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James Joyce's Dubliners: Eveline, An Encounter, Clay Analysis of Sexuality
James Joyce wrote a collection of short stories entitled, Dubliners . Within this collection, there are three stories that share a common theme of resistance or fear concerning adult sexuality. In “Clay,” an aging woman is loved by many, yet, has not found romantic love. This story is not about searching for love, but never finding it; rather, “Clay” describes a woman, Maria, who is afraid of change. Similarly, Joyce’s story, “Eveline,” is about a woman that is resistant to get married due to overwhelming feelings. Through concrete images, Joyce shows us the pressure that causes his characters to feel reluctant. In “An Encounter,” the main character is a young boy who, when talking to an older man, feels uncomfortable discussing “sweethearts.” All three of these stories have themes of resistance toward adult sexuality and romantic love. This essay attempts to analyze the ideas and images to show this common idea and attempt to analyze the images that prove the characters’ reluctance to find romantic love.
In “Clay,” Maria is a hardworking woman that has helped to raise many children. Every year, a family she is close to invites her to their house for Hallows Eve. There, they play an Irish game where they blindfold someone who then picks up an object off of the floor that will symbolically describe their future. There is a ring, which symbolizes marriage, but Maria says, “she didn’t want any ring or man either” (“Clay” 2). When it is her turn to pick up an object, “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” (“Clay” 4). She picked up a piece of clay that a child had placed on the floor. The image of clay (known as the origin and end of human life in biblical scriptures and other references) symbolizes death.
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Although Joyce chooses to use the theme of youth in “Clay” to contrast with Maria’s old age, he uses young age in “Eveline” and “An Encounter” in a different way. Eveline’s father was abusive to her and her brothers when they were young, which could have caused her to feel be overwhelmed with marriage and adult sexuality. In “An Encounter,” the young boy talks to an older stranger that discusses the “sweethearts” he had at his age. The boy feels awkward when discussing relationships with girls:
Then he asked us which of us had the most sweethearts. Mahony mentioned lightly that he had three totties. The man asked me how many I had. I answered that I had none. He did not believe me and said he was sure I must have one. I was silent…His attitude on this point struck me as strangely liberal in a man of his age. In my heart I thought that what he said about boys and sweethearts was reasonable. But I disliked the words in his mouth and I wondered why he shivered once or twice as if he feared something or felt a sudden chill. (“An Encounter” 5)
The narrator is reluctant to talk about sweethearts. He is able to believe that having sweethearts is “reasonable,” but does not seem to trust this man very much. Joyce is using this scene to show the boy’s resistance to discuss adult sexuality.
Joyce’s characters in “Clay,” “An Encounter” and “Eveline” are all afraid of becoming engaged in or even discussing adult sexuality or romantic relationships. In “Clay,” Maria begins to sing “I Dreamt that I Dwelt,” from The Bohemian Girl , and “when she came to the second verse she sang again” (“Clay” 4), the first stanza. The image of her repeating the stanza shows that she has been living in repetition. The verses she sings are about wealth and power, but the part that she omits is a far more important image in this work.
Joyce has used songs from The Bohemian Girl in many of his works. Within “Clay,” it is a powerful image that shows Maria’s reluctance to sing about adult love. The stanzas that she omits show that there is an absence of love between her and a man although she is loved by so many in the family. Maria withdraws herself from the realm of adult sexuality similar to other characters in Joyce’s collection, Dubliners . In the story, “Eveline,” the main character is trapped like Maria; they both have difficulty becoming adults. While Maria feels overwhelming pressure on the tram, Eveline feels this on the boat: “All the seas of the world tumbles about her heart. He was drawing her into them: he would drown her. She gripped with both hands at the iron railing” (“Eveline” 4). Eveline felt pressure not to marry from her father, who abused her when she was younger. She becomes overwhelmed with these pressures and chooses not to marry the sailor. The Bohemian Girl is also an image in “Eveline.” When she and her fiancé go to see it, she sings along, but “when he [her fiancé] sang about the lass that loves a sailor, she always felt pleasantly confused” (“Eveline” 3). Because of the relationship with her father, she becomes reluctant to grow up and give herself to adult, sexual love. The last lines of the story show how far this reluctance pushes her: “She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of farewell or recognition” (“Eveline” 4). Eveline’s fear of change and commitment made her throw away marriage.
James Joyce attempts to show us the lifestyle of these characters that are afraid to participate, discuss or commit to romantic, adult relationships. Joyce illustrates that these feelings are not specific to any age group. Maria is a middle-aged or older woman, Eveline is young and the boy in “An Encounter” is still in school. All three of them feel resistant to change, commitment or love. Through these characters and the themes surrounding them, Joyce is showing his readers that we should not be afraid of adult interactions—that we should accept and welcome change, lest we end up like the solitary lump of clay.
Joyce, James. “An Encounter.” Dubliners. Project Gutenburg. 1914.
---. “Clay.” Dubliners. Project Gutenburg. 1914.
---. “Eveline.” Dubliners. Project Gutenburg. 1914.