After a difficult marriage with a drunken husband that ends in separation, Mrs. Mooney opens a boarding house to make a living. Her son, Jack, and daughter, Polly, live with her in the house, which is filled with clerks from the city, as well as occasional tourists and musicians. Mrs. Mooney runs a strict and tight business and is known by the lodgers as “The Madam.” Polly, who used to work in an office, now stays at home at her mother’s request, to amuse the lodgers and help with the cleaning. Surrounded by so many young men, Polly inevitably develops a relationship with one of them, Mr. Doran. Mrs. Mooney knows about the relationship, but instead of sending Polly back to work in the city, she monitors its developments. Polly becomes increasingly uncomfortable with her mother’s lack of intervention, but Mrs. Mooney waits until “the right moment” to intercede. First she speaks awkwardly with Polly, then arranges to speak with Mr. Doran on a Sunday morning.
Mrs. Mooney looks forward to her confrontation, which she intends to “win” by defending her daughter’s honor and convincing Mr. Doran to offer his hand in marriage. Waiting for the time to pass, Mrs. Mooney figures the odds are in her favor, considering that Mr. Doran, who has worked for a wine merchant for thirteen years and garnered much respect, will choose the option that least harms his career.
Meanwhile, Mr. Doran anguishes over the impending meeting with Mrs. Mooney. As he clumsily grooms himself for the appointment, he reviews the difficult confession to his priest that he made on Saturday evening, in which he was harshly reproved for his romantic affair. He knows he can either marry Polly or run away, the latter an option that would ruin his sound reputation. Convincing himself that he has been duped, Mr. Doran bemoans Polly’s unimpressive family, her ill manners, and her poor grammar, and wonders how he can remain free and unmarried. In this vexed moment Polly enters the room and threatens to end her life out of unhappiness. In her presence, Mr. Doran begins to remember how he was bewitched by Polly’s beauty and kindness, but he still wavers about his decision.
Uneasy, Mr. Doran comforts Polly and departs for the meeting, leaving her to wait in the room. She rests on the bed crying for a while, neatens her appearance, and then nestles back in the bed, dreaming of her possible future with Mr. Doran. Finally, Mrs. Mooney interrupts the reverie by calling to her daughter. Mr. Doran, according to Mrs. Mooney, wants to speak with Polly.
In “The Boarding House,” marriage offers promise and profit on the one hand, and entrapment and loss on the other. What begins as a simple affair becomes a tactical game of obligation and reparation. Mrs. Mooney’s and Mr. Doran’s propositions and hesitations suggest that marriage is more about social standards, public perception, and formal sanctions than about mere feelings. The character of Mrs. Mooney illustrates the challenges that a single mother of a daughter faces, but her scheme to marry Polly into a higher class mitigates any sympathetic response from the reader. Mrs. Mooney may have endured a difficult marriage and separation, but she now carries the dubious title of “The Madam,” a term suggestive of her scrupulous managing of the house, but also of the head of whorehouse. Mrs. Mooney does, in fact, prostitute her daughter to some degree. She insists that Polly leave her office job and stay at home at the boarding house, in part so she might entertain, however innocently, the male lodgers. When a relationship blossoms, Mrs. Mooney tracks it until the most profitable moment—until she is sure Mr. Doran, a successful clerk, must propose to Polly out of social propriety. Mrs. Mooney justly insists that men should carry the same responsibility as women in these casual love affairs, but at the same time prides herself on her ability to rid herself of a dependent daughter so easily.
Mr. Doran agonizes about the limitations and loss of respect that marrying beneath him will bring, but he ultimately relents out of fear of social critique from his priest, his employer, Mrs. Mooney, and Polly’s violent brother. When Polly visits him in distress he feels as helpless as she does, even though he tells her not to worry. He goes through the motions of what society expects of him, not according to what he intuitively feels. When he descends the stairs to meet with Mrs. Mooney, he yearns to escape but knows no one is on his side. The “force” that pushes him down the stairs is a force of anxiety about what others will think of him. While Mr. Doran’s victimization by Mrs. Mooney evokes pity, his self-concern and harsh complaints about Polly’s unpolished background and manner of speaking make him an equal counterpart to Mrs. Mooney. He worries little about Polly’s integrity or feelings, and instead considers his years of hard work and good reputation now verging on destruction.
As a place where “everyone knows everyone else’s business,” the boarding house serves as a microcosm of Dublin. Various classes mix under its roof, but relationships are gauged and watched, class lines are constantly negotiated, and social standing must override emotions like love. The inhabitants are not free to do what they choose because unstated rules of decorum govern life in the house, just as they do in the city. Such rules maintain order, but they also ensnare people in awkward situations when they have competing and secret interests. Even the seemingly innocent Polly ultimately appears complicit in Mrs. Mooney’s plot. After threatening to kill herself in despair, she suddenly appears happy and unbothered about the dilemma when she is left alone, and she knows Mr. Doran will comply with Mrs. Mooney’s wishes. In “The Boarding House,” marriage serves as a fixture of life that Dubliners cannot avoid, and the story shows that strategy and acceptance are the only means of survival.