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James Joyce's 'Clay' - Maria and the Integration of Fantasy into Reality

Updated on April 25, 2013
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A hundred people, upon reading Joyce's Dubliners, will have a hundred different interpretations - at least. But a great deal of critical thought has been devoted to teasing out the threads of fantasy and reality in the collection (and indeed the rest of Joyce's works), and I read the collection now as a 'progression' into deeper and deeper illusion as the stories' protagonists go through different stages of life, culminating in Gabriel Conroy breaking free of the paradigm in the final, beautiful paragraph of 'The Dead'.

In ‘Clay’, Maria is at a much later stage of life than characters in the earlier stories in Dubliners - the young boy in ‘Araby’ or 'An Encounter' or the girl-woman Eveline - and fantasy and reality have become wholly integrated in her thoughts, with the result that both are reduced to the petty, the ugly, and the mundane. Is this the outcome that the boy fears or realises at the end of ‘Araby’: knowing that to sustain the protection of fantasy he must sacrifice its fantastic properties?

(Note: Dubliners page numbers refers to the Pemguin Popular Classics edition, 1996)

Epifanio San Juan

Epifanio San Juan, James Joyce and the Craft of Fiction - An Interpretation of Dubliners. 1972, Associated University Press.

An in-depth exploration of Dubliners and one of the most interesting critical works I have read on Joyce's collection of short stories.

Joyce on Illusory Thinking

San Juan writes that Joyce:

‘believed that “the first step towards the liberation of my country" consisted in the capacity to face actuality without the screen of self-ingratiating illusions or sentimentality. A fidelity to experience is the prerequisite for cultivating honesty and awakening conscience’ (San Juan, p.18).

R. B. Kershner

R.B. Kershner, Joyce, Bakhtin, and Popular Literature, 1989, University of North Carolina Press. A fascinating work that uses the 'carnivalesque' theories of Mikhail Bakhtin - Russian philosopher and literary critic - to make sense of the often confusing Joycean world.

The Progression of Dubliners towards Fantastical Thinking with Age

The child characters of the first three stories are to some extent able to separate illusion from actuality: in ‘The Sisters’ the boy fights against the encroaching connotations by constant reference to himself – how he feels, thinks, acts – and it is only because he is unaware of the insidiousness of the constant barrage that these connotations break into his thoughts, beginning the tale, as Kershner points out, with an ‘utterance of pure, fatidic, proverbial wisdom’ that is typical of, and therefore presumably learned from, the ‘banalities of his guardians’ that constantly surround him (Kershner, p31).

In ‘An Encounter’, the boy is able to return to his peer Mahony after his failed attempt to join the adult world. And in ‘Araby’, the boy’s visions of the girl are kept jealously separate from the world to the point where they overlay it entirely and come between him and the page he tries to read as if his fantasies are a physical object. But in ‘Clay’ the ability to distinguish between the illusory and the actual has vanished for Maria.

Fantasy and Reality in Dubliners

This is one out of seven essays exploring fantasy and reality in the thoughts of the characters in some of the short stories in Joyce's Dubliners. The other essays are:


The Sisters (language and connotations)

The Sisters (fantasy and belief)


The Dead

An Encounter

Maria in 'Clay' as a Patchwork of Impressions and Perceptions

Maria exists only as a collection of the perceptions of others, which have become her own perception of herself. The free indirect style that gives voice to Maria’s consciousness is, as Kershner points out, ‘a single extended character zone’ although ‘[i]t gives the overall impression of objective, naturalistic narration’ (Kershner, p104). And like all of the characters in Dubliners, her consciousness is almost entirely concerned with herself.

Maria sees herself as a patchwork of impressions others have of her, these impressions being coloured by her own imagination and agenda, the last of which is hidden behind a self-effacement that does not quite seem genuine. If credence is given to Kershner’s theory of the ‘single character zone’ – putting down the few instances where this does not seem to be quite the right term as the intrusion of a curious mixture of Maria’s public mask and her self-effacing but keen vanity – then Kershner’s other statement, that it also gives an impression of objectiveness, is interesting, because the character herself seems to be one thing (a pitiable victim), but, I will argue, is actually a far more manipulative person.

