the affair becomes public, but he also believes his family and friends will look down on Polly with her poor grammar, drunken father, and mother's boarding house. Polly comes to Mr. Doran's room, crying and threatening suicide. As he comforts her, he remembers their time together but is interrupted when Mrs. Mooney calls him downstairs. While Mr. Doran and Mrs. Mooney meet, Polly remains in his room and calms herself. She hears her mother call her downstairs, telling her Mr. Doran wants to speak with her and remembers "what she had been waiting for."


Mr. Doran and Polly Mooney's situation are another indication of the way social rules in Irish society place restrictions on individual choices. While marriage might be mandated in other societies if the woman gets pregnant, there is no evidence in the story to indicate Polly is with child. She might be, but that is not stated or even alluded to in a clear sense. The question for Mr. Doran and Polly is one of reputation and religion. Does Polly want to be known as a fallen woman? Does Mr. Doran want to be known as a scoundrel who seduced a young woman and left her? The answer to these questions, based on the end of the story, is an emphatic "no." Mr. Doran chooses to save his and Polly's reputation as well as his job by making their relationship church-sanctioned and legal.

Oddly, Mrs. Mooney takes less care with her own reputation. In leaving her husband because of his drinking, she takes a big risk. She has the church's sanction, but her decision is still a break with social norms and expectations. Her decision to open a boarding house is not entirely disreputable, but it is not entirely respectable, either. The Sunday evening parties and encouraging her daughter to flirt with tenants show a certain disregard for propriety. When Mr. Doran considers what his family will think of a match with Polly, he thinks the boarding house "was beginning to get a certain fame." This statement shows the boarding house itself has a reputation that is less than stellar in the public eye, one his parents might know about. While Mrs. Mooney may not occupy the highest moral ground, what Mr. Doran faces is a much more concrete transgression that could ruin him. His fear of his family's reaction shows he comes from a higher class than the Mooneys, which means he has more to lose if his reputation is damaged. His only alternative is to leave his job and move away into an uncertain future that might leave him less prosperous than he is now.

The story is an interesting contrast to Eveline, who feels she cannot risk everything on Frank despite their courtship; whereas, Mr. Doran feels he risks everything by not marrying Polly. Both Eveline and Mr. Doran are faced with a choice, but both feel bound by religion, by family, or by social convention to choose a certainly unhappy future.

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