Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 523
Halloween October 31) is the Celtic New Year’s Eve and Feast of the Dead, Christianized as the Feasts of the Blessed Virgin and All Saints (November 1) and All Souls (November 2). In Irish folk custom, it is a night of remembrance of dead ancestors and anticipation of the future through various fortune-telling games. This Halloween story, “Clay,” is about Maria, a middle-aged spinster, who works in the kitchen of a laundry established for the reform of prostitutes. Readers follow Maria from the routine of her job there, as she makes her way across the city of Dublin to the seasonal festivities at the home of her former nursling, Joe Donnelly. In these few scenes, James Joyce draws a complex character portrait that, by means of its symbolic devices, conveys much of Maria’s past, present, and future.
The story unfolds by means of the contrasts between the narrator’s view of Maria and her own emotionally limited self-awareness. The story develops in three scenes: at the laundry, on the journey across the city, and at the Halloween party. In the first, readers observe Maria’s prim, fussy personality as she prepares the women’s tea while privately anticipating her reunion with Joe and Mrs. Donnelly and their family. She suffers many slights in this institution, set apart by temperament and experience from the inmates, and by her Catholic piety from its Protestant management. On this particular occasion, the search for the wedding band hidden in the traditional Halloween cake causes some pointed disquiet for Maria. Indeed, her private chagrin at her single state is a recurring embarrassment throughout the evening.
As she travels northward across Dublin, stopping off at the city center to purchase her gifts, she is again reminded of her isolation: first by the irritation of the girl in the cake shop and again by the polite attentions of the gentleman in the tram. She is so flustered at this that she evidently leaves the rather expensive cake behind her.
At the Donnelly household she is greeted dutifully and with mixed emotions. She irritates the children by interrupting their party and by suggesting that they stole the lost cake intended for their parents. Joe and Mrs. Donnelly make her welcome, though, and she is soon relaxed enough to raise a question about Alphy, Joe’s estranged brother. This again disrupts the festive atmosphere, only restored by the traditional fortune-telling games. When the children’s fortunes are told (the prayer book, signifying the religious life; the water, emigration; and the ring, marriage, respectively), Maria—oddly enough, as an adult—is invited to play. When her lot turns out to be clay (signifying the fortune of death), however, the rules are changed and she gets the consolation of religion. The evening concludes with Maria’s song, “I Dreamt I Dwelt” (from Michael William Balfe’s opera The Bohemian Girl, 1843), but she sings the first verse twice, forgetting or censoring the references to lovers and knights of the second verse. When she is finished, the story focuses on Joe’s response: His eyes fill with tears motivated by a mixture of drunken nostalgia and guilt.