Like literally every other short story ever published, “Clay” makes a strong old view value statement early on and then shows a new view reversal of that old view at the end. Let me demonstrate a three-step method that helps you analyze any short story using those concepts and that will help you get started writing literary essays:
#1- EARLY ON, STRONG STATEMENT: At the beginning of a short story, a strong value statement, an old view, is given by or about the main character, asserting an evaluation or describing some characteristic, goal, or desire.
The very first sentence identifies a goal or desire of the main character:
The matron had given her leave to go out as soon as the women’s tea was over and Maria looked forward to her evening out.
In the description of Maria’s getting ready to go out for the evening, as she’s preparing and serving tea for the women of the Dublin by Lamplight laundry, two strong old view value statements are made about two important characteristics of Maria,
- Maria, you are a veritable peace-maker!
- Mamma is mamma but Maria is my proper mother.
Because of the strength of the first old view value statement, we are given expectations of finding out how Maria was a strong-willed, clever, resourceful peace-maker, one who could bring peace to any troubled situation. And we expect from the second one to find out how she was Joe’s proper mother in all the idealistic ways that the phrase suggests.
#2-IN MIDDLE, SUPPORTING/UNDERCUTTING: In the middle of a short story, the old view is supported or undercut with descriptions, conflicts, and resolutions that set up the new view at the end.
DESCRIPTION: Many descriptions occur throughout the story that undercut the old views, so we’ll have to zero in on those with the clearest impact on the old view – new view relationship in the story.
In the beginning of the story, there’s a mixture of short descriptions of Maria’s character, her past, her plan for her trip to Joe’s house that evening, her relationship to Joe and Alphy as their nursing maid and nanny, how Joe and Alphy got Maria her the job at the laundry, Joe and Alphy’s presently strained relationship, the happenings at tea time, and Maria’s thoughts while dressing to get ready for her evening out.
During the tea-time meal, Lizzie Fleming said Maria was sure to get the ring and, though Fleming had said that for so many Hallow Eves, 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.
Since Lizzie had said, Maria was sure to get the ring… for so many Hallow Eves, it is plain that Lizzie had long wanted for Maria to get the ring, get a man, and get married. So did Maria. Though Maria says she didn’t want any ring or man either, her laughing with disappointed shyness says otherwise. She always wanted to be a proper mother, to raise her own family, but she never quite got the chance of getting married, which would have made that possible.
And what’s up with the description of Maria’s laughing and the tip of her nose nearly met the tip of her chin, which occurs again two sentences later, as well as at Joe’s house, when she’s being blindfolded to play another fortunetelling game? It must be important, though it’s not clear how. Maybe it just emphasizes her disappointed shyness about her relationships with men and her feelings about wanting to get married.
Right after Lizzie Fleming’s prediction, Then Ginger Mooney lifted her mug of tea and proposed Maria’s health while all the other women clattered with their mugs on the table, and said she was sorry she hadn’t a sup of porter to drink it in.
This description is important to bear in mind at the end of the story. I’ll bring it up in my discussion about the story’s ending, later.
CONFLICT: In the beginning, it was clear that Maria was always sent for when the women quarreled.
RESOLUTION: Why? Because she talked always soothingly: ‘Yes, my dear,’ and No, my dear.’ It was Maria’s soothing niceness, her way of passive peacemaking, which always resolved conflicts at the Dublin by Lamplight, not any cleverness of persuasion or strength of personality that earned her the status of veritable peace-maker.
CONFLICT: In the middle of the story, when Maria went to a downtown pastry shop on Henry Street, the stylish young lady behind the counter, who was evidently a little annoyed by her, asked her was it wedding-cake she wanted to buy. That made Maria blush and smile at the young lady; but the young lady took it all very seriously.
RESOLUTION: Maria’s solution to the little conflict-she blushed and smiled. Her soothing didn’t really solve the conflict, but it did smooth it over. More passive niceness.
CONFLICT: Near the end of the story, the girls couldn’t find a nutcracker for Maria and Joe got upset about it.
RESOLUTION: Maria nicely said she didn’t like nuts and they weren’t to bother about her. Again, passive soothing, not solving.
CONFLICT: When Joe and his wife tried to push beer and wine on her, Maria tried to refuse.
RESOLUTION: … but Joe insisted. So Maria let him have his way.
Once again, Maria solved a conflict by being nice and passively giving in to others, just smoothing things over.
CONFLICT: Maria thought she would put in a good word for Alphy. But Joe cried that God might strike him stone dead if ever he spoke a word to his brother again.
