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La fabrique du genre

Claude Le Fustec
Sophie Marret

Chapitre II. Au-delà du genre

“The Notions of a Common Woman”: Play and “No Play” in “Clay”

Claudine Raynaud

Texte intégral

  • 1 I am using the following edition : James Joyce, Dubliners, Roberts Scholes and A. Walton Litz (eds. (...)
  • 2 Norris distinguishes two meanings of the word : “Significance as an experience of psychological imp (...)

1Joyce’s short story “Clay” in Dubliners has attracted an unusual number of interpretations and has been the object of at least three major thorough rereadings : Margot Norris’s in Joyce’s Web, Garry Leonard’s in his Lacanian reading of the collection, Reading Dubliners Again, and Derek Attridge’s in Joyce Effects1. Broadly speaking, Margot Norris focuses on Maria’s “insignificance” and insists on the double meaning of the word by showing how the narration, in Maria’s image, is blindfolded and how the text effects an ideological critique2. Garry Leonard, for his part, seeks to read the short story through the concepts of Lacanian lack and the veiled phallus. He consequently sees Joe as the failing male figure while reinvesting something of the castrating female in the character of Maria. As for Derek Attridge, he is chiefly concerned with mimicry, as the language of the text pretends to reproduce “speech” and leaves the reader unable to answer the questions that it raises. The text remains open, no matter how hard the critic tries to press meaning into or out of it. The effects of the closure of meaning, such as the allegorical reading of Maria as the Virgin Mary or as the Wicked Witch, are critical gestures. Seductive, yet fraudulent ploys, they are decoys that ultimately leave the reader pondering the question of the referent.

  • 3 Maria has been seen as an allegory of the Blessed Virgin or Poor Old Woman or even Mother Ireland. (...)
  • 4 In an earlier version, the story was entitled “Christmas Eve” then “Hallow Eve” and Joyce refers to (...)

2Any critic goes through the ritual of the imperfect summary of the text. On the surface, “Clay” is the story of a spinster, a woman who will never “marry” and whose name is ironically “Maria” as paronomasia insists throughout the text on foregrounding marriage while thematically demonstrating its sclerosis3. Like Eveline, she is doomed to remain an old maid, having looked after two brothers, Joe and Alphy Donnelly, until she was past marriageable age. A substitute mother, she will never have children. She now works in a laundry for reformed prostitutes in an all female surrounding. The story takes place on the evening of All Saints Day, Hallow Eve4. It begins with Maria and the women at the Dublin by Lamplight establishment having tea, takes the reader with Maria on an errand to buy cakes for the party, then on the tram where she chats with an elderly gentleman and culminates at the Donnelly’s in a fortune-telling game with their children and two next-door girls. Maria, blindfolded, is brought into the game and must choose between several saucers to find out her destiny. After she touches a “soft wet substance” that one of the girls next-door has placed in the saucers alongside the ring, the water and the prayer-book, she is asked to repeat the game and, that time, she gets the prayer-book. The end of the short story has her sing from The Bohemian Girl in front of the family. She forgets the verse that speaks about suitors and courtship and sings the first verse twice. The text closes on Joe reminiscing about the good old times and, his eyes full of tears, looking for a corkscrew that he asks his wife to help him find.

  • 5 Attrige owns : “The assumption that we can identify a ‘narrator’or a ‘narrative voice’– which impli (...)
  • 6 Maria’s inadequacy is evident in the tram : her feet do not touch the floor when she sits. Her smal (...)

3Most readings, yielding to the temptation of the reality effect that the text produces, try to invest the character with a lifelike psychology. At times, the same treatment extends to the narrative voice that produces the central irony of the text5. While “Maria” is presented through free indirect speech as the object of some affection (“Everyone was so fond of Maria” [100]), the text repeatedly contradicts this projection : she is cut off from the others and her repeated failures belie what she professes6. Hence the question might not be so much to find out who the “real” Maria is or to “identify” with precision a “narrative voice” that produces the undercutting constitutive of Maria’s self-delusion. Can one assume with Garry Leonard, for instance, that the narrator is male ? As Derek Attridge shows, it is precisely the relation between word and referent that the text displays in its discrepancies. Language exposes its frailty – one of the many connotations of clay – in the apparent story of this old maid’s insignificance. Yet it also exhibits its function as the conduit of desire.

  • 7 Margot Norris makes clear that the reader is caught into becoming a double of the character : “‘Cla (...)
  • 8 See Jean-Michel Rabaté, James Joyce. L’œuvre de Joyce ou la trame de la vie. Essai. Paris : Hachett (...)

4The thematics of misplaced and lost objects, together with the several mistakes that Maria makes, as well as the prank the children play on her, point towards the construction of language itself and foreground the workings of the unconscious of the text. Thus any attempt to tell what the story is about fails whereas looking for textual clues and paying attention to what language does might help understand the reader’s frustration. Moreover, the reader’s vexation echoes the character’s failure (“the failure of her little surprise” [104]), Maria’s “disappointment” after the hopeful opening where she “looked forward to her evening out” (99)7. The double movement of anticipation and deflation, the constant use of a genteel language to cover a shabby reality, create the rhythm of the narrative. They also parallel the motion of interpretation that needs to go through constant readjustments – reading can only happen retroactively, retrospectively – while “Maria” as a character is embroiled in increasingly glaring inadequacies. And she is not the only one, as the coda of the text makes clear. Joe also errs. Indeed, through their cumulative effect, these disjunctions work towards an effacement of the “character” to expose, if not the disappearance of meaning, at least its ultimate fortuitous construction8. The narrative voice and the reader also blunder in the process : the former gives clues yet retains so much of Maria’s speech that the text contradicts itself while the latter tries to decipher what is going on, yet is led to become Maria’s double and to err with her. The specular relationship between narration and character that explains the difficulty of interpretation is worded by Margot Norris as follows : “The narration of ‘Clay’is ‘clay’– in the sense that it is a polite circumlocution that eradicates the dirt and squalor of Maria’s life, and thereby replicates her own effort as a slavey. ‘Clay’names and exhibits the work of a rhetorical scullion” (134).

  • 9 Garry Leonard states : “There is a polymorphous dimension to Maria and Joe’s relationship that lend (...)
  • 10 On Joyce and marriage, see Richard Brown, James Joyce and Sexuality, Cambridge, Cambridge Universit (...)

5Derek Attridge owns that the fact that Maria is a woman makes for a special kind of self-delusion and that a male character, such as the colonel-looking gentleman, would have to devise other strategies to con the others and himself to save his face in society (45, note 14). Looking at the grain of the text might help us see how sexual difference, the discrepancy between the two sexes which lead Lacan to state that there was no sexual relation (“Il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel ”), is played out in this story9. Joe and Maria – an avatar of Joseph and Mary from the New Testament and an apt model for Lacan’s proposition – form an unlikely couple who, together and individually, displays its shortcomings in a world that fails it. If marriage is the theme of the story, Maria’s failure to achieve that state and Joe’s illusory happiness with it weave the surface narrative of a deeper disjunction between the sexes that is constitutive of language10. The spinster is shown blundering over and over again and the male protagonists either do not see her or themselves falter : Maria is invisible to the young men on the tram and both the “colonel-looking gentleman” and Joe are tipsy. Neither man could marry her : Joe is already married and is positioned as her child, and the “gentleman” is too old. Added to the paronomasia that links “Maria” to “marry”, the homophony between “marry” and “merry” (“soon everything was merry again” [104] ; “she was delighted to see the children so merry” [104] ; “soon they were all quite merry again” [104], italics mine) ironically undercuts the culturally promoted equation of marriage with happiness. The reader is left to doubt that Maria actually takes part in this collective “merry-making.” A glib and global appreciation of the situation and an expression of wishful thinking, these words could be Maria’s and not the narrator’s. She would then be commenting on what goes on from the outside. Indeed Maria laughs when she is most ill at ease. Her laughter is the symptom of her embarrassment : it translates her discomfort with conformity as a cover up for sexuality.

Uncut/cut : woman as “not all”

  • 11 The “Nausicaa” episode in Ulysses and in Finnegans Wake, the Anna Livia Plurabelle chapter (I, 8) a (...)
  • 12 As has been noted by critics, a permanent and always imminent reversal between “parole vide and “p (...)

6Maria is a scullery maid in a Dublin laundry where former prostitutes wash people’s dirty linen, a motif that Joyce takes up throughout his œuvre11. Maria’s control over the world, her efforts at creating order and harmony, from the irreproachable cleanliness of the kitchen to her role as peace-maker between the prostitutes, to nursing the brothers Donnelly as if she were their “proper” mother, and finally to dutifully visiting the Donnellys, are put to task throughout the story. Not only is the world not as harmonious as she wishes it to be but language’s slipperiness betrays her. ”Nice” and “genteel” are words that she repeats like an incantation to describe the people around her and what happens to her, creating hollow language12. Her initial interior monologue contains no less than five occurrences of the word : “What a nice evening they would have, all the children singing !” (100) ; “Joe’s wife was ever so nice with her” (100) ; “she thought [Protestants] were very nice people, a little quiet and serious, but still very nice people to live with” (100) ; “the matron was such a nice person to deal with, so genteel” (100). Later, the gentleman she meets on the tram is “very nice with her” (103) and so is Joe when she is at the party (104). In November 13, 1906, Joyce wrote to his brother Sanislaus :

The meaning of Dublin by Lamplight Laundry ? That is the name of the laundry at Ballsbridge, of which the story treats. It is run by a society of Protestant spinsters, widows and childless women – I expect – as a Magdalen’s home. 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. I like the phrase because ‘it is a gentle way of putting it’” (279, italics mine).

7Joyce’s own variant of the term “genteel” explains how words are used as screens to protect from the real. At the end of the day, the character of Maria is being spoken about, spoken to, more than speaking. Language speaks her. The “dummy” figures the ultimate limit of her paltry polite repartees : “Yes, my dear, and No, my dear” (99). Nameless, she stands in for both muteness and stupidity. Indeed, Maria protects the dummy from the violence of the prostitutes : “And Ginger Mooney was always saying what she wouldn’t do to the dummy who had charge of the irons if it wasn’t for Maria” (99-100). Maria’s unexpected silence when she touches clay in the divination game and waits for things to be straightened out marks another limit of her engagement as a speaking subject. Her specific relationship to language and silence is reinforced by the fact that the two brothers are no longer on “speaking terms” and that she intervenes yet fails to bring them to reconciliation on the night of the party.

  • 13 Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose (eds.), Feminine Sexuality. Jacques Lacan and the École freudie (...)

8Together with the word “nice” whose omnipresence highlights the hollowness of Maria’s speech, “cake” is the most recurrent “object” in the narration. After the initial mention of the four barmbracks, Maria buys penny cakes for the children and a slice of plumcake for Joe and his wife. The first mention of “cake” underlines Maria’s perfectionism. She has cut the cakes so evenly that they look as if they were “uncut”, i.e. whole : “These barmbracks seemed uncut” (99). The cake, any cake, as becomes clear, is what stands in for “Maria” as an objective correlative, a “part” that represents the whole (“womanhood”) in a metonymic relationship constructed through the narrative by the various occurrences of the word. The confusion between “cake” and Maria is achieved by the use of the adjective “long” to first describe the slices of cake (99) and then to qualify Maria’s nose and chin : the three of them are “long”. Moreover, the uncut/cut cake figures an imaginary state of wholeness that is lost yet nostalgically fantasised as not having taken place while being de facto there. The hesitation between uncut/cut calls up castration as what has not occurred and yet is always-already there. Thus the invisible slicing of the cake spells the ineluctability of castration and its repression. It places the question of castration and consequently of sexual difference at the heart of the workings of the text. For the little boy, castration is a narcissistic wound ; from then on, he experiences difficulty with his wholeness and feels deprecated. At the same time it is where the boy-child most discovers himself. Rereading Freud in light of linguistics, Lacan insists that out of both sexual organs, only one will be taken into account for both sexes, the male one. The phallus is the signifier that symbolizes the penis ; the phallus, in turn, functions as a consequence of lack, a substitute. What incidence does this have on woman’s definition ? As Jacqueline Rose states in her introduction to Feminine Sexuality : “In relation to the man, woman comes to stand for difference and loss : ‘On the one hand, woman is produced by what he is not, that is, sexual difference, and on the other, as what he has to renounce, that is, jouissance” (Seminar XVIII, 6, 9-10)13. Rose goes on : “Within the phallic definition, the woman is constituted as ‘not all’, in so far as the phallic function rests on an exception (the ‘not’) which is assigned to her. Woman is excluded by the nature of words, meaning that the definition poses her as exclusion” (49, italics Rose’s).

  • 14 Joe’s wife points out in her polite talk that Maria might be “too good” : “Mrs Donnelly said it was (...)
  • 15 Joyce summarized his project as follows : “… I am writing a series of epicleti – ten – for a paper. (...)
  • 16 Etymology links “demure” to “mature” : Demure : [Origin : 1350-1400 ; ME dem(e)ur(e) wellmannered, (...)

9“Clay” gives clues about Maria’s relation to her femininity in the mirror images and the inscriptions of her body that pervade the text. Maria’s status as “not all” (included in the phallic function) is posed in direct relation to the narcissistic illusion of wholeness in the mirror image reflected from the vats. The cook said that : “you could see yourself in the big copper boilers” (99). Maria’s taking refuge in the past and in her childhood, her refusal to grow up, is shown insistently in the many mentions of her tiny frame and in the episode where she retires to her bedroom and looks at herself in the mirror : “She thought of how she used to dress for mass on Sunday morning when she was a young girl” (101). She is also nostalgic for the time when she was looking after the two brothers, the time of a now bygone mother-child idyll : “She had nursed him and Alphy too” [100]. The brothers Donnelly are the children she will never have. Joe’s remembered statement “Mamma is mamma but Maria is my proper mother” (100) gives her the status of “substitute” mother and introduces a distinction between biology and gender role that is one of the most profound questions of the text. It opposes the female body and the (m) Other in the highly ambivalent figure of the Old Maid. Moreover, such a distinction contributes to raising a doubt about the kind of mother that Maria was : a “good enough mother” or a “not good enough mother” ?14 Has she managed to be independent from her wards, as a “proper mother” should from her children ? This is what she claims when she stresses her financial independence and her self-sufficiency : “[She] thought how much better it was to be independent and to have your own money in your pocket” (102). Yet her visit to the Donnellys and her relationship with Joe betray other feelings. Her “paralysis” is thus constructed as the conflation of her social and familial circumstances, to which must be added her psychological refusal to mature15. In the progression from childhood to death through the various ages of man that he devised for Dubliners, Joyce placed “Clay” in the sequence labelled “maturity” with “Counterparts” and “A Painful Case” (Letter to Stanislaus, September 1905 [256]). Maria is not “mature” but tries to appear “demure”, a word in which the French “demeurer” (to delay, to wait, to stay) can still be heard as a trace : Maria “favoured [the gentleman] with demure nods and hems” [103, italics mine ])16. That she takes part in the game equates her to the children, an equation that reverberates the contradiction of her inclusion in and exclusion from the family circle, “home”, the couple. She is the third party in the initial mother-child dyad (Joe and his “mamma”). She is sent away to the laundry when the family separates. Her later inclusion in the Donnelly family is at the cost of being equated with the children or with a “girl next-door”, someone who does not belong, any other girl.

Treats : gifts that divide17

  • 17 The American Halloween ritual of tricks or treats is a much later cultural phenomenon than the game (...)

10“Cutting the cake” is a ritual that takes place twice in the short story. The other variation of that initial gesture, handing it out, takes place three times, if one does not count the passing around of the nuts by the girls next-door. In the first occurrence, it has already happened (“Maria had cut them herself” [99]). She first hands out the cake to her fellow workers : “Maria superintended the distribution of the barmbrack” (101). When she goes and buys the plumcake, the young lady who waits on her asks her if she wants some wedding-cake and then “cut [s] a thick slice of plumcake” and “[parcels] it up” (102). She is given a slice (and not the whole cake) that is further divided up. At Joe’s, Maria gives the “big bag of cakes” to the eldest child, Alphy, to “divide” among the children. The text thus insists on a parcelling up, that is both a gift (a parcel and a present), and the sign of division. In respect to that symbolic, the Present from Belfast of the purse that Joe has given Maria accrues the conflation between gift and division that runs through the whole text. The opposition between Protestants and Catholics plays itself out in the fact that Maria as a Catholic is working for Protestant ladies, the benefactors of the laundry. In the sectarian breakdown that has Catholic Maria work for Protestant well-doers, the protagonist is once again cast in a subservient position. She acknowledges that she “thought [Protestants] were very nice people”, although they are very “serious” (100). Such a distinction between “nice” and “serious” introduces an opposition between benevolence and seriousness that is taken up when she buys the plumcake and ultimately played out in the divination game in the alternative between “play” and “no play.” Whatever the children and the girls next-door introduce in the game stands outside the rules : it unsettles the social order and the order of meaning, the Symbolic. The children have transgressed ; they have gone beyond a barrier ; they have trespassed.

  • 18 See Serge André, Que veut une femme ? Paris, Seuil, 1995.
  • 19 See Leonard : “Indeed, ‘Clay’ asks the question ‘What does a woman want ?’ and offers two possible (...)
  • 20 See chapter one of Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément, The Newly Born Woman, Betsy Wing trans., Mi (...)

11The short story progresses as a subtle redoubling of the same structural themes that denies progress by constructing a mechanics of repetition, meanwhile the main character moves across town. The barmbracks announce the fortune-telling game at the Donnelly’s since these speckled cakes that are filled with currants may also contain a ring. The joke that Fleming repeats, year after year, is that Maria will get the ring. What happens year after year is that Maria does not get the ring, although the text leaves that up to conjecture. Maria answers that “she did not want any ring or man either ” (101, italics mine). The question of woman’s desire : “Was will das Weib ?” is indeed central to the text. Although in direct continuation with Freud, Lacan’s answer to the question differs from Freud’s. Freud’s formulation of penis envy as what woman wants responds to the vision of a group of women united in the same unique desire. Lacan questions precisely that notion of a group of women : “La femme, ça n’existe pas18. In Joyce’s text, the equation of “man” with “ring” is worded in such a way that “wanting a (any ?) man” appears as a negated alternative, an afterthought, as if getting the ring was one thing, unrelated to getting a man. Maria’s self-defensive answer pries open the symbol, foregrounds the material object as signifier. It rejects its significance by undoing the link that constitutes the sign and by showing that the referent (the signified) is missing19. This undoing exposes the signifying chain as a vanishing line of signifiers in which the primary signifier, the phallus, is relegated to an ordinary position. The ambivalence of the Old Maid, both phallic in so much as she guarantees the heterosexual division of power and “not all” since, as woman, she is “not all” included in the symbolic order, surfaces in this denial/avowal. Indeed, the figure of the Old Maid can be linked to that of the sorceress and the hysteric20.

12Both divination “games” bring forward how meaning is construed. Meaning is both concealed (veiled) and arbitrary since the ring, if found, determines the destiny of the eater. Would Maria be “condemned” to marrying if she got the ring ? The “meaning” is always there but it is not necessarily acted out. The causal link between finding the object and the occurrence of what it portends can never be affirmed. Events find their confirmation in the “omen” only in a glance backwards to that moment of “truth”, as what happens, what is enacted, is then reread as what had been foretold. “Fate” is deconstructed as a manipulation of signs at the same time as the text exposes social conditioning as ruthlessly marching on. However, although the text of the short story seems to condemn Maria to spinsterhood by repeated mentions that try to press that one meaning, manifestations of “desire” can unsettle this mechanics. One needs only reverse the predetermined logic that reads stasis in repetition. Instead, these lapses can be seen as loci where the repressed makes itself heard and where, were it unleashed, it might bring about disorder. For Maria’s inadequacies point at the fragility of the symbolic order, they unsettle its foundations.

