Mrs. Mooney, who has been separated from her abusive alcoholic husband ever since he tried to kill her with a cleaver, runs a boarding house occupied by music-hall performers, tourists, and a number of young Dublin clerks. Her daughter, Polly, worked briefly as a typist and now labors as a housekeeper at home. When Polly becomes involved with one of the boarders, a clerk in his mid-thirties named Mr. Doran, Mrs. Mooney does not interfere.
Instead, she allows the affair to continue until other lodgers at the house have observed it. Then she insists that Doran marry her daughter. Doran already feels guilty, thanks to a meeting with his priest the night before, and he is worried that his employer will get wind of the affair. Also, he is concerned that Polly might try to "put an end to herself," and he fears the wrath of Polly's brother Jack. Despite the fact that he does not love her, and that his family will look down on the marriage because the Mooneys belong to an inferior social class, Doran agrees to wed Polly.
More paralysis, death, and corruption — and more symbolism and storytelling craftsmanship — are evident in "The Boarding House." As in "An Encounter," "Araby," "Eveline," and "After the Race," a character in "The Boarding House" (Polly) ventures forth — to her typist's job at the corn-factor's — only to return home without having achieved the object of her quest. In Polly's case, the quest is for a life independent of her mother. Though over thirty years old, Mr. Doran (who, like Lenehan, will return as a supporting character in Ulysses) seems to have made little forward progress in life, and he will make even less as Mrs. Mooney's son-in-law. Somehow hobbled until now, frozen at present with fear of Jack Mooney, he will be from this day on genuinely paralyzed — as paralyzed as Polly, her mother, and so many Dubliners characters before and after them.
Though Mrs. Mooney avoided her husband's meat cleaver, it makes little difference, as she is spiritually dead at the time during which "The Boarding House" takes place. It is no coincidence that the story's narrator refers to her as "the Madame." Like the proprietress of a whorehouse, she hopes to earn money from the young woman living under her roof and thus gives Polly "the run of the young men" there. (This corrupt financial transaction is reminiscent of Father Flynn's simony in "The Sisters.")
Joyce's private system of color symbolism (yellows and browns indicating decay) is used again in "The Boarding House." The yellows appear in "yellow streaks of eggs," "butter safe under lock and key," "the little gilt clock," and it is a corn-factor for whom Polly works. Examples of browns are the "beer or stout," "bacon-fat," "pieces of broken bread," and Jack Mooney's bottles of Bass ale. The Catholic Church's implied guilt in the matter of Irish paralysis is also dramatized: Doran went to confession the night before he agrees to marry Polly, where the priest "so magnified his sin that he was almost thankful at being afforded a loophole of reparation." When he walks downstairs to talk with Mrs. Mooney, Mr. Doran leaves Polly moaning "O my God!" on the bed.
Joyce excelled not only at the art of fiction, but (as in "Araby") at the craft of storytelling, too. Much of this tale's drama is lent to it by the fact that Joyce tells it from three different points-of-view, in series: Mrs. Mooney's, Mr. Doran's, and Polly Mooney's. This is the first story in Dubliners told from more than one perspective. "The Sisters," "An Encounter," and "Araby" were of course limited to the perspectives of their first-person narrator. "Eveline," "After the Race," and "Two Gallants" are told from the third-person point-of-view, but the reader never knows what anyone beside Eveline, Jimmy, and Lenehan is thinking or feeling. Here, ever so subtly, Joyce expands his canvas, becoming more novelistic — more like the writer of the sprawling, panoramic novel Ulysses, at least with respect to point of view.
take the pledge take an oath not to consume alcoholic beverages.
sheriff's man a revenue and debt collector.
favourites and outsiders likely and less-likely winners in a horse race.
handy with the mitts (slang) a good figher.
corn-factor's an agent for the sale of corn.
short twelve noon mass.
sit (slang) situation.
screw (British slang) salary.
pier-glass a tall mirror set in the pier, or section, between windows.
Reynold's Newspaper a London newspaper that reported on scandalous events.
a certain fame a bad reputation.
combing-jacket a bathrobe.
return-room a room, usually small, added to the wall of a house.