Of the 15 short stories that make up James Joyce’s 1914 collection Dubliners, ‘Clay’ is one of the most enigmatic – which is saying something, since none of the stories offers up its meaning easily, or is limited to one interpretation or analysis of its meaning. You can read ‘Clay’ here.
‘Clay’: plot summary
In summary, ‘Clay’ focuses on Maria, an unmarried middle-aged Catholic woman living and working in Dublin. Maria works as a kitchen maid for a laundry run by Protestants and devoted to helping fallen women; the laundry is overseen by a woman known simply as ‘matron’. Maria secured the job after recommendations from Joe and Alphy Donnelly, two brothers whose family she worked for years ago.
After serving the women of the laundry their tea, Maria is allowed to go out for the evening, and she is excited about visiting Joe and his family at their home. On her way there, Maria stops off at the shops to buy some penny cakes and a big plum cake. On the tram, however, Maria finds herself in a conversation with a charming man who’s had a bit too much to drink, and, becoming flustered and confused by him, Maria absentmindedly leaves the plum cake behind when she gets off the tram.
At Joe Donnelly’s house, Maria joins him and his family in the festivities as they celebrate Hallow Eve, i.e. Halloween. Maria confronts Joe about his estrangement from his brother, Alphy, but Joe refuses to budge (we don’t learn what caused the rift between the two brothers). They then play a game in which the participant is blindfolded and has to touch objects in saucers in front of them; the game centres on the idea that the object one touches contains an omen about one’s future.
Maria puts her hand in something wet and sticky. It’s not mentioned whether this is clay or not – the word ‘clay’ doesn’t appear in the story itself at all – but given the title of the story, this is what we are led to infer. In the game, clay symbolises death, but it is clear that one of the daughters has deliberately rigged the game so that Maria will touch the clay (rather than the ring, which prognosticates marriage). ‘Clay’ ends with Maria singing a song to the family, ‘I Dreamt that I Dwelt in Marble Halls’ (also known as ‘The Gipsy Girl’s Dream’, a popular aria from Michael William Balfe’s 1843 opera The Bohemian Girl.
However, Maria makes a mistake and ends up singing the first verse of the song twice, omitting the second verse. Significantly, this second verse is about a woman being wooed by suitors (‘I dreamt that suitors sought my hand’). The story ends with none of the family pointing out Maria’s error to her.
Can the above summary be called a ‘plot’ summary? ‘Clay’ doesn’t have much of a ‘plot’ as such: it’s one evening in the life of an unmarried middle-aged Irishwoman. In this respect, it shares much with the other stories in Dubliners, and is a good example of literary modernism, where short stories and novels tend to focus on mood and character (especially character psychology) over plot and action. But even so, ‘Clay’ seems even more plotless than many of the other stories in Dubliners, making it even more of a challenge for the literary critic.
‘Clay’ began life as ‘Christmas Eve’ (some drafts of Joyce’s original story survive), but clearly Joyce decided that a different ‘eve’, Halloween, would suit the story better, perhaps because of the traditions associated with Halloween and the fact that Maria is entering the ‘autumn’ of her life (not quite old-aged, but certainly middle-aged and now unlikely ever to marry).
‘Clay’ is one of the stories in Dubliners about middle-age: the earlier stories are about childhood, youth, and adolescence, but these later stories are about people who are older and mature, though often life has passed them by and they are single and/or unhappy. ‘Clay’ is immediately followed in Dubliners by ‘A Painful Case’, and it’s worth doing a comparative analysis of the two stories: ‘A Painful Case’ focuses on an unmarried middle-aged man. Like ‘Clay’, the shadow of death looms in the background of the story, much as alcohol does. Is alcohol the cause of the rift between the brothers, Joe and Alphy, in ‘Clay’?
Maria seems to regard drink with caution: note how ‘Joe asked would she take a bottle of stout and Mrs. Donnelly said there was port wine too in the house if she would prefer that’; to which Maria replied that ‘she would rather they didn’t ask her to take anything: but Joe insisted.’
After the stout, Maria is given wine; the man in the tram (described, in what is probably a deliberate pun, knowing James Joyce, as ‘a stout gentleman’) ‘has a drop taken’. Like the titular clay, which is not mentioned by name in the story, drink and death are lurking in the story without becoming overbearing themes. Just after Joe has insisted that Maria have a drink, we are told:
So Maria let him have his way and they sat by the fire talking over old times and Maria thought she would put in a good word for Alphy. But Joe cried that God might strike him stone dead if ever he spoke a word to his brother again and Maria said she was sorry she had mentioned the matter. Mrs. Donnelly told her husband it was a great shame for him to speak that way of his own flesh and blood but Joe said that Alphy was no brother of his and there was nearly being a row on the head of it. But Joe said he would not lose his temper on account of the night it was and asked his wife to open some more stout. The two next-door girls had arranged some Hallow Eve games and soon everything was merry again. Maria was delighted to see the children so merry and Joe and his wife in such good spirits.
As soon as more stout has been opened, everything becomes ‘merry’, with everyone in ‘good spirits’. Are these plays on drinking words deliberate, too, one wonders?
About James Joyce
James Joyce (1882-1941) is one of the most important modernist writers of the early twentieth century. His reputation largely rests on just four works: a short story collection Dubliners (1914), and three novels: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Ulysses (1922), and Finnegans Wake (1939). Each of these works represents a development from the last, with Joyce’s writing becoming increasingly experimental, obscure, and challenging.
Like his fellow countryman, the Irish poet W. B. Yeats, Joyce writes about the country he knew so well: Ireland, the country of his birth. But unlike Yeats, Joyce had no time for the romantic vision of Ireland encapsulated by the Celtic Twilight. Joyce said that he wrote the short stories that make up Dubliners in order to give Ireland one good look at itself in the mirror: his vision of Ireland is an unflinchingly realist ‘warts and all’ depiction of a country which, especially in those early works, seems gripped by a paralysis (a key word for Dubliners) that is partly a result of the country’s obsession with its own past and with Catholicism.
It’s telling that Joyce spent much of his adult life living outside of his native Ireland, on the Continent, where he could absorb French literary influences which would be so important for his development as a novelist.