  • 21 Garry Leonard speaks of Maria as a “symptom” of the text. The character exhibits symptoms and the t (...)
  • 22 In her introduction to her translation of Lacan’s seminars, Rose explains that “the woman is implic (...)

13Freud’s saying that “anatomy is destiny” finds an echo in Maria’s “destiny” to barrenness and spinsterhood yet this biological determinism is countered by an emphasis on societal control, a critique of the social construction of Maria’s plight, and the foregrounding of signifiers estranged from signified. For the “ring” is not equated to the “man” and, moreover, Maria will not find that ring whose status as unfound object reverberates the other lost or misplaced items of the short story. The character of “Maria” also appears to be a textual illusion that points to the sign of spinsterhood as a locus of ambivalence. For Maria’s desire might be taken at face value when she says that she did not want any ring or a man either. If the text belies what she professes, are all her statements countered in the same way ? In other words, how can the reader be so sure that Maria wants a man ? To the risk of countering the logic of social paralysis and generic/genderic stereotyping, some of the gaps in the text can be invested with a resistance that bespeaks woman’s specific position as “not all”21. In a way, it may be because Maria is elevated to the generic status of the Old Maid that the text is misread. Once it is admitted that she is a “common woman” (any woman, everywoman, the “girl next-door” and not the woman, the Old Maid), her inclusion/exclusion from the symbolic order can be stated.22

Blushes : mirrors and faces

14Maria’s narcissism – her involvement with herself – is highlighted in the text through references to her body’s reactions, her symptoms. She colours or blushes when she is ill at ease and she is chiefly embarrassed by the mention of marriage and allusion to sex. It happens when the young lady at the second shop thinks she might want a wedding-cake : “That made Maria blush and smile at the young lady” (102). It happens again when Mrs Donnelly explains that she has left the plumcake in the tram : “Maria, remembering how confused the gentleman with the greyish moustache had made her, coloured with shame and vexation and disappointment” (103-104). Critics have commented on the episode of the misplaced plumcake since the first version of the episode, told from her point of view, shows no trace of confusion : Maria is presented as in control of the situation. She chats, reports the colonel-looking gentleman’s words. Her embarrassment is mentioned later, when the plumcake cannot be found and it is not clear whether she shares her befuddlement with Mrs Donnelly, or solely with the reader, or whether it is the narrator who betrays her. Her extreme shyness is noted a third time, when she sings : “Maria, blushing very much began to sing in a tiny quavering voice” (106). Sexuality would lead to a disorder that Maria is not ready to let through. Her prudishness and her sense that she is above the prostitutes in the laundry make her think of Ginger Mooney that she had “of course, the notions of a common woman” (101) when the prostitute alludes to drinking alcohol, and beyond, since mention is made of health, to Maria’s body and to her unmarried status, her longpreserved virginity.

  • 23 This has been pointed out by critics, see Carle Bonafous-Murat, James Joyce, Dubliners : Logique de (...)
  • 24 As I am writing this essay, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has had to face men d (...)

15The text repeatedly tells the reader, however, that Maria is as “common” as the other women, that she has in “common” with them her womanliness. The “of course” places her in a relationship of confidence with the reader that has the opposite effect to the one she seeks.23 Granted, she is surrounded by prostitutes, “lost and wicked women” in Joyce’s words, “spinsters”, “widows”, “childless women”, women without men or progeny, women defined as lacking the link that would make them social beings. She wilfully attempts to see herself apart, reworking the virgin/whore dichotomy with a displacement into the opposition old maid/reformed prostitute. Yet she resembles them, shares with them certain characteristics. For instance, Ginger Mooney’s desire to have some brown beer (“a sup of porter” [101]) later finds an echo in Joe’s offer of “stout” and his wife’s suggestion of port wine : Maria first refuses, but then accepts. She first condemns Joe’s inebriety : “Only she hoped that Joe wouldn’t come in drunk” (100), yet condones that behaviour in the “gentleman” on the tram who is himself said to be “stout” (102). She owns that he “has a drop taken” (103) and is nevertheless sensitive to his attentions. When she gives in to the Donnellys’offer, the text ambiguously explains that she let “Joe have his way”, which recalls how she fears she might have been “in the way” had she moved in with them. Although the text takes pains to contrast Maria’s body said to be diminutive and tidy with the prostitutes’– their “steaming arms” and “their red steaming hands”– the repetition of “steaming” produces the opposite effect. The emphasis on corporality and the sub-text of the dirty linen (men’s shirts) that the prostitutes wash and iron, linger in the later vignette of Maria at her mirror : it contaminates it24.

16Maria’s attention to her body when she retires to her bedroom and changes into her city clothes bears connotations of fetishism : her body is her fetish. Like the spick and span kitchen, she seems extremely particular about the clothes she wears, as she later is about the “icing on the cake”, the decoration that makes the cake so special. She is fussy, compulsive. The pieces of clothing are carefully laid out and so strictly divided into work clothes and dress clothes, suggesting that she is at one point standing naked in front of the mirror. For it is not clear when she puts her clothes on. She has a “quaint affection” for her body (101) ; she likes “her nice tidy little body” (101). The text further mentions that she found pleasure in dressing the “diminutive body which she had so often adorned”. Indeed Maria’s narcissistic moment in front of her mirror fits Lacan’s description of “phallonarcissism” :

As for narcissism, are we providing an explanation or merely setting up the most inscrutable of enigmas when we talk of a love of self which implies one’s own liquidation as sexed being ?
The fact remains, however, that the enigma is there, in that whatever the sex of the subject, the only conceivable pleasure in his or her image depends on finding in that image or thinking that he or she finds there […] something withdrawn from sight which answers or corresponds to what we have termed the monadic phallus. (Lacan in Rose, 127)

17Earlier in the text when looking for the plumcake, it is said that “she was a long time suiting herself ” (102), an expression that could be taken literally. Maria likes to please herself. Her nursing of her conservatory plants at the Laundry is a further element that builds on this trait of self-containment and narcissistic involvement : “Then she had her plants in the conservatory and she liked looking after them” (100). Such a withdrawal upon oneself can be a sign of consummate spinsterhood since “green plants” are common objects of decoration to which women are equated when objectified in their relation to men. The plants are also the children Maria did not have. Yet this comment, linked to connotations of “conservatory” on the one hand and to that of “slip” and visitors, on the other, could be a way for the text to construct an ambivalent core of female narcissism that escapes the mirror that society holds up to woman. In other words, the Old Maid might be the butt of many jokes, but her refusal to give in to the logic of heterosexual complementariness rather than making her an outcast can be reinvested with the valence of a different positioning.

