, Research Paper
The Unconscious Struggle for Human Existence
According to philosopher Karl Marx, humans are “slaves to historical necessity and their thought and thinking are rigidly determined by the mode of production” (Beer xxii). This view of historical materialism asserts that the culture, political, and government systems of a given people derive from the material conditions of their existence. Thus, “life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life”(Reader 155). In the short story, “The Boarding House”, James Joyce uses Mrs. Mooney to illustrate how the “blind forces” of economic materialism determine our existence and causally result in our living by a false consciousness.
The prevailing economic condition in Dublin, Ireland determines Mrs. Mooney’s disposition in running her boarding house. Because of the destructive potato famine, a good portion of the city’s men have fled in search of work elsewhere, leaving behind a surplus of women desperately searching for companions. Due to the lack of men, Mrs. Mooney is under more pressure to get her young, daughter Polly married and eliminate the possibility of her ending up an old maid. Reflecting the present economic ideology, Mrs. Mooney understands that her ultimate goal is to get Polly “off of her hands” and to see that she is provided with some financial stability. Marxian language justifies Mrs. Mooney’s behavior because, “Ideas are simply the ideological reflexes and echoes of one’s material life-process” (Ideology 14). She first sends Polly to be a typist in a corn-factor’s office in hopes that the well-off boss will grow fond of her and possibly wed her. When this option fails, she sets Polly, her bait, to do work at the boarding house, “giving her the run of the men” (Joyce 72).
Mrs. Mooney’s position as owner of the house is an asset in her quest for Polly’s husband, in that it puts Polly in the path of a plethora of well-to-do men. Joyce illustrates the control of human materialism by illustrating Mrs. Mooney’s determination to see Polly betrothed to a man with sound assets. Mrs. Mooney latches on to Mr. Doran when she discovers this quality in him. Mrs. Mooney governs her house “cunningly and firmly”, constantly weeding out the candidates who did not “mean business” with Polly, and searching for the one who did. Mrs. Mooney dangles Polly like bait in front of the men, scoping out the one with promising intentions. Her behavior echoes Marxian ideology, in that “it is not the consciousness of one that determines his existence, but rather it is his social existence that determines his consciousness” (Beer ix) Mrs. Mooney’s imposing position and behavior are derived from her present position in the economy.
The economic condition also controls Mrs. Moooney’s optimistic views in handling Mr. Doran. Furthering his perfect attributes for being a husband, Mooney “knew he had a good screw for one thing and she suspected he had a bit of stuff put by” (Joyce 76). Mrs. Mooney realizes that publicity of Duran’s action for Mr. Doran would mean the risk of him losing his job and the taint of his well established, pious character. Marx can explain why Doran agrees more with reparation due to his promising, economic position. In this time of economic repression, Mr. Doran knows he can not quit one job and easily find another. This is further evidence of the power of materialism that governs human lives. Doran values his monetary rank so that he sacrifices every subjective influence. “A serious, not rakish young man”, Mr. Doran deeply respects his job as a Catholic wine merchant and fears what wrath his employer Mr. Leonard would leash upon him if his action were to go public. Reflecting Marxian ideology, “a man’s consciousness changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life” (Beer 30). Mr. Doran claims that in his youth he had been radical in his thinking, and had “sown his wild oats” (Joyce 76). But now, since his mode of production shifted from student to religious merchant, his ideals and idiosyncracies had shifted as well. He now was respected and stoutly pious. He is tormented by the idea that one mistake could ruin all of the diligence and hard work put into establishing his character. Both Mrs. Mooney and Mr. Doran know that if Doran runs away from this problem, he is sure to lose “his sit”, whereas if he agrees to the reparation “all might be well” (76).
Mr. Doran experiences a battle with his own false consciousness when his reality is struggling with his love for Polly. In reality, his family would look down upon a marriage to a girl with unpolished grammar, a disreputable father, and a mother who’s boarding house was acquiring a “certain fame” (77). His false consciousness combats this view with him claiming that grammar would not matter if he really loved her. He could not completely despise her for her actions for he committed just as vile a deed as well. His reality, in the form of the “memory of the celibate”, reminds him that Polly lured him into the situation (77). However, “the instinct of the celibate”, warning him not to marry her, is overpowered by his false consciousness sin. As Marx would relate, “humans are so much the creatures of ideology that they are incapable of seeing it even when it is pointed out to them” (Beer xxiii). Doran is such the “creature of ideology” that even though it is evident that he has been suckered into this situation, he feels he has sinned and will pay for it. Clearly, in reality, Joyce implies that his action was not sinful and he should not have to pay for it with the rest of his lfie. Through the combined images of the Sunday morning “circus-like” congregation, Mrs. Mooney’s servant Mary, and the alter-like table with the allusion of the broken bread to the body of Christ, Joyce emphasizes how through religious aspects, people are controlled by materialism.
