Wednesday, May 4, 2016
James Joyce on Yo Mama
In Dubliners, James Joyce examines the condition of women in Irish society most notably through "The Boarding House" and "A Mother." In both stories, a mother seeks to establish her daughter securely in society but must find a subtle, even underhanded means of doing so. Their relative success in this endeavor lays bare the absurd restrictions on women of the time and how such a state contributes to the development of a sly and conniving personality.
"The Boarding House" centers on Mrs. Mooney, the proprietress of the titular house, and her schemes to offload her own daughter Poly onto a husband. Having witnessed her own husband squander her father's meat business on drink, she addresses this problem with an at times brutal pragmatism, allowing her daughter to flirt with the young men who pass through her house. Rather than seek to protect her daughter, as would typically be expected of a mother in a time of such strict norms governing the sexes, she allows her daughter to become involved with one boarder to such a degree that Polly finds herself pregnant.
While such a condition would normally be a crisis for an unwed girl in this time and place, her mother sees an opportunity. Mr. Dornan, Polly's paramour, holds a respectable job with a winery which he cannot afford to lose and comes from a financially stable family, clearly of better means than the proprietress. Considering her daughter's flirtations and the how Joyce elsewhere leaves sexual situations implied but unspoken, it is questionable whether or not Mr. Dornan is indeed the father. However, the mother skillfully manipulates him into entering into marriage with her daughter, ostensibly to soothe her outrage.
Mrs. Kearney of "A Mother" attempts similar, if less scandalous, advancement of her daughter but finds less success. A woman of only middling ability but enough to understand the benefits of propriety, Mrs. Kearney pushes for Kathleen, her musically inclined daughter, to perform at a local community hall. Mrs. Kearney takes the vocation much more seriously than her own daughter, who simply enjoys accompanying the theatrical productions and either out of ignorance or indifference does not press the matter of her contracted pay. Mrs. Kearns presses on her behalf, harrying the old and lame director of the hall who argues for the hall's strained finances as the reason Kathleen cannot receive the full amount. Mrs. Kearney challenges this claim, asserting that were her daughter a man then she would receive the full amount, which instead earns a condescending dressing down by the director. Though Mrs. Kearney made a salient point, and though her daughter was indeed entitled to the contracted amount, she went about claiming the money in a manner considered inappropriate for a woman by society.
Through Mrs. Mooney and Mrs. Kearney, Joyce illustrates how women, though limited by social norms, may still exercise their own agency. However, he also demonstrates how doing so requires cunning and moral flexibility, in the contrast of the success of Mrs. Mooney and the failure of Mrs. Kearney. Such compromise reflects the broader condition of a people under foreign occupation, as the Irish were for so long under the British, where the indigenous population finds traditional means of economic advancement limited and so must connive new, morally questionable methods in order to survive.