Reading Log of Clay and the Diviner

Follow up to my post on Clay by James Joyce — but this time I'm also looking at the short story The Diviner by Brian Friel. These are notes taken from class and may be a bit scattered – leaving them here because they may be of interest to someone (likely me! Ha!).

About Short Stories

Most of the analysis of short stories rely on the fact that the story is short. Every word can withstand examination, and can be used as a starting point to examine the story as a whole. Looking for the important moments in the plot is always worth mapping out, because the story is so short every twist of narrative is worth thinking about. There is nothing superfluous. The way the story is told is what the story is trying to transmit.

Most short stories are intense and brief chronicles of pivotal moments in the lives of its characters.

Note: in literature you can’t be suckered by the language.


The significance of clay: being cheated out of the other options, clay from the garden, dust to dust, the essence of someone – saints and heroes are made if a different clay. Maria is definitely different compared to every one else.

Maria is non-confrontational, pacifist, orderly, precise, self-conscious, likeable (really? I don’t think so), a perfectionist, peacemaker.

Irony is being invoked here.

The narrative point of view in this story is third person semi-omniscience/limited-omniscience.

A note about setting: Halloween – a night when the souls in purgatory are allowed to come and remind their living relatives (remind or haunt) in order to get their living relatives to pray for them to get out of purgatory. Halloween is Crab Apple Night – you have divination games in order to figure out the future. Barmbrack is like a fruitcake where you put in a pea, a cheap ring, a toothpick, a cloth – each of these objects have significances. (Ring is marriage, cloth is wealth, etc…)

The irony is that Maria is a parody of herself: ugly, un-marriageable, old, unrespectable. Maria is not a real ‘peacemaker’ because she doesn’t command respect from anyone: not the shop-girls, not the young men on the tram, not the women in the laundry.

Maria would like to be registered as a person. She wants to be respected. She wants to be treated as a real person, not as a diminutive ugly little witch creature.

Journeys are more than just a change of setting.

Joyce is at his most sympathetic, recognizing that Maria is a product of an extremely restrictive society.

Irish notion of fertility: love and human contact – relationships. The only thing Maria can nurture are her tiny little potted plants.

Maria’s song at the end is a cry for not only pride and respect – but its ultimately a cry for love and respect.

What is the mistake : she repeats the first verse because the second verse mirrors her situation too accurately. She can’t even speak it, she can’t even sing it.

What is Clay about?

  • Respect, recognition,
  • Desire,
  • Marginalized people / othering,
  • Religion / Catholicism
  • Love / Happiness
  • Women who don’t pass the test, (beauty, the virgin/whore dichotomy),
  • Superstition
  • Connections between people

If I were to write Maria the next morning, on her way home, after she realizes she can’t sing that last verse.


Not like Clay or Araby, this story perhaps has less substance at the level of the word. It has a much more straightforward narrative in a sense.

It is not a coincidence that divination was a component of Clay – and now we have The Diviner. A diviner is a person who finds water by using a forked twig. It’s a superstition – Astérix has a few mentions of it to a funny effect. Brian Friel writes often over the notion of charlatans and ‘cunning people’.

Let’s talk about Nelly:

  • She was married to her drunken first husband for 25 years, which brought her great shame, and then he finally croaked.
  • She was married to her drunken second husband for 3 months.
  • She is obsessed with respectability. She wanted to be the best cleaning lady – she wanted her ‘clients’ to be the best. (Her ‘clients’ don’t really feel that way towards her, a parallel with Maria.)
  • She craves respectability and is averse to gossip.
  • She has no control over her life, and barely has control over her reputation.
  • Her ideal outcome after the drowning of her second husband is either that her husband’s body isn’t found, or that his body is found but not the bottles. Her position as unfortunate widow who suffers so much would be legitimized.

The Priest Versus The Diviner

  • Supernatural power – but it’s not God
  • Only God can know things people cannot be
  • The Diviner smells of whiskey, and is a bit shady
  • The Diviner is the Priest’s competition
    • (And while the priest can only offer the rosary, the diviner says he can find the body.)
  • Intangible forces fighting for the lives of the country people – superstition vs the Catholic Church
  • Folklore/Cunning People vs the Catholic Clergy
  • The respectable people want nothing to do with a charlatan like a diviner – he belongs to the rabble, the lower classes, the uneducated, etc…
  • The drone of the prayers and the wailing of Nelly
  • The priest wants to smother the entire situation with prayers and piety – yet the diviner seems to know things and seems to strip away the veils of respectability.
  • Legitimizing the values of the collective by imposing into the private. Note the change from the urban Dublin to the rural between the two stories.
Gersande La Flèche

Gersande La Flèche they/them/their

Committing acts of sedition against the Academie française since 1990.
MTL // Tiohtià:ke