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Symbolism in "Clay" by James Joyce

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James Joyce’s “Clay” is a remarkable explication of Irish folklore and the societal issues that plague turn-of-the-century Dublin. Following Maria on the night of Halloween, the story combines imagery and symbolism throughout. In S. A. Cowan’s article “Celtic Folklore in ‘Clay’: Maria and the Irish Washerwoman,” the central character is portrayed not as witch, as many critics have assumed, but rather a combination of three Celtic spirits: the banshee, the bean-nighe, and the glaistig (214). Though Cowan agrees with critics that Maria possesses witch-like qualities, he asserts that the main character in “Clay” more closely resembles these three spirits. Cowan points out that Maria is a “‘very, very small person indeed’ that ‘wears tiny dress boots'” and that Joyce’s description of her mirrors the Scottish definition of a banshee as “‘having the appearance of a small child’; at others as ‘a small or very little woman…'” (214). Cowan cites that Irish tradition regards the bean-nighe as a “washerwoman…Her appearance is regarded as a warning of death…” and that this comparison to Maria in “Clay” is apparent in her employment (214). Finally, Cowan defines the Scottish glaistig “‘like the banshee…has a peculiarly dolorous tone of voice…'” and cites Maria’s “‘tiny quavering voice'” to support the claim (214). In the conclusion of the article, Cowan reveals perhaps the most important element of the article: Maria is “an archetypal and mythical figure of the Poor Old Woman-Ireland herself-ironically singing a prophetic and dolorous song of her own death” (215). The article concludes with the idea that Joe symbolically rejects Ireland when he rejects Maria’s request to reconcile with his brother Alphy.

Though Cowan’s work is brilliantly insightful and well thought out, the author neglects to delve into the heart of “Clay.” Maria as a personification of Ireland is perhaps the most significant topic Cowan brings to light in relation to Joyce’s over-all attitude towards turn-of-the-century Dublin, yet the article barely scratches the surface of the metaphor that is Maria. James Joyce uses “Clay” as a microcosm of Ireland, both through the representation of Maria and the characterization of Joe.

Cowan claims that Maria’s size and employment are a reference to Celtic spirits, and while this point is valid, Maria’s physicality and place of work can be better explained by her resemblance to Ireland. As Cowan points out, the mythical references to Maria in “Clay” as a spiritual and “otherworldly” character seem to allude to Ireland’s folkloric background. Cowan comments on Maria’s size and employment in reference to Celtic spirits. The article mentions that “On the tram her toes barely touch the floor” and that “Maria’s stature” parallels the Scottish banshee, known for its tiny size, and the “washerwoman” implication is related to the bean nighe spirit (214). However, Joyce’s description of Maria’s “minute body” and her immodest reflection that “In spite of its years she found it a nice tidy little body” (Joyce 101) could imply a weak or frail frame, as opposed to implications of spiritual likeness. This description of Maria, when considering her personification of Ireland, could represent the weak or frail state of the country. Joyce often writes of the spiritual paralysis of the citizens of Dublin, indicating a weakness of moral and ethical values within its society. Joyce also often analyzes the frailty of religion in Ireland, and notes that many of its inhabitants are immobilized in their faith. Joyce’s criticism of the paralytic nature of Dubliners could be represented by Maria’s small physique.

Throughout the story, indications of Maria’s career are prevalent and if “Clay” is a microcosm of Ireland, and Maria represents Ireland itself, her occupation is more indicative of Joyce’s proposed paralysis of the country than any spiritual parallelism found in the story. Cowan dismisses Maria’s employment references as evidence that Maria’s character is parallel to the spiritual glaistigs, “‘amateur laundresses, washing the family linen'” and the bean-nighe, “‘the washing-woman’, whose legend has been immortalized by Fiona MacLeod…in his gruesome tale The Washer at the Ford” (Cowan 214). Though justifiable, Maria’s job more significantly symbolizes Ireland. Joyce writes that she “had become accustomed to the life of the laundry” and when thinking of Joe, Maria remarks, “the boys had got her that position in the Dublin by Lamplight laundry” (100). Joyce himself wrote in a letter to his brother Stanislaus in November 1906 “The phrase Dublin by Lamplight means that Dublin by lamplight is a wicked place full of wicked and lost women whom a kindly committee gathers together for the good work of washing my dirty shirts” (Scholes 474). This stance on Maria’s place of employment and habitat is indicative of Joyce’s criticism of the country’s stagnant and paralytic society. Within almost all of his stories contained in Dubliners lies the undercurrent of Joyce’s disparagement for Ireland and many characters throughout the book are portrayed as immoral. The mere fact that Maria works as a laundress is suggestive of her representation of the country.