  • 25 The clay of the title can also find itself in opposition to the marble of the halls if one recalls (...)
  • 26 The second verse reads : “I dreamt that suitors besought my hand,/That knights upon bended knee,/An (...)

18The last episode of her singing has been analysed as further proof of Maria’s failure. That Maria is caught up in the imaginary order, that of her image in the mirror, yet also that of romance (and moreover of a “family romance” that turns out to be true) is made explicit in her repetition of the first verse of I Dreamt that I Dwelt (106)25. The verse tells of yearning for a state of bliss where love remains unaltered : “you loved me still the same” (106). The female protagonist is rich and of high lineage ; she lives in a palace and has servants. As is plain, it is exactly the opposite of Maria’s station in life since she works as a servant (and she had worked as a nurse), she is poor, and her “home” is a laundry for reformed prostitutes. That she repeats the verse twice inscribes the duplication of the mirror in the text itself and reinforces its alienating effect. This alienation is in turn doubled by the fact that the Bohemian Girl speaks of a “dream”. The text, rather than Maria, deconstructs the imaginary order by presenting the complex structure of alienation that it establishes, although one could assume that Maria identifies with the heroine and it is true that critics identify Maria to her. In fact, the repetition and the dream structure concur towards foregrounding the illusory character of her wishes. It should be noted that the text does not reproduce the verse twice. The reader is left with the repeated verse ; the first original rendering has been omitted. That omission mistakenly places the reader in a position of superiority towards Maria. Like the other members of the household, he/she is a witness to Maria’s mistake yet the narrator (and the text) also chooses not to show Maria’s mistake, but to state it. Commentators in turn quote the missing stanza to restore the song as it was performed26. They thus efface the truth of Maria’s omission, fill in the gap of the text, a gap doubled up by the text’s refusal to reiterate the lyrics on the page.

19That the character of Maria is a locus of ambivalence is all the more apparent if one contrasts it to Mrs Donnelly’s and to Joe’s for the couple can be seen as each caricaturing a position towards which Maria alternately leans. Indeed Maria’s spinsterhood might place her on the side of the castrating female, as Garry Leonard argues, yet the married woman, Mrs Donnelly, more readily occupies that role in the short story. The other female characters that fill that function are, in the hierarchy of the laundry : the matron, the sub-matrons and the Board ladies. Maria has to ask permission to go out. Interestingly, Mrs Donnelly’s name is never given and she is referred to as either “Joe’s wife” or “Mrs Donnelly” : she only appears in Maria’s words. In her role as hostess she performs all the social rituals expected of her. She makes the children thank Maria for the cakes, pronounces the fitting compliments. She also intervenes when Joe is angered by Maria’s attempt at reconciling him with his brother Alphy. “Joe’s wife” gives the solution to the enigma of the missing plumcake and straightens things up when the game turns sour on Maria : “at last Mrs Donnelly said something very cross to one of the nextdoor girls” (105). It is she again who is required to find the missing corkscrew. Mrs Donnelly as the married woman, the mother, the wife, stands in opposition to Maria who errs, bumbles and feels out of place. As stated earlier, the explanation that Maria has given for not having accepted Joe’s offer to come and live with them was that “she would have felt herself in the way” (100). She is made to appear “in the way” while at the Donnellys’since Mrs Donnelly very authoritatively tells her when to sing, what to do, and in effect bullies her around.

20As she is the central protagonist of the story, Maria’s failures might appear to be foregrounded, but Joe is also a failing figure as Garry Leonard’s analysis shows. His attitude – he makes a fuss about Maria, he wants her to be the centre of the party, etc.– works as a mirror to her own defaults. He is shown as dispatching others to look for things that he cannot find : the nutcracker, the corkscrew. He tells her stories about his work that she cannot really understand. He is violently opposed to any reconciliation with his brother and is strangely absent from the game. He only comes in at the end to “save the situation”– his corresponding role as peace-maker – and to ask her to sing, which exposes Maria’s fragility. He is the last character to appear in the narrative. His sentimentalism and inebriety make him blind and transform him into a double of Maria who had been blindfolded in the game. Thus, if Maria fails, so does Joe and in a deeper way since his failures are covered up by the others. The girls find the nutcracker, his wife the corkscrew and Maria forgives him. In society’s heterosexual economy, women make up for his faults. “Maria” as a more complex site of textual contradictions leaves her failures both uncorrected and exposed : “no none tried to show her her mistake” (106).

  • 27 Lacan defined the symptom as blocked speech wanting to be heard.

21Maria’s position vis-à-vis the other characters thus complicates her strict embodiment of either the castrating female or the failing phallic figure. The grimace she makes when she laughs further establishes this blurring of strict boundaries as a mark of her body’s reactions. Maria’s laughter is underlined by the repetition of the line “the tip of her nose met the tip of her chin” (101) : her face disappears in this constant effacement behind a “face”. She caves in, like the meaning of the short story that also disappears. Thus the central notion of “disappointment”– that is repeated twice in the text – re-inscribes the semantic equation between “tip” and “point”. Maria has no face. Her face is veiled as she is later blindfolded in the divination game. She folds up. Her disappearing facial features can then be said to herald the shapelessness of the soft substance in the saucer and her insignificance can be literally construed as her “pointlessness.” This vanishing of her face in a grimace (a “face”) is also taken up by the many bendings and bowings of her head as a sign of politeness when she leaves the gentleman on the tram. While she professes to express how attached she is to social rituals, these mechanics of the leave-taking transform her into a puppet. Repeatedly, the body effects motions, erupts in symptoms that are as many manifestations of the unconscious. The second mention of the face Maria makes almost leads to her physical destruction : “her minute body nearly shook itself asunder” (101). Maria’s laughter nearly brings her to the verge of physical disintegration ; her body is uncontrollable. The third mention of the nervous laughter occurs as Maria is blindfolded and led on by the children to the table (105). Ultimately, the mirrors of the text and the sinking in of her face are played up again in the divination game where it is no longer a question of seeing, but of touching. The scopic economy of the gaze gives way to the most primal one of touch. While alone, Maria may enjoy the sight of her body in the mirror ; while in public, the grimace, a symptom, transforms her traits, suggesting grotesque features, loss of shape, shapelessness. Indeed, these bodily symptoms, the blushes of discomfort and the fits of mechanical laughter that fold her face in and shake her whole body announce “the soft wet substance” that her fingers meet. The body speaks what cannot be uttered and must be repressed27. The unnamed substance in the saucers fills in what is untellable, i. e. the questions raised by these bodily marks. It is both enigma and suture.

