Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Clay” is told in language very close to Maria’s own: The sentences are simple, the vocabulary limited and repetitive, and the tone naïve, even prissy. Note the repeated use of the words “nice” and “right,” for example. This tone is finely managed. At first reading, it seems naïve and objective. Closer observation, however, shows it to be a complex interweaving of controlled irony, sentiment, and cool understatement. The narrator describes the various sides of Maria’s character by means of subtle innuendo, suggestive images and symbols, delicate restraint or even silence. Consider here the repeated description of Maria’s profile, the references to witchcraft sprinkled throughout the narrative, and the pointed suppression of the title in the body of the story. The story is very expressive on these terms but gains in power if attention is paid to its historical, cultural, and religious allusions.

Joyce’s personal background and education made him deeply aware of the tragic history of Ireland, including the destruction of its ancient Celtic civilization. He was alert to elements from this national past surviving into the modern age in the language, songs, and folklore of the ordinary people. He was also thoroughly conversant with the teachings, history, and rituals of the Catholic Church. A reader sensitive to these various influences will derive a more complex pleasure from “Clay,” because it is situated at precisely that time in the Celtic calendar when the normal laws of nature are suspended, when past and future are indistinguishable, and when the dead pay a visit on their living relatives. The Christianization of these traditions, Ireland’s subsequent conquest by the English, and the inertia that Joyce observed in the Dublin of his time are all recurring themes in Joyce’s fiction. In this particular case, he is able to exploit the rich fictional possibilities afforded by a Halloween story about a poor, pious, disappointed spinster whose profile is like Ireland’s battered western coastline. “Clay” is scrupulously accurate in respect to all “objective” details while at the same time resonating with echoes from ancient and popular culture. Joyce’s integration of these realistic, psychological, and symbolic themes is masterful.