Narrative Style and Character in James Joyce’s “Clay”
For many readers, one of the most appealing factors within literature is often the dynamic representation of character.The idiosyncrasies and appearance of characters are often depicted in great depth and presented with a particular bias in mind. The brief format of the short story does not allow for great lengths of detail to be included therefore, alternate writing styles are used.
James Joyce adopts the free and indirect narrative technique to present the story of Maria the suppressive spinster in his short story “Clay.” This particular approach influences the reader to sympathize with Joyce’s flawed character, while ironically pointing out the particular flaws and directing them towards Irish society.
Dubliners is a collection of short stories by James Joyce in which the author utilizes the everyday experiences and rituals of the Irish middle and lower class to publicize his disdain with the Irish society and the political views adopted by the Irish people at the time. “Clay” is no exception to this format.
The Character Maria is described as having witch-like physical features but with maternal and domestic virtues. The irony represented here is that while Maria is so purely maternal, she remains a spinster. Joyce provides the reader with a little more insight into the thoughts of Maria through her expressions of sexual frustration. Ginger Mooney’s toast to Maria receiving a ring this Halloween reveals a repressed desire for a man “Maria had to laugh and say she didn’t want any ring or any man either; and when she laughed her greygreen eyes
sparkled with disappointment” (pp181) The disappointment in her eyes suggests that she is emerged in a lifestyle in which she is not particularly happy-a sexual paralysis.
The reader is presented with a second example of Maria’s uncomfortable state of emotion, regarding her marital status, in the cake store. Maria blushes and smiles after being asked if she wanted to purchase wedding cake, as though the thought appealed to her.A final example of Maria’s sexual repression arises when she discovers that she has left the plum cake on the tram. Her conversation with the intoxicated gentleman causes her to be distracted.
She later recalls ” how confused the gentleman with the greyish moustache had made her, she colored with shame and vexation and disappointment” (pp182) The shame suggested here could simply indicate her feelings towards her absentmindedness however, Karen Lawrence Suggests it could also be construed as shame for having an interest in the man, which again suggests sexual repression. (Joyce And Feminism p.256 )
The character flaws are not directly stated. Joyce uses a free indirect discourse; the narrative assumes the language and rapport of Maria-“allowing a third person narrative to exploit a first person point of view”(Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms p87).
The narrative moves in and out of her consciousness. After the washer women settle in for their tea and Mooney proposes that Maria will receive a ring, “Ginger Mooney lifted up her mug of tea and proposed Maria’s health she knew that Mooney meant well though of course she had the notions of a common woman”. (pp181) The point of view is hidden within the narration. This technique allows the irony to be emphasized-what appears to be objective descriptions and
observations are really expressions of Maria’s personal bias.
She is assuming that Mooney is sincere in her premonition of Maria getting married. It does not occur to her that she is being ridiculed. The description of the Halloween game is another example of Maria’s version of life. As she blindly reaches for an object to signify her future, she finds death.
Maria’s version is more nave. Instead of realizing the significance of her choice, she simply assumes the commotion around her is signifying that she did something wrong and must choose again.
Joyce presents Maria’s constant naivete of her surrounding as a form of ignorance.Through the use of irony, Joyce illustrates the ignorance of Maria and applies her paralysis to the whole of Irish society.
The free indirect narrative style acts as a device to present the tale from Maria’s point of view however, the irony injected into discourse serves to criticize Maria and her state of paralysis. The free indirect discourse ties together the sympathy and irony of Maria’s character and the society she represents
Lawrence, Karen. Joyce and Feminism. New York: Oxford University
The Art Of Short Fiction. Clay pp178-185. Ontario:
Bal*censored*, Chris Concise Dictionary Of Literary Terms. New York: