Patriarchal Ideology in “the Boarding House”: the Characterization of Mrs. Mooney

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Patriarchal Ideology in “The Boarding House”: The Characterization of Mrs. Mooney

James Joyce’s “The Boarding House” is one of the short stories in his collection of The Dubliners. In this story, Mrs. Mooney, after separating from her abusive and alcoholic husband, runs a boarding house for working men. Her daughter Polly entertains the boarders by singing and flirts with them. Mrs. Mooney learns that Polly is dating Mr. Doran, a man in his mid-thirties who has worked in a Catholic wine-merchant’s office for many years. Mrs. Mooney bides her time before she intervenes, which indicates that she is deliberately trying to trap Mr. Doran. On a warm Sunday morning, she intends to talk to Mr. Doran and demands that he marry Polly or else he will risk open disclosure. The narration then shifts to Doran’s point of view as he nervously contemplates losing his job due to his sexual relationship with Polly and bemoans the girl’s lower class background and vulgarities of speech. After Polly enters in an agitated state, we learn through Doran’s memories that she initiated the relationship. The story closes with Mrs. Mooney calling Polly down so that Mr. Doran can speak to her, indicating that he agrees to the marriage.

Mrs. Mooney, the protagonist, is characterized to be a “determined” and “imposing” woman, character traits completely different from social convention, which usually expects women to be gentle, fragile, dependent and submissive (Tyson 83-4). On the contrary, Mrs. Mooney seems to have an air of masculinity rather than femininity. It is she who “married her father’s foreman and opened a butcher’s shop”; it is she who manages to get a separation when her husband threatens her with a meat cleaver. In the exclusively male world of butchering she is able to stand on her own feet. And she successfully supports her family alone by running a boarding house. Feminists could almost set Mrs. Mooney as a perfect example to illustrate that women are not weaker than men (Ingersoll 501-2). However, strong and independent as she is, Mrs. Mooney is still a woman who has internalized the norms and values of patriarchy, which can be proved in the whole process of her conduct of the plan to trap Mr. Doran.

First is her perception of sexual behavior. The first part of the story may make readers believe that Mrs. Mooney turns a blind eye to the flirting of Polly with the young men living in her boarding house. Rather, she seems to encourage Polly to do so. After all, it is she who asks her daughter to give up the job of typist and come back home to attend the boarders. On the one hand, Mrs. Mooney expects that the young men will be entertained and satisfied with a young woman around. This can benefit her business as the boarders will enjoy living here and perhaps more people will move in. On the other hand, she secretly plans to find a husband for Polly in this way. To some degree Mrs. Mooney prostitutes her daughter and ironically she is called by the young men as “the Madam,” which also means a woman who is in charge of a brothel. However, if examining more closely we will find that she does care about the sexual relationship between Polly and the young boarders. In fact, Mrs. Mooney is playing a gambling game and her bargaining chip is Polly’s virginity. The ultimate goal is to trap one man who can marry Polly. As frequently implied in the story, Mrs. Mooney thinks that in a sexual relationship a man takes advantage of a woman and she is harmed by it. Losing her virginity without a marital commitment means nothing to a man, but to a woman, it is a damage and destruction to her morality or more seriously a sin and shame—in a patriarchal society, a woman has to bear much more despise and blame than a man does in a sexual relationship. Having internalized this perception, Mrs. Mooney, who seems to indulge Polly’s intimacy with boarders, actually takes great care in dealing with this matter because she believes that Polly will...
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