Bob Doran

Bob Doran

In Brief

"Bob Doran," who is mentioned in Lotus Eaters, spotted from afar in Lestrygonians and Wandering Rocks, and finally encountered in Cyclops, was previously seen being trapped into marriage in Dubliners. Ulysses shows him briefly escaping from this miserable union by going on an extravagant alcoholic binge—an annual tradition, it seems. Few elements of the novel engage as resonantly with Joyce's earlier fiction.

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The stories of Dubliners show great sympathy for the constrained circumstances of Irish women, and "The Boarding House" contributes to this portrait gallery by beginning with the backstory of Mrs. Mooney,  a butcher's daughter who married her father's foreman, and, soon after the old man's death, found her husband to be an abusive alcoholic. She separated from him, cut him off without a penny, sold the shop, and set up a boarding house. These circumstances help to explain, but hardly counterbalance in pathos, what she does to one of her boarders.

Mrs. Mooney is an intimidating woman known to her lodgers as "The Madam"—a label that conveys her unquestioned authority but also suggests that her house somehow resembles a brothel. In this analogy the role of whore is played by her flirtatious nineteen-year-old daughter, who has the eyes of "a little perverse madonna." Mrs. Mooney gives Polly "the run of the young men" in the house, but she can see that "none of them meant business"—until, one day, one bites the hook. Once the daughter's honor has been securely compromised the mother intervenes. Ominously, the reader learns that "She dealt with moral problems as a cleaver deals with meat: and in this case she had made up her mind."

Mrs. Mooney first interrogates Polly, who has maintained a cunning but unspoken awareness of her mother's cunning but unspoken awareness of what is going on. Her suspicions confirmed, she then reviews her moral options and decides that outrage is justified: "She had allowed him to live beneath her roof, assuming he was a man of honour, and he had simply abused her hospitality." He is 34 or 35 years old, "so that youth could not be pleaded as his excuse; nor could ignorance be his excuse since he was a man who had seen something of the world. He had simply taken advantage of Polly's youth and inexperience: that was evident."

The outrage is entirely false: Doran has paid good coin for his "hospitality," Mrs. Mooney could easily have prevented the liaison, and Polly has acted with as much savvy as her supposed seducer. (Indeed, she has reeled him in like a fish.) But Mrs. Mooney does not intend to allow her lodger the leisure to ponder such contradictions. Only one thing matters: "What reparation would he make? / 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." Mrs. Mooney wants someone to take her daughter off her hands, and Mr. Doran, who appears to have some money set aside, seems a good catch. The narrative notes, twice, that she "felt sure she would win."

Doran seems more sensitive to social opinion than some of the other lodgers, and he has been "employed for thirteen years in a great Catholic wine-merchant's office"; the shame of a scandal could cost him that job. Other forces are arrayed against him. "Reparation" is a Catholic term for the expiation of sin, one invoked by the censorious priest to whom the young man has confessed his transgression. There is also the fear of physical violence: Polly's brother Jack is a foul-mouthed thug known to be good with his fists. Doran remembers that once, when one of the lodgers made "a rather free allusion to Polly," he had exploded in rage, "shouting at him that if any fellow tried that sort of a game on with his sister he'd bloody well put his teeth down his throat, so he would."

Doran has "a notion that he was being had." The Mooneys are beneath him socially, Polly seems "a little vulgar," and "His instinct urged him to remain free, not to marry. Once you are married you are done for, it said." But the conclusion of his drama, untold in Joyce's story, seems foreordained. Ulysses supplies the aftermath. M'Coy tells Bloom that Doran is on "one of his periodical bends," and Bloom thinks later that these are "annual." The narrator of Cyclops spots him "sitting up there in the corner that I hadn’t seen snoring drunk blind to the world." Awakened by the loud conversation in the pub, he joins in with a memorable mixture of befuddlement, belligerence, and blubbering sentimentality.

One memorable paragraph of the narrator's infectiously mean-spirited monologue supplies plenty of scuttlebutt to round out the picture: "And off with him and out trying to walk straight. Boosed at five o’clock. Night he was near being lagged only Paddy Leonard knew the bobby, 14A. Blind to the world up in a shebeen in Bride street after closing time, fornicating with two shawls and a bully on guard, drinking porter out of teacups. And calling himself a Frenchy for the shawls, Joseph Manuo, and talking against the Catholic religion, and he serving mass in Adam and Eve’s when he was young with his eyes shut, who wrote the new testament, and the old testament, and hugging and smugging. And the two shawls killed with the laughing, picking his pockets, the bloody fool and he spilling the porter all over the bed and the two shawls screeching laughing at one another. How is your testament? Have you got an old testament? Only Paddy was passing there, I tell you what. Then see him of a Sunday with his little concubine of a wife, and she wagging her tail up the aisle of the chapel with her patent boots on her, no less, and her violets, nice as pie, doing the little lady. Jack Mooney’s sister. And the old prostitute of a mother procuring rooms to street couples. Gob, Jack made him toe the line. Told him if he didn’t patch up the pot, Jesus, he’d kick the shite out of him."

Many details are worth noting here: Polly's ascent into prim bourgeois respectability (the narrator has earlier recalled a report of her "stravaging about the landings Bantam Lyons told me that was stopping there at two in the morning without a stitch on her, exposing her person, open to all comers, fair field and no favour"), her husband's periodic descents into prostitution to obtain some facsimile of erotic satisfaction (a report that is seconded in Lestrygonians when Bloom thinks of him "Up in the Coombe with chummies and streetwalkers"), the alleged descent of the mother-in-law's house into a similarly disreputable condition ("procuring rooms to street couples"), and Doran's renewed antipathy to "the Catholic religion."

In the short story Joyce says of Doran that "As a young man he had sown his wild oats, of course; he had boasted of his free-thinking and denied the existence of God to his companions in public-houses. But that was all passed and done with . . . nearly." The crisis in the Hardwicke Street house sends him back to the bosom of mother church. Having allowed it to sink the talons of guilt into him, and having paid dearly in "reparation," Doran now loudly profanes the faith: "Who said Christ is good? . . . Is that a good Christ, says Bob Doran, to take away poor little Willy Dignam? . . . He's a bloody ruffian, I say, to take away poor little Willy Dignam." The narrator, showing the pro forma embrace of piety typical of male Dubliners, pronounces Doran the "lowest blackguard in Dublin when he’s under the influence."

JH 2019
Bob Doran "sitting helplessly on the side of the bed in shirt and trousers," trying to decide what to do, in Robin Jacques' illustration of "The Boarding House." Source: James Joyce, Dubliners (Grafton Books, 1977).
Illustration of "The Boarding House" for the de Selby Press edition of Dubliners, from a 2014 giclée print by Stephen Crowe. Source:
  Early 20th century photograph of Hardwicke Street, the respectable street on the north side of Dublin on which Mrs. Mooney's boarding house is located, not far from St. George's church and the Blooms' house. Eason Photograph Collection of the National Library of Ireland. Source: