Thursday, April 13, 2017

"The Boarding House" (1914)

Read story by James Joyce online.

I'm often surprised when I read James Joyce by how good he is. I should know better, but there it is. This story is a good example. It's a simple story, though shaded many subtle directions, about a marginally illicit affair between a man in his 30s staying at a boardinghouse and the 19-year-old daughter of the boardinghouse's mistress. It's truly short, under 10 printed pages, but packed with information. The backstory of Mrs. Mooney, for example, the boardinghouse mistress in question, is sketched out quickly and with useful detail. She's had a hard life and is not an easy woman. Daughter of a butcher, she married a butcher, who went bad after a while—drinking, mainly, and laziness. Mrs. Mooney got out of that marriage and opened a boardinghouse. Her attitude is evident in the cold way she calculates her prospects after she learns the boarder, a Mr. Doran, has been fooling around with her girl, Polly. This is all in Dublin, of course, coming from Joyce's collection of stories, Dubliners. Mrs. Mooney learns of the affair but does nothing at first. Polly knows she's watching but carries on anyway. "[Mrs. Mooney] dealt with moral problems as a cleaver deals with meat," Joyce writes. "She was sure she would win.... She felt sure she would win." The story is told in the third-person by an omniscient narrator. He not only knows everything, but he also know what are the most telling details, as his discussion of Mrs. Mooney's butchering background, or the violence of her older son. But mostly he spends time inside the head of Mrs. Mooney, sometimes Polly. Toward the end, he focuses on Mr. Doran, who is not exactly averse to marrying Polly—he knows he has sinned, he feels the guilt keenly—but his memories confirm to him that he has been manipulated by Polly into the position. It's just slightly comical, the whole thing, and not without its pathos. We understand better than Mr. Doran how he actually has been tricked. The outlook is not especially good for a happy marriage in the long term, but of such stuff are many marriages made. Thus, though it is close to appalling in many ways, it ultimately bends closer to comic than tragic. Another hapless bourgeoisie falls into the clutches of the grasping working class. What I like best about the story is how complete it is unto itself. It tells us everything we need to know about how this situation transpired, with no judgments whatsoever of anyone's motivation or character. It's an anecdote, really—a story might tell us a little more about how it turned out—and a funny one, sharply realized.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

Dubliners by James Joyce

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