Clay (short story)
|Followed by||"A Painful Case"|
It is important to note that due to this short story being left intentionally vague by its author, there can be numerous interpretations on what occurs in the story and the analysis of it.
Maria, an elderly woman with a job in a rescue mission for wayward women, is looking forward to a holiday evening at the house of Joe, whom she nursed when he was a boy and of whom she is still very fond. She departs for Joe's after attending a tea service with her fellow laundresses, stopping to buy cakes for the Halloween party on the way. At the bakery, Maria is somewhat teased by the clerk, who asks whether she wishes to buy a wedding cake, mirroring a similar joke that was made at the earlier tea. On a tram, Maria has a bashful encounter with an elderly and drunken man who chats with her. She is welcomed warmly at the house by Joe’s family, but she is saddened and ashamed to realize that she has left the plumcake she bought for Joe and his wife on the tram, probably due to "flirting" with the man. Maria is soon enticed into playing a traditional Hallow Eve game with the children in which objects are placed in saucers and a blindfolded player has to pick among them. Each object is supposed to have a prophetic significance. One of the objects in the game is a ring, standing for marriage, which Maria failed to get during a similar game (in which objects were baked into pieces of barmbrack) back at the laundry. At Joe's, Maria once again misses the ring and instead chooses a lump of clay. Everyone goes quiet, Maria is allowed to choose again, however, and this time fetches the prayer-book, indicating a life of spiritual vocation (service at a convent, suggests Joe's wife). After drinking some wine, Maria sings the aria "I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls" from the opera The Bohemian Girl by Michael Balfe. She makes what the text refers to as "a mistake" by singing the first verse twice, but nobody corrects her. She omits the second verse of the song, this omission is significant as the missing verse imagines suitors such as the ones that Maria has not had in her life:
I dreamt that suitors sought my hand,
That knights upon bended knee,
And with vows no maiden heart could withstand,
They pledg'd their faith to me.
And I dreamt that one of that noble host
Came forth my hand to claim;
But I also dreamt, which charm'd me most,
That you lov'd me still the same.
The story ends with a description of how Joe has been "very much moved" by her song, so moved that he needs to ask his wife to find the corkscrew for him.
This short story was written in a time of religious and political turmoil in Ireland. At the time that Clay was written there was a divide among the Irish between those of the Catholic faith and those of the Protestant faith.
- Joyce, James. Dubliners (London: Grant Richards, 1914)
- Norris, Margot. “Narration under a Blindfold: Reading Joyce's ‘Clay.’” PMLA, vol. 102, no. 2, 1987, pp. 206–215. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/462549.
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- Benstock, B. Narrative Con/Texts in Dubliners. London: Macmillan, 1994.
- Bulson, E. The Cambridge Introduction to James Joyce. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
- Gifford, D. Notes for Joyce: Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co, 1967.
- Seidel, M. James Joyce: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.