Tricks : cake/clay

  • 28 Suzette A. Henke, James Joyce and the Politics of Desire, London and New York, Routledge, 1990, sta (...)

22Although Joyce stages a much earlier Halloween ritual than the American custom of “trick-or-treating”, a similar logic of the reversal of the gift into a joke whose butt Maria is runs through the text. When she is looking for something that she could buy for the Donnellys, Maria is short of inspiration : “All she could think of was cake” (102). That plumcake that she took so long in choosing is precisely the cake she forgets thus constructing in the short story one of the “gaps” that points at her own unconscious desire28. Since the prank played by the children and the girls next-door also calls up Maria’s confusion, the two moments enter in correspondence and the “lost plumcake” finds itself in direct connection with the encountered, fingered, “clay”. Maria forgets the cake whereas she is forced to touch the clay : “they insisted then on blindfolding Maria and leading her up to the table to see what she would get” (105, italics mine). Clay substitutes for cake in the economy of the text, in the play of the signifying chain. It is as if the children made Maria pay for their being wrongly accused of stealing.

  • 29 Maria leaves the cake behind whereas she is carefully planning her journey and moves the hand of th (...)
  • 30 There are other “beginnings” in the text : “… she began to pull the big bell” ; “the women began to (...)

23The moment in the tram symbolizes sexual encounter, precisely because Maria leaves the plumcake behind29. She forgets what she has described as a treat, “something really nice” (102), when she meets the man she describes as a “gentleman”. Something has been misplaced, lost. This displacement of objects echoes the metonymic workings in the text : “She began to look for her plumcake” (103)30. Maria has given her plumcake “by mistake” to the elderly gentleman. Her musing : “she thought how easy it was to know a gentleman” (103, italics mine) can be invested with the biblical meaning of “to know”. Later in the text Mrs Donnelly uses the same word in the sentence that she does not utter when the girl next-door gets the ring and she shakes her finger at her : “O I know all about it !” (105). Mrs Donnelly may imply that she knows that the girl will get married because she knows of her whereabouts. Whereas the first “know” betrays Maria’s wishful thinking, the second mention circles much more explicitly around sexual knowledge. The sexual subtext of the game is a result of the reader’s accrued knowledge that there was something amiss in Maria’s chance meeting with the gentleman that is only acknowledged after the fact. At the same time, the central and “innocuous” loss of the plumcake is countered by another encounter, a touch, the contact with what the reader supposes is clay.

  • 31 In “Clay (1),” James Joyce Quarterly 27 (Winter 1990), Cóilín Owens states : “We may grant that the (...)
  • 32 Some autobiographical elements also seem to concur with that interpretation. According to Bob Willi (...)
  • 33 On female narcissism, see my article on Issy in Finnegans Wake, “Woman, The Letter Writer ; Man, Th (...)

24The epiphany of the short story is indeed the moment when the children and the two next-door girls play a prank on Maria. They have her choose between the saucers. She touches “a soft wet substance” and then is asked to repeat the game. The reader does not know what this substance is but understands that one of the girls has “to throw it out” and that it is something “from the garden”. If the game decides woman’s destiny, i. e. marriage, spinsterhood or the convent, Maria’s first choice is none of these, but an encounter with “clay”, encounter with death as the critical notes are quick to make us understand31. Indeed, this meaning has been privileged by critics who then link the short story to the overall cycle of Dubliners and to the last short story “The Dead”32. Yet all the other meanings of “clay” pervade the short story, an irradiation of possibilities enabled by the fact that the word is only mentioned in the title. In the biblical story, clay is ultimately so malleable that once brought to life, it turns out to be a human being. Thus it would not be so much her own death that Maria was foretold as her barrenness, her death as a pro-creator. The redirection of her choice from “clay” to “convent” is thus a crueller message for Maria as a woman, contrary to what the text pretends to state. Indeed, by going back to the rules, Mrs Donnelly excludes the “wild,” indeterminate, confusing possibility that had been introduced by the children33.

  • 34 On women and creativity, see Susan Gubar, “’The Blank Page’and the Issue of Female Creativity” in C (...)

25A symbol of fragility, clay is the unformed material out of which both life and art can be created. The potentiality of creation that it represents is reverberated in the possibility of a plurality of interpretations left open precisely because the content of the saucer is not named. Like Maria, who is blindfolded and brought to the table to “see what she would get” (105), the reader of the story is also led on by the clues and subjected to a prank by the text, that of pretending to achieve the closure of meaning. Indeed, paronomasia links the title, “Clay”, to the word “play”. It is, as Derek Attridge points out, the only echo of the title in a text that otherwise, because of the loose link between title and text, can only prompt us to assume that it is clay that Maria is touching. The reader is then faced with a hesitation between “clay” and “play” and the ready connotation of the association of the two words, as in the expression “playing with clay”, what children would do in a mockery of the adult world. That one should “throw out” that substance that was in a saucer places it in an awkward relation to the plumcake (and the barmbracks) that were produced precisely for the benefit of the palate. Disgust (Margot Norris goes so far as to say that the prank may involve worms, vomit or feces [133]) is the expected reaction, a rejection that the expression “throw out” brings up. Maria does not react at all : she waits, she is silent. The reader is left filling in the blanks on the basis of the knowledge that he/she has acquired throughout the text. One direction for interpretation is precisely the opposition running through the text between objects that slice, crack and break open and the softness, the malleability of the “substance”, its very shapelessness waiting for imprint34.

26Because of the textual correspondence between cake and clay and the numerous mishaps, it seems that Maria is getting “clay” where she had brought “cake.” If the cake (“plumcake,” “her plumcake”) bears obvious sexual connotations, clay works as a revelation of the other side of the sexual : Maria’s jouissance. That jouissance was signalled in the text with the awkward mention of her complete facial fold up : “Maria laughed and laughed again till the tip of her nose met the tip of her chin” (105) which was explored earlier on. Now Maria is silent and blind : she has achieved a knowledge that the others do not have as she touches with her fingers “the soft wet substance”. The question of the seriousness of the game that challenges its very essence surfaces in the injunction “no play” linked to “clay”. “Clay” is “no play”. That moment in the short story is that of the epiphany, the moment of “truth” understood as what is withheld. Maria is blindfolded : truth is veiled.

“Doing it over again” : repetition as (mis) take

  • 35 See Norris, 137-138, for another reading of Maria’s differences.

