Notes on Clay, a short story by James Joyce

21 Nov 2014: These notes were first published on the 9th of May 2013. I have migrated them back out of the black void of the internet, and here they are, slightly edited for clarity.


I first read this story much too early in the morning, grogginess pulling at my thoughts and my eyelids. Reading Clay was like drinking coffee - a strong dose of caffeinated anxiety straight to the brain! Maria’s tiny, insignificant blunders pile on like paper cuts on bruised skin – too much pain on an overexposed nerve. As a story, Clay is intriguing but also perturbing. Maria’s distress only increases, and there is no discernible epiphany at the end. I could only just read the crescendo of anguish. Maria’s life stings like a slap to the face, and at the end I was numb and unable to to think of anything other than buzzing anxiety.

Clay as a title, theme, and material, conceptually doesn’t lend itself well to the overarching urbanity of 1910s Dublin. Brief and uneventful, Clay (the short story) forces the reader to eye the mundane. There is no great drama to be observed, no feuds or life-changing heart-wrenching decisions to be made. The setting is peculiar (and to Joyce’s contemporaries, immediately significant) as a laundry house meant to rehabilitate former prostitutes and other ‘at-risk’ women. Are we to conclude Maria is ‘at risk’ herself?

The story begins by mentioning a matron, women’s tea, and Maria’s evening out. Unlike most of the stories in Dubliners, the focus of the first sentence is on a feminine world. Emphasis on interior and exterior, on the segregation of the gender, and in hierarchies amongst women, all indirectly put on display in the first sentence.

The matron had given her leave to go out as soon as the women’s tea was over and Maria looked forward to her evening out. The kitchen was spick and span: the cook said you could see yourself in the big copper boilers. The fire was nice and bright and on one of the side-tables were four very big barmbracks. These barmbracks seemed uncut; but if you went closer you would see that they had been cut into long thick even slices and were ready to be handed out at tea. Maria had cut them herself.

This first paragraph of Clay gives the reader much to work with. Minute details such as the cleanliness and orderliness of Maria’s world are put on display. Maria is clean and tidy: spick and span. When she looks at her reflection, it is the tidiness of her world that shines. Everything has to be inspected, looked at up close: the Irish bread cakes that she bakes look uncut until you inspect them closer. Maria is meticulous, a perfectionist. This striving for perfection is going to unravel itself throughout the story.

When I first read the story I remember thinking how does perfectionism and clay relate? Clay is a messy material, the medium of a sculptor, an earthy, essential substance. Maria is either the complete opposite of the messy clay – or maybe she is a sculptor seeking perfection, constantly peeling away slivers of clay to fix blemishes until there is nothing left, and the result is ruined. The parallel between sculpting clay and cutting into the barmbracks is perhaps a little forced – but cutting into clay with a fine wire or knife often has the same effects as what Maria does with the barmbracks. Throughout Clay each minute and insignificant fumbling and mistake cuts through Maria – she may seem whole and peaceful from afar, but to look closely is to notice just how cut up Maria truly is. While the reader has to work a little to look closely, it is clear that Maria’s striving for peaceful perfection creates awkwardness and stress. Her unhappiness is clear, though the reasons are obscured.

Maria’s concerns are external validation of her perfectionism (“Maria,” the matron tells her, “you are a veritable peace maker!” Or even the narrator’s comment that “Everyone was so fond of Maria.”). That Maria dislikes or likes herself is inconsequential – she is liked by her coworkers and her former care Joe, and old drunks on the tram. She likes her body because it is small and tidy – an extension of her character. She has no opinion on her own face, but the narrator makes a point of mentioning her very long nose and very long chin. Her witchlike face is curious, as is the temporal setting: All Hallow’s Eve. Is Maria’s face simply another nod from Joyce as to the supernatural character of the story, with its superstitions and traditions? Does her weighty Catholic name and her witchy face hold some significance, some paradox the reader should recognize? Catholicism in Ireland was well known for indulging and somewhat bolstering the old superstitions – the superstitions of fairies and changelings and curses and devils only served to reinforce the necessity of Christ as salvation. Even St Patrick is a symbol of salvation against the old ways.

