The concept of figural narrative situation comes from a twentieth-century Austrian literary theorist named F. K. Stanzel. According to Stanzel, a reader is in a figural narrative situation when they’re reading a story with a reflector instead of narrator. Rather than tell the reader about the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of a given character, the narrator mirrors them, which is why the narrator transforms into a reflector.
The figural narrative situation should give the readers a sense of intimacy. Alas, it’s important to remember that the reader isn’t directly reading the thoughts, perceptions, and feelings; they’re redirected through this mirroring technique.
In James Joyce’s short story “Clay,” even though the reader receives Maria’s thoughts and feelings, these aren’t her direct thoughts and feelings: they’re the thoughts and feelings that appear in the reflector or mirror.
There’s evidence to argue that the reflection of Maria’s thoughts and feelings are accurate. Think about when Maria is looking at herself in the mirror. “In spite of its years,” Maria finds it to be “a nice tidy little body.” Maria’s honest and reasonable evaluation of herself suggests that the thoughts and feelings that are being reflected are honest and reasonable and therefore reliable.
Conversely, one could argue that the figural narrative is unreliable, because there’s key elements that aren’t reflected. It’s not clear who took the plum cake. More so, when Maria sings at the end, she makes a mistake that goes uncorrected. Perhaps the conclusion serves as a hint that this reflector has made other mistakes as well. Thus, the reader might be skeptical of what they’re looking at in the mirror that Joyce has created.