27“Clay” exhibits how “control” when exercised compulsively gives way to accidents, lapses that are themselves mechanical and betray the unconscious. Repetition haunts the text, actual repetitions, as language stutters, as well as the repetitions of similar acts and their mishaps. It appears at first in the motif of the routine of chores at the laundry. It is also part of the ritual that the strict timetable of the establishment fixes for the women and helps Maria plan her outing : “The women would have their tea at six o’clock” (100). The Hallow Eve party is said to have taken place in the same way year after year, with the same set jokes at Maria’s expense : “though Fleming had said that for so many Hallow Eves” (101). Maria’s dressing for mass is also depicted as a habitual gesture : “the diminutive body that she had so often adorned” (101). This repetition in and over time is doubled up by actual textual repetitions that confer to the narration the tone of a fairy tale : “Maria was a very, very small person” (99). As earlier mentioned, when she laughs out of embarrassment, Maria’s face changes : “the tip of her nose nearly met the tip of her chin” (101). That sentence is repeated almost word for word four lines later : “And Maria laughed again till the tip of her nose nearly met the tip of her chin” (101, italics mine)35. The repetition contributes to contradict a psychologically complex understanding of the character. It introduces instead a strange and unique mechanical physical response that could be treated as a symptom (see my own attempt above), but is also inscribes the character in the fantasy world of the fairy tale.

28The ordered world of the laundry is a fantasy belied by the reality of the women’s coarseness. Although Maria promotes her qualities as a peace-maker, she emphasizes the violence of her workplace : “When the women quarrelled…” (99). Another direct mention of rupture is her near collapse after Mooney’s remark when she laughs “till her minute body nearly shook itself asunder” (10, italics mine). Earlier, the household to which she had belonged and which she evokes nostalgically has broken up : “After the break-up at home” (100), a separation which is further echoed by the impossible relationship between the two brothers : “they were always falling out now” (102). Husband and wife nearly fall out when Maria attempts to reconcile Joe and Alphy by “putting in a good word for him” (105). The word “cross” is used twice in the text, as Joe is cross when he cannot find the nutcracker and Mrs Donnelly is “very cross” (105) at the girl next-door for the prank played on Maria.

29Although the beginning presents an environment that is extremely clean and well-ordered, objects are misplaced and get lost. Maria’s world is tightly controlled and precise – she is a perfectionist – yet she takes her time and seems to loiter when she chooses to go to another cake shop. This waylaying is taken up and doubled by her slips, her forgetfulness, her faux-pas : she forgets the plumcake, she forgets the verses from The Bohemian Girl and repeats the first verse twice. Joe, likewise, cannot find the everyday utensils in his household that would help him welcome his guest : he has misplaced the nutcracker, and at the end, the corkscrew. The lost objects inscribe loss and displacement as a theme that reverberates on an existential scale : “he could not find what he was looking for” (106). John’s losses correspond to Maria’s mistakes : “nowhere could she find [her plumcake]” (103). She too does not find what she is looking for. The text had already inscribed this “slipperiness” in its very letter, the “slips” that she gives the visitors “from her conservatory” (100). These gaps, interstices, to which certain – this time – textual gaps correspond, are the moments in the story when the workings of the unconscious are brought up as a theme. At the same time, this thematics of “slips” and (mis) takes or double takes doubles up an understanding of language as worked through by desire.

30Joe the alcoholic responds to the drive : he will never be satisfied and will carry on drinking, a habit that could be linked to Maria’s nursing him. Maria, on the other hand, is alienated in an imaginary projection of love forever. She sings about the dream of eternal requited love. That Joe should look for a corkscrew, a phallic symbol if ever, at the end of the text, emphasises his failure as a male. He needs his wife to find it. He is totally subjected to the domestic logic of a hererosexual relationship. Like Maria, who was blindfolded earlier on, he too cannot see. Maria, on the other hand, presents symptoms that no one dares point at : “No one tried to show her her mistake” (106). In the economy of the text, the word “mis-take” resounds as a modulation on “take”, itself a paronomasia of “cake”. When husband and wife asked her to eat or drink, Maria “said she would rather they did not ask her to take anything” (105, italics mine). Maria is the bearer of gifts and does not want to “take anything” : in the economy of drinking and eating that the text displays, she first resists. She, however, finally complies and “let [s Joe] have his way” (104). During the game, somehow, the prayer-book is forced on her and what she touched with her fingers and that the reader understands as being clay, she did not take. She did not even see what it was. Rather than the first encounter which plays with the etymology of the word “mistake” (i. understand wrongly) and explains that “she understood that it was wrong that time” (105, italics mine), getting the prayer-book can be construed as a second chance, a second “take” that replaces her within the proper logic of the game : this time. Similarly, the repetition of the first verse is also a second “take” that annuls the first just like a cracked record, a “mistake” : the text insists on how one must be taken, what cannot be taken, what is still at stake in the mistake. That the special gift of the plumcake is impossible is made obvious by the fact that that cake does not reach its intended destination (remember it was intended for “papa and mamma”). It is lost ; it was too precious to be given to the couple. That the cake was associated to enjoyment is evident in the old man’s remark that “it was only right the youngsters should enjoy themselves while they were young” (103). The Old Maid does not have the right to enjoy herself since she is no longer young.

  • 36 The Snow White motif that pervades the text finds another point of anchorage in the wording “eating (...)

31Why is the moment of the game so “wrong” ? Readers have been puzzled by the enigma of the content of the saucer that the textbooks readily resolve. The obvious silence of the text, the text does not say what it is that Maria touches, the silence inscribed in the text –“There was a pause for a few seconds” (105)– and her silence and blindness are duplicated by the reader’s befuddlement since he/she does not know what has happened and is placed in Maria’s shoes. My contention is that what was wrong is in fact right about something, the “truth” of the subject that cannot be named, hence the “veil” of “clay” as what stands in for that object that cannot be named, from the garden, and is soft and wet and substantial. That substance stands in opposition to the mislaid nutcracker and the lost corkscrew as much as it stands in relation to the expected objects of the game, the water, the ring, the prayer-book. Earlier in the text, from the conservatory, “slips” escaped with visitors to further Maria’s influence, to connect her with the rest of the world from which she was cut off. The “garden” enters now in another round, that of the apples (and nuts) and of Eve since the party takes place on Hallow Eve. Something foul, dirty, debased, shapeless, intensely feminine (soft/wet) or beyond gender (matter) has been placed there for Maria to touch and has been withdrawn as if that contact should not be named or reiterated. Maria has ventured where she should not have trodden in answer to the girl next-door’s own transgression. What is effected is a mirroring gesture : Maria enacts what the girl next-door perversely wishes her to do and what she might wish to do herself and dares not do. Critics say that that moment is a way for the children to take revenge on Maria who has wrongly accused them of lying. It is true that her words – she asks them if they have eaten the cake by mistake (“of course”)– can be insulting to the children. They do not want to be wrongly accused of stealing. Yet, Maria does not accuse them of “stealing”, but of “eating by mistake”. How can one “eat by mistake” ? “Eating by mistake” means that the children did not intend to do what they did ; they ate the cake that was intended for someone else or, literally, they did not know that they were eating cake36. If that accusation produces the retort engineered by the girl next-door, it is because it supposes an enjoyment (a satisfaction) that only the jouissance of the touching of clay with one’s fingers can properly counter. The other finger in the text is the one raised in admonition by Mrs Donnelly about the girl next-door when the latter gets the ring. It substitutes gesture for words. Here contact is substituted for words : it suffices. Like Mrs Donelly, the reader should know all about it.

