"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.
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."
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."