29 pages 58 minutes read

James Joyce


Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1914

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Clay”

“Clay,” a short story by Irish author James Joyce, takes place on a single day in the life of Maria, a Dublin scullery worker, and follows her leaving work to attend a Halloween party at the home of old friends. The story appears in the collection Dubliners. In “Clay,” Joyce uses irony, naturalism, and setting to explore the themes of The Diminishing Power of Low Social Status, The Disparity Between Desire and Reality, and Self-Deception within the context of early-20th-century Ireland. All the stories in Dubliners share these themes to a greater or lesser extent. “Clay” is one of Joyce’s early stories, first written in 1905, then revised and finalized in 1906 when he was 23 years old. Joyce intended to have the story published in an Irish periodical but instead included it with 14 other stories to comprise Dubliners. Although the collection was accepted for publication in 1905, the English publisher grew worried over its content and delayed publishing the book until 1914.

Joyce is best known as a novelist; his novels Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (1916), Ulysses (1922), and Finnegan’s Wake (1939) are considered masterpieces of modernist literature. While stories like “Clay” rely more on realism and naturalism than do Joyce’s novels, they nonetheless anticipate many of the concerns of modernism that became more overt in his later work.

This guide refers to the version of “Clay” found in the Penguin Classics Edition of Dubliners (1992).

Content Warning: The source uses derogatory language to refer to a person with cognitive or intellectual disabilities and references alcoholism and domestic abuse.

Joyce writes “Clay” using a limited third-person point of view. The narrative follows the story through the protagonist Maria’s thoughts and consciousness. The story opens in the kitchen of the Dublin by Lamplight laundry where Maria works as a scullery worker. The narrator describes Maria as a “very, very small person” (95), a detail that he emphasizes throughout the story.

The laundry is a Protestant establishment, and like many in Dublin, employs destitute women, many of whom were former sex workers. Maria has just finished cleaning the kitchen and slicing a traditional cake for the laundry workers. She appears to be well-liked by everyone at the laundry, and the matron herself calls Maria a “peace-maker” (95).

It is Halloween evening (“Hallow Eve” in the text), and Maria anticipates her journey to the home of Joe Donnelly and his family. When Joe and his brother Alphy were young, Maria was employed as their nursemaid. When the boys were grown and moved out, they found Maria the position at the laundry. Although Maria now seems to like her work, she “used to have such a bad opinion of Protestants” and she still does not like “the tracts on the wall” (96). From this, the narrative reveals that Maria is a Catholic, a detail reinforced by her later mention of attending Mass.

The laundry women file into the kitchen to enjoy their tea, a late afternoon meal in Ireland. They are a jovial lot, laughing and teasing Maria that she will be “sure to get the ring” in a traditional game played on Halloween (97). The person who gets the ring is predicted to marry in the coming year. This is a jest the women make every year, and it causes Maria’s eyes “to sparkle with disappointed shyness” (97).

Maria is glad when the women finish their tea, and she can be on her way to Joe’s. When she gets to the tram, however, she finds that it is full and she must sit “on the little stool at the end of the car, facing all the people, her feet barely touching the floor” (97-98).

Maria next goes to several bake shops where she has some difficulty being waited on. She wants to buy some cakes and cookies with the money she has carefully budgeted for the trip. When she gets back on the tram, it is again full, and none of the younger men on the tram offer her a seat. An elderly gentleman, most likely a retired British army officer, does make room for her and engages her in conversation. Maria thinks as she gets off the tram “how easy it was to know a gentleman even when he has a drop taken” (99). This is in contrast with her earlier hope that Joe would not come drunk to their party.

When she arrives at Joe’s, everyone is excited to see her. However, she discovers that she has left the cake she purchased on the tram and is very disappointed. Joe has her sit by the fire and the two of them talk as Mrs. Donnelly plays the piano, the children run around, and two next-door girls arrive. Joe urges Maria to have a bottle of stout, and Mrs. Donnelly presses port wine on her. Although Maria prefers not to have any alcohol, they insist.

In their conversation, Maria tries to “put in a good word for Alphy” (100), Joe’s brother with whom he has had an argument. The brothers are now estranged. Joe becomes angry, but Mrs. Donnelly calms him, and the party continues. The next-door girls arrange the traditional game wherein one of the partygoers is blindfolded and then asked to choose a saucer among those held before the blindfolded player. One saucer holds a ring, another water, and another a prayer book. The choice of a saucer supposedly predicts what will happen to the person in the coming year.

Everyone insists that Maria participate although she is reluctant. While blindfolded, she sticks her hand into “a soft, wet substance” (101). Unbeknownst to Maria, the girls have included a saucer holding muddy clay, predicting that anyone who picks this while blindfolded will die in the coming year. Mrs. Donnelly is very annoyed with the girls and makes Maria try again. The second time she chooses a saucer holding a prayer book. Mrs. Donnelly says it means Maria will enter a convent within the year.

As the evening ends and everyone has had a good deal to drink, Joe insists that Maria sing a song for them. She chooses “I Dreamt That I Dwelt,” a song about the hope for riches and love. She mistakenly sings the same verse twice. Joe becomes teary eyed as he recalls the past. The story ends with Joe asking his wife to find the corkscrew, implying that he is going to have more wine.

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