RESOLUTION: Instead of being a proper mother and a peace-maker with her ‘children,’ Joe and Alphy, Maria said she was sorry she had mentioned the matter. As she noted earlier in thinking about the Joe-Alphy conflict, but such was life, and Maria certainly was too passive and not peace-maker enough to resolve the situation.
#3-AT END, A NEW VIEW REVERSAL. At the end of a short story, a new view reverse of the old view is usually revealed.
When Maria gets to Joe’s, there’s another Irish fortune-telling game (called Puicíní: “poocheeny”). In the game, a blindfolded person is seated in front of a table on which several saucers are placed. The saucers are shuffled, and the blindfolded, seated person then chooses one by touch. The contents of the chosen saucer supposedly foretell the person’s life during the following year: water meant travel, a prayer book meant the priesthood or a nunnery, and a ring meant marriage.
In being blindfolded to play this game, Maria laughed and laughed again till the tip of her nose nearly met the tip of her chin-more evidence of the disappointed shyness we saw earlier. At first, her hand touched a soft wet substance with her fingers… Somebody said something about the garden… Mrs. Donnelly said… that was no play… Maria understood that it was wrong that time and so she had to do it over again: and this time she got the prayer-book.
As just one happening of the evening, just a game, the incident seems innocent enough. But what is soft and wet and comes from the garden? Clay, which is the title of the story. And clay is soft and passive and moldable by whatever pressures it. Doesn’t that describe Maria?
Where’s the strong veritable peace-maker or the proper mother who molds others, who directs and guides and blesses her children through thick and thin? This incident is a strong undercutting of those old views and reminds us of her indecision in buying cakes downtown and chatting with the stout gentleman on the tram, where all she could do was favor him with demure nods and hems.
And she gets the prayerbook in the game, not the ring. That’s appropriate for Maria because, as Joyce shows us time and again, she truly can’t handle much of anything else.
The strongest suggestion of Maria never getting a man and never, therefore, having the chance to be a proper mother, is when she sings a song at Joe’s request at the very end. The song brings to mind Maria’s life compared to the life of the woman whose words she is singing. The song was, “I Dreamed that I Dwelt,” and two lines in the song remind us of the women at tea time: And of all who assembled within those walls, That I was the hope and the pride.
You’ll recall that at tea time Ginger Mooney lifted her mug of tea and proposed Maria’s health while all the other women clattered with their mugs on the table.
That kind of clattering with their mugs on the table is probably also very like how those in the song would express That I was the hope and the pride, when they assembled within those walls. Where else would they assemble to express such hope and pride except in a banquet hall? Feasts and banquets would be the natural setting, and the rich feasters would, no doubt, toast the rich woman Of a high ancestral name with clattering and banging their mugs on the table, just as the poor, unwed mothers of the laundry did at tea time for their nice, poor friend, Maria.
The song was about a woman with riches and a high ancestral name. And the woman in the song felt That you loved me still the same, referring to some rich man, no doubt. Of course, that was the exact opposite or reverse of practically penniless Maria, who, blushing very much as she began singing, was very much aware that she was very poor, worked in a laundry for unwed mothers, and couldn’t even handle a common conversation with a common man on a tram without losing her wits and her plum cake.
At the story’s end, Joyce suggests once again that Maria is, in fact, the new view reverse of a strong-willed peace-maker with persuasive powers for solving conflicts, which the women of the laundry believed she was. As to being my proper mother, Maria’s letting Joe manipulate her so many times-past and present-actually show that she had not even been a strongsubstitute mother, let alone a “proper mother.”
The fact is, Maria’s entire character-as developed more fully in the middle and end of the story-is the new view reverse of the two strong character descriptions given at the beginning. Maria is actually as weak and passive and moldable and non-propagating (not giving of life, as a proper mother would be) as the title of the story suggests: She was lifeless, passive, moldable clay. Perfect fit.
Based on our discussion, here are some sample thesis statements to give you a few ideas for writing a strong essay on Joyce’s short story, “Clay:”
- Joyce’s story “Clay” shows us the theme that, ‘Anyone who gives up too many personal choices to others can become sterile, unproductive, and incapable of controlling their own lives.’
- Joyce shows with Maria in his story “Clay” that society may think we are one way, when we are, ironically, exactly the opposite.
- James Joyce’s “Clay” provides ample evidence in little conflicts throughout the story that Maria lacks the strength others think she has as a peace-maker and a proper mother, especially at the end.
- The short story “Clay,” by James Joyce, uses imagery in descriptions at the beginning, middle, and end to hint of Maria’s true character of weak, moldable clay, not strength.
- “Clay” by James Joyce uses symbolism in the story’s title, in the holiday games, and in the song at the end to show that Maria is weak, not strong, and that she’s not what she’s labeled as being by her friends.