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Dubliners | Clay | Summary

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Summary

When she was young, Maria worked as a wet nurse for a well-off family with two sons, Joe and Alphy. When Joe and Alphy grow up, they help her get a job at the Protestant-run Dublin by Lamplight laundry, where she serves as a kind of supervisor. The women at the laundry like Maria, and the laundry's Board respects her ability to keep the peace among all the laundry workers.

On Hallow Eve, Maria is eager to finish her work because she is to attend a party hosted by Joe and his wife, Mrs. Donnelly. The laundry women tease Maria, saying they hope she "get[s] the ring," then they toast to her good health. After dinner, Maria changes into her best clothing and takes the tram into town, thinking "how much better it was to be independent and to have your own money in your pocket." She visits a bakery and buys a bag of small cakes for the children at the party, then she decides to buy a special treat for Joe and his wife. She goes to a second bakery where the woman behind the counter sarcastically asks if Maria wants to buy a wedding cake. Maria buys a large slice of plum cake and returns to the tram.

On the tram, an older gentleman makes room for Maria to sit and chats with her about the rainy weather and Hallow Eve. She thanks him for his kindness as she leaves the tram to walk to Joe's house. When Maria arrives, everyone makes a fuss about greeting her, and the children thank her for their cakes. Maria is unable to locate the plum cake, and Mrs. Donnelly concludes Maria probably left it on the tram. Maria is so disappointed she almost cries. Then Joe invites her to sit by the fire with him. He tells her about work and offers her a bottle of stout, while Mrs. Donnelly entertains the children at the piano. Maria does not want a drink but she accepts it because Joe insists. Then Maria accidentally piques Joe's temper when she mentions Alphy, as the brothers are not on speaking terms, but the moment passes. Joe has another drink.

The children play a party game in which a blindfolded person chooses a gift from a table. One of the neighbor girls gets the ring, and Mrs. Donnelly teases her about it. They include Maria in the game and blindfold her. Maria puts her hand on "a soft wet substance." The room becomes silent, and nobody removes Maria's blindfold. Mrs. Donnelly scolds the neighbor girl for putting the lump of clay into the game and makes her throw it out. Maria picks again and gets a prayer book. Then they play more music, and Joe gives Maria a glass of wine. Mrs. Donnelly predicts the prayer book is a sign Maria will go to a convent within the year. As the party winds down, Joe asks Maria to sing a song from his childhood. Maria sings, and Joe is moved to tears.

Analysis

Maria represents the fate Eveline and Polly fear: spinsterhood. Past their mid-twenties, unmarried women in the 18th and 19th centuries were considered unmarriageable burdens on their families, destined to a life of financial dependence on some relative. Such women, having never married and thus being unwise to the ways of the world, were also considered unfit for many of the heavier matronly duties of the household. Maria is unusual in both respects. She was able to nurse two boys, meaning she was pregnant at some point in her life and able to give milk. And although she does not work in the laundry, she is very serviceable in the kitchen, doing the hard work of scrubbing the pots and resolving quarrels between the ladies. Maria is almost certainly in the worst of all spinsterhood conditions: a fallen woman, someone who has given birth out of wedlock and who has therefore been abandoned by her family and ostracized by the Catholic church.

This fact seems at odds with other things we know about Maria, such as the fact that she finds the matron of the laundry house to be "such a nice person to deal with, so genteel," or the fact that she despises alcohol. Several times, the narrator points out an odd facial feature when she laughs, that "the tip of her nose nearly met the tip of her chin," and mentions her small stature, or "diminutive body." She is confused by the older gentleman on the tram as well as by the rude behavior of the shop girls, and her brother and sister-in-law appear overly solicitous of her. All of this suggests that Maria may be mentally retarded, she may suffer from a form of dwarfism, or both. The references to the "dummy who had charge of the irons" and "the cook and the dummy" suggest she is not the only such disabled person in the Protestant laundry, a charitable house for the disabled and the fallen.

When one of the laundry workers tells Maria she will "get the ring" at the Hallow Eve party, she is referencing a traditional game in which participants are blindfolded and draw gifts from a bag or a table. One of the typical gifts is a ring, which is supposed to indicate an upcoming marriage for the person who draws it. The comment is good-natured, and like other similar comments, serves to reinforce the impossibility of marriage for Maria.

In general Maria appears content with her lot in life. She lives simply, but she is well liked by everyone who knows her. The women in the laundry are friendly with her, and Maria has a family in Joe's wife and children. Maria has little in the way of material wealth, but her kindness has earned her human connections that sustain her socially and emotionally. Unlike so many others in Dubliners, Maria shows no sign of wanting to escape from her life. She is eager to get out of the laundry for the party, but she sets her alarm clock for church the next morning, planning to return in the evening and feeling no bitterness about it. She does not like to drink, a common escape for characters in other stories. Her internal thoughts indicate contentment with her independence rather than a yearning for another lifestyle.

Despite Maria's kindness and calm, when she does play the Hallow Eve party game, the results are gloomy. She draws a lump of clay, considered an omen of death in the game. Mrs. Donnelly is angry with the girl who put the clay into the game for this reason; it is supposed to be a happy occasion. Maria draws again and gets a prayer book, but Joe and Mrs. Donnelly are already affected by the clay incident. Joe becomes tearful when Maria sings, because she accidentally sings the first verse twice, but the verse tells of happiness in family, friends, riches, and love. Maria in her imbecilic state is quite possibly the happiest character in the collection, a telling fact in itself.

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