Mrs. Mooney, a butcher's daughter, married one of her father's foreman. Her husband descended into alcoholism, ruining the family business and becoming increasingly violent until Mrs. Mooney procured a separation.
She took the last of their money and set herself up in a boarding house. Her tenants there consist mainly of tourists and artistes from the music halls. She supervises things firmly and with great competence. Sunday nights, there is a little reunion with music and gaiety.
Her daughter Polly is nineteen and lively. She works in the boarding house, because Mrs. Mooney wants to give her a run of the young men. She flirts with them, but none of the men are serious about her. Eventually, she begins an affair with a man named Mr. Doran. Everyone seems to know about it, including Mrs. Mooney, who bides her time.
Finally, Mrs. Mooney intervenes. She first confronts Polly, who confesses all. And then she tells Polly what she intends to do: she will confront Mr. Doran and tell him that he must marry Polly.
Mr. Doran is a man of thirty-four or thirty-five. He has a respectable job in a great Catholic wine-merchant's business. In his youth, he was a womanizer who proudly announced his atheism. But he'd become a church-going man with a good job, and he could not risk it. We first see him shaving, and he is having great difficulty: last night when he went to confession, the priest dragged out the details of the affair in embarrassing detail. Doran knows now that he has no choice but to marry the girl or run away. He thinks about his job. But his family will not approve: her father was a scoundrel, and her mother's boarding house is getting a bad reputation. Her grammar is bad.
Polly comes in and tells him that her mother knows everything now. He comforts her as she cries. He remembers how their affair began, and how thoughtful she has been. Perhaps they can be happy. A servant named Mary enters and announces that Mrs. Mooney would like to see him.
Mr. Doran goes downstairs and passes Jack Mooney, Polly's brother. Jack is strong and belligerent, a drinker who likes getting into fights. He is very touchy on the subject of his sister's honor. Jack gives Mr. Doran a dirty look as Mr. Doran passes.
Back in the room, Polly cries and then rests and then refreshes her eyes with water. Resting on the bed, she looks at the pillows and dreams of happiness. At last, she hears her mother's voice calling her: Mr. Doran has something important to say to her.
By this point, observant readers might notice a trend in the previous three stories. "Araby," detailing a boy's first crush, closes off the first set of stories about youth and childhood. "Eveline" inaugurates a series of stories dealing with various kinds of marriage and courtship. In "Eveline," marriage presents the possibility of escape. "Two Gallants" reduces marriage and courtship to its animal level, and makes even that secondary to the pursuit of money. "The Boarding House" gives us marriage as a social convention and a trap. We are light years from the boyish enthusiasm of "Araby." Here, we have the ugly maneuverings of a woman trying to rope down a respectable match for her daughter. "Two Gallants" gave us seedy men taking advantage of a young woman. "The Boarding House" gives us a more respectable social setting, but the basic cynicism about love and relationships between the genders remains.
One of the striking elements of the story is Mrs. Mooney's silence. Her daughter's honor is not really a concern, because she knows about the affair from the start. What matters to her is trading on her feigned outrage to get a social arrangement that will benefit her daughter.
The theme of powerlessness is conveyed in Mr. Doran's situation. As with many other characters in Dubliners, various social pressures (his job, his reputation, Catholic guilt over the affair) combine to rob him of choice. The final climactic choice is not really a choice at all; Joyce omits the confrontation between Mr. Doran and Mrs. Mooney, because the pressures on Mr. Doran are so strong that the reader knows what Mr. Doran will have to do.
Love is not even a consideration, and the Mooneys seem unbothered that the marriage is based on trickery. Mrs. Mooney manipulates the weaker Mr. Doran, using his concern for his job and his fear of scandal. We can infer that Jack Mooney, Polly's brother, also has some idea what is going on. Fear of Jack also plays a tiny part in Mr. Doran's final decision. The end result is a marriage based on bullying and manipulation. But somehow, it doesn't seem to matter to Polly. She contents herself with pleasant dreams of the future; as far as she is concerned, security is the key issue. A trapped husband is a faithful husband. Nor, for all her feigned innocence, does she really not know what to do. The last glimpse of Polly reveals a woman every bit as sneaky as her mother. She knows well that her mother will take care of things for her. When she is called downstairs to see Mr. Doran, presumably to hear his marriage proposal, she is not in the least bit surprised.