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Fluid Boarders and Naughty Girls: Music, Domesticity, and Nation in Joyce's Boarding Houses

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 2, Winter 2007
pp. 263-289 | 10.1353/jjq.2007.0047

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In a 12 July 1905 letter to his brother Stanislaus, James Joyce pronounced himself "uncommonly well pleased" with his tale "The Boarding House," which remains one of the least critically examined stories of Dubliners (LettersII 92). That Joyce resurrects the subject of his short story, the forced marriage of Bob Doran to Polly Mooney, in the "Cyclops" episode of Ulysses brings the boarding house into the midst of a turbulent debate there as to what constitutes a nation. Questions of home and domestic space in Joyce find a physical correlative in the boarding house of his story, which resurfaces at precisely the moment when the prospect of nationhood is interrogated. These two spaces, the boarding house and the nation, do not occupy separate spheres for Joyce but interpenetrate each other. His return to "The Boarding House" represents a refusal to abandon the story, and this reversion demands a fuller critical investigation into the domestic space depicted in the story and the wider implications of such treatment of the home and, by extension, the nation.

While musing on W. B. Yeats's The Countess Cathleen in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus contemplates the migratory habits of birds: "What birds were they? He thought that they must be swallows who had come back from the south. Then he was to go away for they were birds ever going and coming, building ever an unlasting home under the eaves of men's houses and ever leaving the homes they had built to wander" (P 225). Stephen's contemplation of wandering and homelessness following thoughts of Yeats's play about Famine Ireland connects domestic instability to evictions, emigration, and a national condition of homelessness. Joyce's emphasis on "unlasting homes," which, like the swallows' nests, are often the temporary residences of wanderers, reflects a domestic and national condition epitomized by the boarding house. While I argue that there is sadness surrounding the instability of homes in Joyce, his writing is nevertheless free from nostalgic or romantic views of home such as those employed in contemporary nationalist discourse. Joyce instead identifies "the intellectual outlook which dissects life" as a chief component of art and comments, "[T]hat is now what interests me most, to get down to the residuum of truth about life, instead of puffing it up with romanticism, which is a fundamentally false attitude." Joyce's description of the twin tasks of realistically rendering while artistically endowing the image center on the house, according to Arthur Power: "When you arrive at the description, say, of a house you try and remember that house exactly, which after all is journalism. But the emotionally creative writer refashions that house and creates a significant image in the only significant world, the world of our emotions" (109). In this article, I will examine the boarding-house motif as Joyce renders it, as well as the residuum of truth revealed in its "significant image."

The English in Ireland had been imagined by Irish writers as the presence of a stranger in the house since the twelfth century when Diarmuid Mac Murchadha, the king of Leinster, either abducted or seduced Dervorgilla (depending on the version), the wife of O'Rourke, king of Breffny and Mac Murchadha's rival, thereby setting in motion a chain of events that led to the Anglo-Norman conquest and settlement. The tension between the two men continued to escalate even after Dervorgilla was recaptured. The threat posed to Mac Murchadha by alliances formed among O'Rourke and other regional kings contributed to his decision to travel to England and seek the aid of Henry II. Richard Fitzgilbert de Clare, known as Strongbow, agreed to assist Mac Murchadha, and this invitation and the subsequent landing of the first Anglo-Normans in 1169 became, in subsequent histories, the origin story for the political struggle between England and Ireland. Mac Murchadha's invitation and the curse of his betrayal and forfeiture of land became crucial motifs for many Irish writers addressing the English presence in Ireland. As Joyce points out:

the fact is that the English came to Ireland at the repeated requests of a native king, without, needless to say...



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