Maria’s impulsive waste of money, her compulsive need to go over her evening plans in her mind, her interactions with the impatient shop girls, her shy flirting with a drunk on the tram whom she attributes to looking like an English colonel, her desperate laughter at the teasing of the other laundry women at getting married – all of these nervous behaviours imply a lack of control despite Maria’s best efforts. She really does simply sway in the currents around her. At moments, it looks like she is incapable of assuming responsibility for herself. She loses the plum cakes that she wasted quite a bit of money on, covers up her mess by putting the blame on Joe’s little children. (Witches tricking children is a common folkloric theme!) This isn’t becoming behaviour for somebody who’s chief preoccupation is inciting the adoration of the people around her. The children then trick her into picking the clay during a divination game – the clay which symbolizes an early death.

They led her up to the table amid laughing and joking and she put her hand out in the air as she was told to do. She moved her hand about here and there in the air and descended on one of the saucers. She felt a soft wet substance with her fingers and was surprised that nobody spoke or took off her bandage. There was a pause for a few seconds; and then a great deal of scuffling and whispering. Somebody said something about the garden, and at last Mrs. Donnelly said something very cross to one of the next-door girls and told her to throw it out at once: that was no play. Maria understood that it was wrong that time and so she had to do it over again: and this time she got the prayer-book.

After that Mrs. Donnelly played Miss McCloud’s Reel for the children and Joe made Maria take a glass of wine. Soon they were all quite merry again and Mrs. Donnelly said Maria would enter a convent before the year was out because she had got the prayer-book. Maria had never seen Joe so nice to her as he was that night, so full of pleasant talk and reminiscences. She said they were all very good to her.

Verbs which show Maria trying to take control:

  • Maria understood
  • Maria had never seen
  • She said

Verbs which show a lack of control:

  • she put her hand out in the air as she was told to do
  • so she had to do it over again: and this time she got the prayer-book.
  • …Joe made Maria take a glass of wine.
  • Maria would enter a convent…

These awkward paragraphs take much out of Maria’s hands. She already works in a small, and far from lucrative, laundry house with pious Protestants. Her Catholic ways seem ritualistic and strange to her Protestant coworkers – yet everybody likes Maria. With Joe, there is always a tension over drinking and estranged brothers and his wife. Despite Maria being like Joe’s mother, she isn’t, and can’t take that role with him and live with his family. She is othered quite a bit throughout Clay, but it is made very clear that "choosing" either an early death or entering the convent wouldn’t really be her choice. Maria is probably facing the reality that in the not too distant future, she will have to retire properly and may not be able to work for a living. Would she enter a convent? Would she die before that? These are very real possibilities looming in her future. When she is asked to sing in her “tiny quivering voice” the song is clearly about the regrets and frustrations she can’t speak of, even to herself.

Old Balfe is another old piece of forgotten Irish culture. Maria’s song distorts the song’s words and original meaning, but that happens to all old things with time. Maria probably feels like a witch without being able to put words to her own frustrations and perfectionism – she feels like she has no place, no family of her own. Once upon a time, probably in a fairy tale, Maria may have been able to live her life differently, as she sings. But here she is, made to feel like a witch, like an ‘other’ no matter the situation. She is a single, aging woman in a difficult place in time: Dublin at the turn of the century. Death or the convent would not be very different, both an escape or outlet from her tedious, meticulous, substance-less life.

Clay, one of the shorter stories in Dubliners, is thus intriguing and perturbing.

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 children she gives gifts to, not the women in the laundry (who make fun of her for being ugly). It’s an acute vision of someone for whom an epiphany would be useless – she is neither capable by her own nature or by the world imposed on her to change her fate, her happiness, her place in the world. Maria is truly frozen, doomed to lead an unhappy existence until the end of her days.

Gersande La Flèche

Gersande La Flèche

By day I am a writing coach & freelance English-French translator. By night (or rather by dawn because I'm an early bird) I scribble away at poetry, prose, and essays in one of my many notebooks.
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