The Boarding House by James Joyce, 1914
The magic trick:
Pairing a past and present to show the reader the future
Society is a very complicated thing. All the classes and rules and traditions and problems. How could you possibly sum it all up in one story? Well, I’m not sure you can. But James Joyce takes a pretty good stab at it here.
He sets up the backstory very quickly but very thoroughly. Mrs. Mooney, head of the boarding house, we are told married young to her father’s foreman. The marriage dissolved when her husband fell prey to alcoholism. Save that info, store it for later because it’s gonna come in handy.
So with that established the narrative develops and we see Polly, Mrs. Mooney’s daughter, instigate a questionable relationship with one of the boarders. It’s not a natural romance of fate though. It’s a very much a planned relationship, manipulated into existence by both Polly and her mother.
So what does this tell us? Paired with that backstory from earlier in the story, it points the reader toward a very dark future for Polly. It is not difficult to imagine her in the exact same position as her mother 20 years from now, miserable and alone. It would be easy to blame both women for failing to learn from the very obvious example of Mrs. Mooney’s life. And to some extent I’m sure that is Joyce’s message. These people are their own worst enemies. That’s letting Irish society off the hook, though. Mrs. Mooney and her daughter would not have to finagle some kind of desperate marriage if women had any sense of power over their own lives in the Dublin of the time. They are doomed to repeat the mistakes of their previous generations. Even if they did know better, they don’t really have a choice.
It’s a brutally damning picture of Irish society and, yes, brilliantly managed in a single story.
And that’s quite a trick on Joyce’s part.
There must be reparation made in such cases. It is all very well for the man: he can go his ways as if nothing had happened, having had his moment of pleasure, but the girl has to bear the brunt. Some mothers would be content to patch up such an affair for a sum of money; she had known cases of it. But she would not do so. For her only one reparation could make up for the loss of her daughter’s honour: marriage.
She counted all her cards again before sending Mary up to Mr. Doran’s room to say that she wished to speak with him. She felt sure she would win. He was a serious young man, not rakish or loud-voiced like the others. If it had been Mr. Sheridan or Mr. Meade or Bantam Lyons her task would have been much harder. She did not think he would face publicity. All the lodgers in the house knew something of the affair; details had been invented by some. Besides, he had been employed for thirteen years in a great Catholic wine-merchant’s office and publicity would mean for him, perhaps, the loss of his job. Whereas if he agreed all might be well. She knew he had a good screw for one thing and she suspected he had a bit of stuff put by.