If Maria is a personification of Ireland, than the character of Joe must be read as a depiction of Ireland’s inhabitants, particularly the citizens of Dublin. Cowan lightly broaches this idea, but fails to investigate with vigor. His article proposes that “Joe’s refusal to heed Maria’s advice to be reconciled with Alphy…[is] symbolically equivalent to a refusal…on his part to respond the traditional Celtic spiritual influence” (215). Furthermore, Cowan concedes, “Joe would be rejecting Christian intercession as well” (215).

While compelling, this assertion of Joe as a symbolic reference to Ireland’s folklore neglects to uncover the true denotation of his character. Joe is in fact a representation of the immobilized Dubliner Joyce so emphatically portrays in his brilliant collection of short stories. The character traits Joe exhibits in “Clay” are demonstrative of the paralysis of spirit often seen in Dubliners. Maria thinks of Joe while shopping for the party and “she hoped that Joe wouldn’t come in drunk. He was so different when he took any drink” (Joyce 100). When Maria finally arrives at the Donnelly home, Joe is already in spirits, though not the ones Cowan refers to. He “asked would she [Maria] take a bottle of stout,” and although Maria declined, “Joe insisted” (Joyce 104). He “asked his wife to open some more stout,” continuing to drink himself into a stupor. When Maria finishes singing, Joe is so moved by her words that “he could not find what he was looking for” and asks his wife “to tell him where the corkscrew was” (Joyce 106). All the mentions of alcohol reiterate Joyce’s distain for the numbing affects the substance has on the citizens of Ireland. Joe is a character driven by his want to be drunk, paralyzing his spirit.

Another implication of Joe as the typical Dubliner is his stubborn and brash persona. Maria adamantly tries to reconcile Joe and Alphy, much to her dismay. Joe “cried that God might strike him stone dead if ever he spoke a word to his brother again” (Joyce 104). Here Joe illustrates his obstinacy when he refuses to reunite with his brother. And the mere harshness with which he refutes Maria’s request to make peace with his own flesh and blood is a manifestation of his cold-blooded nature. Both traits are indicative of Joe’s paralysis of spirit, thus emblematically portraying him as a sort of “everyman” in Dublin.

Though Cowan’s article shed new light on the implications of Maria and Joe, the core of “Clay” was only briefly discussed, almost as if an afterthought. It is relevant and valid that the two characters are linked to Irish folklore, but it is the reality of their symbolism that is overlooked in the article. The story is a microcosm of Ireland, Maria signifying the country itself and Joe symbolizing its paralytic inhabitants.

Works Cited

Cowan, S.A. “Celtic Folklore in ‘Clay’: Maria and the Irish Washerwoman.” Studies in Short Fiction 6 (1969): 213-15.

Joyce, James. “Clay.” Dubliners:Text, Criticism, and Notes. Ed. Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz. New York: Penguin Group, 1996. 99-106.

Scholes, Robert and A. Walton Litz, eds.”Notes to the Stories.” Dubliners:Text, Criticism, and Notes. New York: Penguin Group, 1996. 473-475.

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Symbolism in “Clay” by James Joyce. (2018, May 27). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 6, 2021, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/clay-a-microcosm-for-ireland/
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Symbolism in “Clay” by James Joyce. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/clay-a-microcosm-for-ireland/> [Accessed 6 Mar. 2021].
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