Another economic condition that controls Mrs. Mooney’s inclinations is her position as a “determined woman” (71). Mrs. Mooney has ideas that she wishes to implement and will eliminate every obstacle that averts her purpose. In order to get Polly “off of her hands”, she has to be manipulative in her society (76). Because society strongly disagrees with women being butchers, or having any means to a decent income for the matter, Mrs. Mooney is forced to take her money and upper hand position and invest in her own business. Joyce’s juxtaposition of Mr. Mooney, the “shabby stooped little drunkard”, to Mrs. Mooney, “the imposing, Madam”, further elucidates Mrs. Mooney’s determination to provide Polly with a husband and desire to order her world. Echoing the Marxist creed, the ideology of Mrs. Mooney’s time is simply “the will of class made into a law for all, a will whose essential character and direction are determined by the economic conditions of existence of one’s class” (Beer 27). Women are not allowed to have good positions with high incomes. Their ultimate desire to acquire a husband along with their will to please him reflects their inferior economic position. Furthermore, “their conditions of existence are predestined, and hence have their position in life and their personal development assigned to them by their class, become subsumed under it” (Ideology 179). Polly is predestined to seek a husband because she’s a woman and fits into the inferior economic role.
Mrs. Mooney’s role as a butcher’s daughter causally effects the way she handles the quest for Polly’s mate. Being such a daugther, she has grown accustomed to preventing emotions from interfering with her duties, and has acquired a strong, business-like attitude to all subjective affairs. This is revealed likening marriage to a “business”, negating love as being an influential factor (Joyce 72). Neither subtle nor understanding, “she dealt with moral problems as a clever deals with meat” (74). When Polly gets pregnant, Mrs. Mooney fails to consider Mr. Doran’s pains and jumps to the conclusion that Doran is at fault and the two must be married at once. “Evident by the decisive expression of her great flourid face”, Mrs. Mooney is fully aware that Mr. Doran is stewing about, anxious to converse with her on the reparation issue. Instead of taking pity on his dilemma, Mrs. Mooney tosses all emotions aside and rigorously continues on her mission. Mrs. Mooney in turn lives by her false consciousness by not recognizing Mr. Doran’s feelings and assuming that her actions were the only genuine ones to take.
Furthermore, the ideals of the economy control Mrs. Mooney’s duty as “an outraged mother” (75). Mrs. Mooney recognizes that if she follows the moral pattern set up by her culture, everyone will think she is alright. Reflecting the prototypes of her society, when Polly is discovered pregnant, Mrs. Mooney, “the determined, imposing woman”, puts on an appalled face and takes complete control of the situation (72). This is Mrs. Mooney’s most obvious state of false consciousness. When Polly became involved with Mr. Doran, Mrs. Mooney happily “kept her own counsil”, recognizing Mr. Doran as a man of business. She constantly watched the relationship evolve, gambling and hoping for the perfect time to push it towards marriage. Mrs. Mooney apprehends that she cannot let things naturally take their course and so she must quickly act on them. Upon Polly’s new condition, Mrs. Mooney makes up her mind and intervenes, realizing that she has let the situation go far enough that it cannot go back. While she watched Polly and Mr. Doran become grow closer, “there had been no open complicity or understanding between mother and dauther” (73). Although insisting she’s outraged, a true outraged mother would have stopped such a relationship from occurring. However, Mrs. Mooney delightfully witnesses the situation and hopes for the right time to make Doran a husband. Playing the part of the “outraged mother”, Mrs. Mooney represses her overt knowledge of Polly’s pregancy, and puts on a pretence so as to showl she neither received the news in too non-chalant a manner nor seemed to have connived. The conversation between Mrs. Mooney and her daughter is very awkward and careful because both are working with information the other knows about, and are trying not to let that information surface. Mrs. Mooney knows that she cannot be an outraged mother and know what’s going on. In Marxian terms, Mrs. Mooney is the creature of ideology because even though all arrows indicate that Doran did not take advantage of Polly’s innocence, she still demands life reparation for his vile sin. Though knowing all along the path of Polly and Mr. Doran’s relationship, Mrs. Mooney lives by her false consciousness to reflect the present ideology.
