James Joyce’s “The Boarding House” is a short story published in 1914 that focuses on the life of Mrs. Mooney, a butcher’s daughter. After divorcing her husband because of his alcoholism, Mrs. Mooney sets up a boarding house, where her daughter engages in a premarital relationship with one of the male guests. Mrs. Mooney takes charge of the situation by insisting that Mr. Doran marries Polly to protect the family’s honor. Through its plot, “The Boarding House” explores many cultural taboos that are becoming somewhat of the social norm in today’s society.
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The first taboo presented in the short story is female empowerment. Right from the start of the story, it is clear that Mrs. Mooney is not an ordinary woman; she is strong, independent, and “determined” (Joyce). This is evidenced by her roles as a business owner and family provider. At the time when the short story was published, (it was taboo in society for a woman like Mrs. Mooney to own and run her own establishment without a husband or another male authority figure. Mrs. Mooney started her boarding house from scratch, not inheriting it, which makes it a stronger case for her becoming the family provider following the divorce. In other words, the plot of Joyce’s story presents Mrs. Mooney in a traditionally male position, thus depicting an empowered woman. Although today female empowerment is becoming a social norm, back in Joyce’s time, this was a taboo.
There are also some taboos in the plot concerning the romantic relationships between men and women. Firstly, Mrs. Mooney’s divorce is somewhat of a taboo on its own since divorces were extremely rare at the time. Moreover, they were usually initiated by men because women had a powerless position in society. Here, the opposite is true, Mrs. Money divorces her husband following changes in his behavior, but instead of remaining vulnerable, she takes the leading role in the family. Additionally, premarital sex was taboo at the time, and Joyce’s contemporaries would most likely judge Polly for her reckless behavior. Today, divorce and premarital sex are both considered normal by society, which gives women more power over their life and allows them to explore their sexuality more freely.
Lastly, the plot also defies the norms of the time in its exploration of Mr. Doran’s and Mrs. Mooney’s reputation. The former is a clerk whose reputation may be damaged because of the affair with Polly. Mr. Doran fears for his reputation, which is unusual for an early 20th-century male character. In fact, it was usually women who were afraid of damaging their reputation because of the inequality in sexual freedom between men and women. Mrs. Mooney’s strong reputation, in contrast, can also be seen as a taboo since women were not allowed to hold leadership positions over men. The residents of the boarding house refer to Mrs. Mooney as The Madam. It states that she earned this title due to her reputation of running her business firmly but also cunningly. Being a strong leader that runs her establishment with firm guidance and rules sets the tone for how others should respect her. Madam, by definition, is the lady of the house, and if Mrs. Mooney were not a well-respected business owner, she would never have earned this title of respect. Today, the social norms have changed to allow women to be strong and men to be weak, but in Joyce’s time, portraying women as stronger and superior and men as dependent and weak was taboo.
Overall, Joyce’s text is unusual for its historical context because it explores various topics that were not considered socially acceptable at the time. In fact, many of the things included in the work were taboos that transformed into social norms lately due to various social developments. The plot of the story distinguishes it from other literary texts at the time by normalizing social taboos, including divorce, premarital relationships, female empowerment, and female leadership.
Joyce, James. “The Boarding House.” Dubliners, 1914, Web.