Clay: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 898

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Maria: middle-aged worker in an Irish charitable laundry

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Joe Donnelly: her nephew

Joe’s Family

Maria, the protagonist in this story, works in a charitable laundry service in Dublin. This evening, Halloween, she has the night off after serving the laundresses their holiday cakes. On her way to visit her nephew Joe and his family, Maria carefully calculates how much she can spend on treats and picks up special desserts for Joe’s family.

Once she arrives at their home, Maria discovers that she’s left one of the costly treats in the tram and becomes upset at her absent-mindedness, but the family comforts her. Thereafter, the children play a holiday game in which the player is blindfolded and chooses between a number of objects laid out on a table. When Maria plays, she puts her hand in a mound of clay, which unsettles the family and upsets Joe’s wife. The children re-arrange the objects and Maria chooses a prayer book on her second try.

Finally, Maria is asked to sing; she chooses an Irish ballad but mistakenly sings the first verse of the song twice. No one points out her error and her nephew’s eyes fill with tears at the close of the ballad.

Maria is a female celibate, a virgin, and her name calls to mind the Virgin Mary. Like a nun or a saint, Maria is a “veritable peace-maker,” and her life revolves around the Dublin by Lamplight laundry. The laundry, according to Joyce’s notes, was set up by a committee of Protestant society women to keep lower class girls and women off the streets of Dublin after dark. This presumably prevented them from theft or prostitution and engaged them in a useful chore instead. Maria functions as an ironic presence among these bawdy women and brings cheer but is saintly rather than sinful, or even potentially sinful. Additionally, Maria is at peace with her Protestant employers; even though some of their traditions are strange to her, she finds them “very nice people.” Her understanding, forgiveness, and kindness extend even to the drunk gentleman on the tram with whom Maria carries on a polite, restrained conversation.

Her life, however, is only half a life, Joyce indicates, because she has no intimate relationship, no sense of her physical self, and none of the longings of a mature adult. Playing the game of the barmbrack cakes on Halloween, Maria scoffs at the notion of finding the hidden ring (symbolizing love and marriage), telling Lizzie Flemming that “she didn’t want any ring or man either.” She finds her diminutive body “quaint” and “tidy,” but Joyce never suggests Maria’s womanliness; although she’s clearly mature, it’s unlikely that she’s aware of this aspect of herself.

Buying cakes for her nephew, Maria blushes when asked (probably in jest) if she would like to buy a wedding cake, for the notion of an intimate union is completely foreign to her. This concept is furthered during the tram ride when, the author tells us, “none of the young men seemed to notice her” because her sexuality has been sublimated to the point of non-existence.

Joe’s family delights in seeing Maria and receiving her gifts, but the first misstep of the evening is Maria’s missing plum cake. Asking the children if they’d eaten it only annoys them, making the evening uncomfortable, and Maria feels disproportionately out of sorts by the loss, especially in light of its cost and the failure of her surprise.

The next embarrassment is the children’s Halloween game of the saucers, wherein different items represent various life experiences: ring (romance, marriage); water (travel, adventure); prayer book (faith); clay (fear, death). Because of Maria’s good works and faithful nature, the reader assumes she will choose the prayer book, but the children place the clay before her, to Maria’s bewilderment and Mrs. Donnelly’s vexation. It’s clear, however, that Maria is afraid of life and is emotionally dead in her inability to form a close attachment. In this, she’s similar to Eveline in the earlier story, though Maria’s age and her lack of self-awareness lead us to believe that she will never even consider a change in her life. On her second try, Maria does indeed get the book, but the clay’s negative implication colors the evening.

Finally, at her family’s request, Maria sings “I Dreamt I Dwelt,” an Irish song about love from the opera The Bohemian Girl. Her choice of song is ironic because Maria doesn’t even dream about love (much less consider it a possibility). Furthermore, the “mistake” that her family doesn’t point out is Maria’s omission of the important second verse of the song which concerns being courted and loved by many suitors. Her omission symbolizes that Maria’s consciousness cannot even contemplate a circumstance such as courtship, that she has obliterated this from her mind.

Maria believes her life full, but the minor upsets in the story become major losses to her because her life lacks any significant human (com)passion. She loves her nephew, but he cannot return the affection when drunk, as he often is, and his children seem alienated from her. Indeed, Maria seems alienated from the world due to her inability to see the emptiness in her life.

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