Mrs. Mooney’s position as the wife of a drunkard businessman causally relates to her positive outlook in dealing with Mr. Doran. First guaranteeing that reparation would be made, “she had all the weight of social opinion on her side” (75). Reflecting the needs of her false consciousness, in her eyes, Mrs. Mooney had acted out of kindness and allowed Mr. Doran, a supposed man of honor, to live under her roof and cherish her hospitality. Mr. Doran “had simply taken advantage of Polly’s youth and inexperience” (75). With the mass public buying her false image as an abused wife with two kids, working her hardest during a time of economic downfall, Mrs. Mooney “was sure she would win” (75). Secondly, ensuring her victory, she had the weight of the Catholic church on her side. Mrs. Mooney knows what a serious and pious young man Mr. Doran is. She also knows how the church ominously weighs heavily upon his decisions, constantly reminding him of what sin he has committed and that marriage is the only acceptable reparation. The church is in collusion with Mrs. Mooney and Polly. It works to trap Doran into a relationship benefiting all of the parties. The family will give money to the church, Polly will be able to raise a family, Mrs. Mooney will fulfill her role as a determined woman, and Mr. Doran will keep his job. By depicting the church getting in the way of Mr. Doran’s reality, Joyce further illustrates how materialism by religious aspects, determines our existence.
Another result of Mooney’s role as wife of depraved drunkard, is the growing dominion of her false consciousness. First, because of Mr. Doran’s age, Mrs. Mooney concludes that youth could be no excuse for his deed. Also, because Mooney labels him as “a man who had seen something of the world”, ignorance could be no excuse either (75). Mr. Doran is clearly not a worldly man for he would have seen this trap coming long before. He is flawed with his naivety, and both Mrs. Mooney and Polly prey on this weakness. Further evidence of the increasing superiority of her false consciousness, is when Mrs. Mooney rashly concludes that Mr. Doran took advantage of Polly’s youth and purity. Clearly, Polly is not as chaste and virtuous as her mother characterizes her to be. Mrs. Mooney knows that behind Polly’s angelic face and beauty lies the coyness of a “little perverse madonna” (73). Mrs. Mooney understands her daughter is capable of tempting men into delirium, because she witnesses her in the act. Also, Polly brags about her lack of couth, when she sings, “I’m a naughty girl. You needn’t sham: You know I am” (73). Next, Mrs. Mooney’s determination to repair her daughter’s loss of honor reflects her false consciousness. Polly barely holds onto anything considered honorable in the first place. She is lewd, not intelligent, and speaks with horrible grammar. Lastly, reflecting society’s argument, Mrs. Mooney considers the whole situation the man’s fault with Polly, the innocent victim, being lured into the affair. Realistically, Polly is not the tragic victim, “bearing the brunt” of the situation (75). She knew exactly what she was doing and was not at all surprise to find herself pregnant. This is apparent at eh end of the story when Mrs. Mooney is about to confront Mr. Doran. After Polly melodramatically moans, “O my God”, and pleads for Mr. Doran’s to relieve her of her anguish, she takes notice of her white pillows and falls into a revery, “no longer any perturbation visible on her face” (79). Joyce describes her waiting on “cheerfully, without alarm”, deluded by visions of her future. Only when Mrs. Mooney calls for Polly to come and speak with Mr. Doran, the supposed cause of all of her supposed anguish, does “she remember what she had been waiting for” (79). Someone worried about the outcome of a confrontation between an outraged mother and a wrongful man would not daydream and completely forget about the situation. Mrs. Mooney and Polly do no want to believe they are trapping the poor Mr. Doran as they really are. It is imperative that Mr. Doran be the wretched aggressor and they be the helpless victims and if Mrs. Mooney plays her cards right, she will triumphantly acquire Polly a husband. With her false consciousness vastly overpowering her reality, Mrs. Mooney accurately represents the wronged, vengeful, and determined mother.
In Marx’s view, the only way to consciously control these blind forces of materialism is to eliminate the struggles and conflicts of social classes. With everyone equal, no one will associate their wills and friction amongst the public will be destroyed. Political power, “the organized power of one political class for oppressing another”, will cease to exist as well (Beer 32). Mrs. Mooney would not be as determined in her ways, had she not been born on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. As such, Mr. Doran would have been able to spot the trap were he not controlled by his economic position and duty to reflect the creeds of the Catholic Church. Eliminating class structure would inevitably eliminate one’s abiding by a false consciousness in that we would view people as they really are and not what we make them out to be. Ideology would no longer represent the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence. The ultimate gain in this process will be a free association “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (32).