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Dubliners - "Clay" (Story 10 of 15) 
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 Dubliners - "Clay" (Story 10 of 15)
Dubliners - "Clay" (Story 10 of 15)


Dubliners is a collection of 15 short stories by James Joyce, first published in 1914. They form a naturalistic depiction of Irish middle class life in and around Dublin in the early years of the 20th century. The stories were written when Irish nationalism was at its peak, and a search for a national identity and purpose was raging; at a crossroads of history and culture, Ireland was jolted by various converging ideas and influences.



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Post Re: Dubliners - "Clay" (Story 10 of 15)
I know I am jumping a bit, but this story has been on my mind all day. After reading the story I knew I'd missed something important because I could not figure out the title. I had to looking and now I will have to re-read to see if I could have figureded it out if I'd only gone back and re-read. Also, this story is a reminder to be mindful of what Joyce has left out of the story. I did not know the text of the song Maria sings at the end of the story, so while reading it I did not get the significance of the verse that gets skipped. I will wait for everyone else to catch to discuss.



Tue Apr 09, 2013 8:31 pm
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Post Re: Dubliners - "Clay" (Story 10 of 15)
I didn't really get this story either. Apparently Joyce is too subtle for me.

So I cheated a little and read Sparksnotes (and Wikipedia). I'll just briefly summarize. Hope that's okay.

Joyce continues with themes of meaningless and empty lives and paralysis. Maria, the main character, seems to have it pretty good, but she actually focuses very strangely on many trivial details in order to distract herself from her own meaningless existence. She works in a Protestant charity that helps fallen women and drunkards. My footnotes say she probably works as a scullery maid, whatever that is, in a "less than genteel environment."

Many references are made to her being single, and I would gather she's destined to become an old maid.

The story takes place on All Hallow's Eve. When Maria is at Joe's, she reaches into a grab bag and apparently the first thing she picks is a lump of clay. The clay symbolizes an early death, and Sparksnotes suggests that Maria is doomed to continue her meaningless existence.

As for the missing verse of the song, here's what Wikipedia says:

"She makes what the text refers to as "a mistake" by singing the first verse twice, but nobody corrects her. The 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 Joe being "very much moved" by the song, but I'm not really sure why. Is he upset that she missed one of the verses? Or does he feel sorry for her? Earlier he seemed upset about the clay being in the grabbag, and said it wasn't supposed to be there. In the end, he, too, focuses on something trivial (the corkscrew) to distract himself from his pain.

A point in Maria's favor is that she's well-liked. She's generous to Joe even if she did lose the cake that was to be a gift. I may have to reread this one. I still feel like I'm missing a lot.


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Sun Apr 14, 2013 9:03 pm
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Post Re: Dubliners - "Clay" (Story 10 of 15)
I wonder if part of Joyce's purpose here was to debut a new style that has been called "narrated monologue," which I've mentioned before. The idea is that the narrative isn't written in Joyce's words, but in Maria's. Joyce would not choose to call a room "spick and span." That would be how Maria would describe it. And throughout the story, the narrative remains in Maria's hands. The narrowness of her perspective limits what the reader finds out, as the omniscient narrator has withdrawn completely. This story, unlike the others, also seems to lack wider reference to a larger society; it's a miniature.

I'm sure that Maria, when she touches the wet thing on the table, placed there as a prank by one of the children, doesn't even want to guess what it was, and because she doesn't know, we don't either. It's only through Joyce's sneaky ploy of the title that we can assume it to have been clay.

I've tried to imagine how much less compact and economical this 8-page story would have had to be if all the information we need to thoroughly understand relationships and backgrounds had been provided. Joyce wants to be up to something different here. He was influenced in his realism by Flaubert, I understand. Flaubert tried to shed fiction of some of the artificiality caused by an intrusive, managing narrator. So we end up with more difficulty, more unanswered questions, and more possible interpretations.



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Mon Apr 15, 2013 8:28 am
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Post Re: Dubliners - "Clay" (Story 10 of 15)
Hey DWill, I was noticing that on my second reading. It's a very sparse writing style, and Joyce uses a much narrower perspective than previous stories. We get a sense that Maria is focusing on the minutia so as not to look at the big picture. As such, Maria is an unreliable POV. She's trying to put a rosy spin on everything, but you also get the feeling at times she's close to breaking down. In one early scene, Maria is setting up the evening meal and one of the women in the house suggests that Maria will get the ring at the Hallow Eve party later. (In Irish tradition the one who gets the ring could hope to marry within a year.) So when the woman says this, Maria smiles so the "tip of her nose nearly meets the tip of her chin" a gesture that is repeated several times in the story. But in the first instance, Joyce establishes that it's an uneasy or melancholy smile, her gray-green eyes sparkling with "disappointed shyness."

Likewise, when Maria chats with a "colonel-looking" gentleman on the tram, she sees him as distinguished. She's flattered by the attention, noting how more polite he is than the young men who don't seem to even notice her at all. At the very end of the paragraph, she notes how easy it was to know a gentleman even when he has "a drop taken" which is a euphemism for being drunk. So, in fact, the distinguished gentleman is soused. I was wondering if he stole her plumcake, but I guess it makes sense that she simply left it on the tram.

Maria also notes how nice Joe and his family are to her, but they are also drinking a lot. Joe and his wife almost get into an argument over his brother Alphy. Later Mrs. Donnelly makes a point that Maria will probably enter a convent by the year's end because she picked the prayer book from the grab bag. I can't imagine this being a very nice thing to say, but then, it's Mrs. Donnelly who chastises the kids for playing the trick with the clay.

When the kids lead her to the table, Maria once again displays that uneasy smile. She seems so shy and self-conscious, reluctant to drink and be a part of the festivities. When she sings at the end, she blushes and her voice is tiny and quavering. I get the feeling that she's already something of a recluse, maybe already has given up on herself.

It's interesting to see the history of this story in light of what Joyce is trying to accomplish. "Clay" was substantially completed in early 1905, but brought to final form in 1906 (making it one of the later stories along with "Two Gallants", "A Little Cloud" and "The Dead."). It was first conceived as 'Christmas Eve,' later recast as 'Hallow Eve,' then retitled as 'The Clay' before it became just 'Clay.' I wonder if the story was shortened during these later revisions. As DWill says, it seems that Joyce is using a minimalist style. Again, I'm reminded of Hemingway's submerged iceberg method of writing.


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Post Re: Dubliners - "Clay" (Story 10 of 15)
I wondered if Joyce wasn't trying for poignancy here, as on the surface Maria is a sympathetic character. But she is so diminished in her personality that it's difficult to see her as a fully formed human being, certainly not as an adult. She is juvenalized throughout the story and allowed little dignity. Why is she made to participate in the children's game at the party? She has a mothering role to the grown women at the laundry, but she doesn't seem to be respected even though it's said she is a good peacemaker. She is almost taunted, in my view. She has also been a mother to Alphy and Joe, perhaps as a governess when the family was in good times, but Joe seems tyrannical and wants to recreate the good old days, getting sloppy sentimental at the end after Maria sings a song from those times. Maria has had a bad day, actually, though she always feels it's her duty to act happy in conformance to others' desires. She lost her cake because she got flustered by the attentions of a man, had a trick played on her, and failed to smooth things over between the brothers. I don't know if Joyce is suggesting anything about the causes of MarIa's own paralysis.



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