Mrs. Mooney was a capable, imposing and determined woman. After her father died, her husband went "to the devil," drinking and plundering the till. She promptly sought a separation after he went after her with a meat cleaver and she opened a boarding house that catered to men to support herself and her children. Her nineteen-year-old daughter Polly plays the piano and flirts with the gentlemen boarders. Her mother's intention is to "give her a run of the young men" (48). Soon enough she begins a not very secret affair with Mr. Doran, one of the lodgers, and soon finds herself pregnant.
Mr. Doran is in his early thirties and holds a good job in the wine-merchant's business. And, although "his instinct urged him to remain free, not to marry," he cannot risk losing his job and worries about scandal (51). He confessed the affair to the priest the night before and now he realizes he can neither run away or marry Polly. He remembers how their affair began and worries that his family will look down on Polly's family. However, he comforts the girl when she tearfully tells him his mother knows. A servant at this point arrives to tell Doran that Mrs. Moony wants to see him downstairs, and he leaves Polly alone. She cries, stops, then rests on the bed looking dreamily at the pillows: "the sight of them awakened in her mind secret amiable memories ," until she hears her mother calling to tell her that Mr. Doran has something important to say to her.
The theme of "The Boarding House," is powerlessness. Mr. Doran is powerless to free himself from the trap set by Polly, Mrs. Mooney and the priest, the representative of the Catholic Church to whom he has just confessed. Against his will, he finds himself being forced to marry a girl he doesn't love or respect. Joyce never paints pictures of marital bliss. He
personally thought marriage was a trap set by the Catholic Church and didn't marry Nora Barnacle, the mother of his two children with whom he left Ireland, until he was fifty years old. "The Boarding House," the seventh in the Dubliners series, provides an extremely cynical picture of marriage. Mrs. Mooney cares nothing about her daughter's reputation. She merely wants her to marry a solid man who will support Polly, and her, for the rest of their lives. Doran fits the bill. He will marry Polly and live miserably ever after.