Maria and Self Awareness in 'Clay'

The extent of Maria’s self-awareness shifts throughout the story. Upon Fleming’s comment at the tea in the laundry that ‘Maria was sure to get the ring’, ‘Maria had to laugh and say she didn’t want any ring or man either; and when she laughed her grey-green eyes sparkled with disappointed shyness and the tip of her nose nearly met the tip of her chin’ (Dubliners, p.112). Analysing this from within the framework that this free indirect speech is rooted in Maria’s consciousness, we see that Maria is reporting this about herself, but the phrase ‘her grey-green eyes sparkled with disappointed shyness’ is a visual one and so must be how Maria imagines herself to look. She appears from this perspective something of a willing martyr, admiring herself in the distorted mirror of her imagination that is fuelled by the comments of others. But she colours these comments with the image of who she wants to be, thus Fleming’s comment, repeated, we are told, ‘so many Hallow’s Eves’, may be slightly cruel and malicious, hence Maria’s ‘disappointed shyness’, but equally it may be the slightly patronising and indulgent conversation of a genuinely well-meaning woman, or perhaps it is a simple throwaway comment about a Halloween game the woman knows Maria will be playing later in the evening – a long-running private joke among friends. These last two possible interpretations of Fleming’s comment would place Maria’s ‘disappointed shyness’ in the light of one who wishes to appear the victim of a bully, and would turn Maria – the manipulated – into the manipulator.

Maria the Manipulator

When Maria chooses the clay in the game Mrs Donnelly makes the children ‘throw it out at once: that was no play,’ perhaps alarmed at the possibility that Maria will be hurt or upset at its connotations of death (Dubliners, p.117). But we again have no way of knowing if this act of Mrs Donnelly’s is done out of a concern for Maria or whether it is to prevent her from becoming tiresomely and needlessly upset by what is after all a simple children’s game. However, since Fleming said earlier that ‘Maria was sure to get the ring and […] had said that for so many Hallow Eves’, we know that Maria has played this traditional game many times, and would be fully aware both of what she had touched in the saucer, and what it symbolised (Dubliners, p.112). This knowledge we have of her rather makes a mockery of her pretence to not understand or to know that the ‘scuffling and whispering’ is a hurried attempt by Mrs Donnelly to save her feelings.

Maria the Actress

Is Maria really so easily manipulated and moulded like clay by society for the convenience of society? Or is Maria moulding herself, playing the part of the victim and martyr in order that she will continue to be pitied and treated like a child? Kershner reports that ‘[Margot] Norris characterises the narrative voice as for the most part describing Maria “as she would like to catch somebody speaking about her to someone else,”’ (Kershner, p.106).

We know from the discussion of the Halloween game above that Maria is more aware than she pretends. And from the description of her ‘disappointed shyness’ we also know that she is capable of acting: she is apparently laughing whilst feeling disappointed, but is manipulative enough to either show her disappointment or else imagine that her disappointment shows. And are Maria’s various disappointments even real? After realising that the cake she buys on the way to Joe’s party is lost, she is on the verge of crying until she gets attention from Joe. The narrative is quick to point to any and every comment that is concerned with her: ‘the cook said you could see yourself in the big copper boilers’; ‘One day the matron had said to her: “Maria, you are a veritable peace-maker”’; ‘Everyone was so fond of Maria’ (Dubliners, p.110). But since the centre of attention in the story is also the consciousness of its narrator, how much is real and how much is her own projection? Kershner argues that there are other voices in the story which give clues to the reality of Maria’s situation, such as the ‘voice of the children who arrange the embarrassing game […] or of the gentlemanly drunkard in the tram’, and that these, less kind to Maria than others, demonstrate just how full of ‘explanation, excuse, periphrasis, and even denial’ her narrative is in ‘response to the chorus of critical voices that surround her’ (Kershner, p.110).

Maria the Forgotten

At the end of the story, Maria misses out a verse of the song she sings – a verse concerned with suitors, of whom we assume Maria has had none. The omission highlights the tragedy of Maria’s existence, and gives the justification for her self-obsession – for alone as she is, who else is there to be interested? Joe’s drunken emotions are plain: he has attempted to care this evening for the woman who cared for him as a child, but he realises, surrounded as he is by wife and children, that Maria will never have these things and he is overcome with emotion. In his overcome state, Joe’s next act is to simply ask his wife where the corkscrew is, because ‘his eyes filled up so much with tears that he could not find what he was looking for’ (Dubliners, p.118). This final simple act that seems so dismissive of her pain shows that all of Maria’s deceptions and self-deceptions; the mask of victimhood she wears and all her attempts at manipulation – her own attempts to create a fantasy world in which everyone really does love Maria, will only ever serve to gain her a short sentimental respite through the pity of others before she is once again forgotten when the metaphorical corkscrew is found.


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