Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This story can be viewed as an astute study of a psychologically repressed personality. The setting implies frames of reference encompassing the social, religious, cultural, and political circumstances of that repression.

First, Maria’s character is marked by persistent self-deception: To herself, she is tidy, pious, proper, and nice; to others, she is well-meaning, dull, sometimes vindictive, and pitiable. She is dutiful, generous, and punctilious, yet her officiousness and tactlessness cause offense and resentment in others. It is clear, too, that she feels that life has betrayed her, that she has never found a husband and probably never will. She consoles herself with attention to the duties of her job and religion while retaining some small connection with the Donnellys, whose Halloween party is the nearest to family life she will know. However, even there, her resentments break out, and the pathos of that revelation is barely restrained.

These conflicts in Maria’s character are developed by means of several sets of contrasts in the story, the most notable of which is that between images of the Blessed Virgin Mary and a witch, or Celtic cailleach (old hag). These images (for example, Maria as a quasi-virgin and mother, versus the recurring representation of her profile) correspond to the positive image Maria has of herself, and the less flattering one suggested by the concealed narrator. These correspondences reflect, in turn, the historical Christianization of what was originally the Celtic Feast of the Dead, as conveyed in the contrast between the religious and fortune-telling rituals in the story. Thus, although Maria consciously regards herself in the light of the Christian promise, her story takes place among shadows cast by a darker past.

In these contexts, then, Maria can be considered as a type of her race, or as an allegorical representation of Mother Ireland. She is a typical Dubliner, in Joyce’s view, in that she is paralyzed by circumstances beyond her control or awareness (her appearance, her apparent ejection from the Donnelly household, for example), while not examining too critically what lies behind the flattery and patronization of her employers, fellow workers, and personal friends. As a victim of division of the household, feeling herself a stranger in her own home, observing outsiders in control, and appealing, in vain, for a liberating hero, she is a version of the ancient symbolic representation of Mother Ireland dominated by imperial England.