Clay by James Joyce

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It is Halloween night. After work in the kitchen of an industrial laundry mainly staffed by recovering alcoholics and ex-prostitutes, an older unmarried woman named Maria attends a party at the home of a man named Joe. Maria served as his nurse when Joe was a baby. While playing traditional Irish Halloween games, a blindfolded Maria chooses clay rather than water, a ring, or a prayerbook, signifying (at least according to Irish superstition) that she will die soon.


Some critics have interpreted Maria as a symbol of Ireland itself (which would link her, unpredictably, with the pervert from “An Encounter”). Maria is poor and relatively forsaken. She is in thrall to the Roman Catholic Church (setting her alarm an hour earlier than usual so that she can attend All Saints’ Day Mass the next morning), and she loses her gift while distracted by a “colonel-looking gentleman” who might represent England.

Maria is ignorant, as well. (Joyce believed that education in Roman Catholic schools had made the Irish ignorant, exacerbating the country’s paralysis.) She does not seem to realize the significance of her choice in the Hallow Eve game. Joyce writes that “She felt a soft wet substance with her fingers and was surprised that nobody spoke or took off her bandage,” rather than writing something like “She felt a soft wet substance, obviously clay rather than a book, ring, or water, and gasped at the thought of death foretold.”

With regard to Joyce’s system of color symbolism, the color brown (meaning decay) looms largest in this story. Maria’s raincloak is brown, as is the hard hat of the man on the tram. And of course, the story’s central image, the clay itself that superstition says may mean death for Maria, is probably brown, or brownish, as well.

Like “A Little Cloud” and “Counterparts,” “Clay” employs the limited third-person point-of-view strategy. That is, although Maria does not herself tell the story, the reader is privy to her thoughts and no other characters’. (The story’s narrator never tells anything that Maria does not know, as a traditional omniscient narrator almost certainly would.) The technique demands much of a reader (for example, figuring out that the “soft wet substance” Maria touches during the Hallow Eve game is the clay of the title), but the story rewards just this sort of participation. It also rewards repeated readings.