32The trajectory of the “cake,” its peregrinations and its ultimate textual transmutation into “clay,” means confronting the possibility of a subversive reading of the text at the juncture of the dividing line between “play” and “no play.” Once “Maria” as “common woman” (any woman and not “the” woman) is viewed as “not all,” whatever signifies an escape from the phallic function : the gaps in the narration and in the text, the play of the signifiers (“marry”/“merry”, “take”/“cake”, “clay”/“play”, to name a few of the textual couples analyzed in this essay) need to be highlighted, worked through. Reinvesting the figure of Maria’s narcissism as an attention to the female body, untouched while touching (clay or dirt, clay as dirt), leads to the point of wording “Maria”’s jouissance. It helps bring out what of woman the text may tell in the letter itself, in the shifting of the signifying chain, in its signifiance. However, one touches here the limits of the text. Woman’s difference and woman’s otherness are extremely difficult to utter, hence some hesitations, a groping not unlike Maria’s. One always runs the risk of collapsing that figure of difference into the phallic function, either because women occupy the negative place in the phallic system or since they might, as a result of that assignation to the negative place, break away from or oppose the system. Ultimately, the enigma of “Clay” is precisely an answer to the difficulty of that utterance, underlined in the text by Maria’s muteness and blindness at the epiphanic moment. As the vanishing point of our questioning, one will never know what Maria touched. It might precisely be the status of knowing in relation to female sexuality that the text finally subverts.


1 I am using the following edition : James Joyce, Dubliners, Roberts Scholes and A. Walton Litz (eds.), New York and London, Penguin Books, Vintage Critical Library, 1996. The full references to these critical studies are : Margot Norris, “Narration under a Blindfold : Reading the ‘Patch’of ‘Clay’” in Joyce’s Web. The Social Unraveling of Modernism, Austin, Texas, University of Texas Press, 1992, 119-138 ; Garry M. Leonard, “‘Where the Corkscrew was’ : The Purpose of Insignificance in Joyce’s ‘Clay’” in Reading Dubliners Again. A Lacanian Perspective, New York, Syracuse University Press, 1993, 184-209 ; Derek Attridge, “Touching ‘Clay’ : Reference and Reality in Dubliners” in Joyce Effects : On Language, Theory, and History, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000, 35-52.

2 Norris distinguishes two meanings of the word : “Significance as an experience of psychological importance or ontological prestige, and significance as the linguistic or semiological meaning produced by modes of signification” (Norris, 122). Two other definitions can be added : Lacan’s : “What is this significance ? It is what has the effect of a signifier” (Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire. Encore, Livre XX, Paris, Seuil, 1975, 23) and Riffaterre’s for whom significance is a praxis of transformation operated by the reader (Michel Riffaterre, Sémiotique de la poésie. Paris, Seuil, 1983, 25).

3 Maria has been seen as an allegory of the Blessed Virgin or Poor Old Woman or even Mother Ireland. Margot Norris links this strain of criticism to what Attridge and Ferrer have labelled the “transcendentalist” approach to Joyce’s fiction (Norris, 112). See Derek Attridge and Daniel Ferrer (eds.), Post-Structuralist Joyce, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1984.

4 In an earlier version, the story was entitled “Christmas Eve” then “Hallow Eve” and Joyce refers to it as The Clay in a letter to Stanislaus : “I sent my story The Clay” (Sept. 1905) (256). Dropping the article in the title is significant of a desire to move away from a transcendental “essence” that does not exist towards “substance” (in the text and of the text). The refusal to name the content of the saucer is contained in the erasure of the deictic.

5 Attrige owns : “The assumption that we can identify a ‘narrator’or a ‘narrative voice’– which implies a persona responsible for the telling of the story is one whose untenability will become evident ; however, it serves as convenient shorthand for a more theoretically laden phrase, such as ‘narrative instance’or ‘discourse’, which would bring its own problems” (Attridge, note 2, 36). Most critics refer to the “Uncle Charles principle” after Hugh Kenner’s analysis in Joyce’s Voices (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1978) : Maria speaks as she would like others to speak of her.

6 Maria’s inadequacy is evident in the tram : her feet do not touch the floor when she sits. Her small stature likens her to a child or to Alice in Wonderland.

7 Margot Norris makes clear that the reader is caught into becoming a double of the character : “‘Clay’is a ‘deceptively’simple little story by design : its narrative self-deception attempts, and fails, to mislead the reader. But as a special case of the blind leading the blind, ‘Clay’also offers the multiple revelations that come with the restoration of sight : it allows us to see the blind spots in Maria’s story and, in them, to see ourselves as their cause, if not their instrument” (Norris, 120).

8 See Jean-Michel Rabaté, James Joyce. L’œuvre de Joyce ou la trame de la vie. Essai. Paris : Hachette, 1993, chapter one, “Aesthetics of Disappearance,” 9-23. For Rabaté, the reader is led to become a double of the author.

9 Garry Leonard states : “There is a polymorphous dimension to Maria and Joe’s relationship that lends credence to Lacan’s assertion that there is no sexual relation…” (197).

10 On Joyce and marriage, see Richard Brown, James Joyce and Sexuality, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1985.

11 The “Nausicaa” episode in Ulysses and in Finnegans Wake, the Anna Livia Plurabelle chapter (I, 8) as well as The Mime of Mick, Nick and the Maggies (II, 1).

12 As has been noted by critics, a permanent and always imminent reversal between “parole vide and “parole pleine threatens the significance of Maria’s prattle.

13 Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose (eds.), Feminine Sexuality. Jacques Lacan and the École freudienne, New York and London, Norton, 1982, 49.

14 Joe’s wife points out in her polite talk that Maria might be “too good” : “Mrs Donnelly said it was too good of her to bring such a big bag of cakes” (103).

15 Joyce summarized his project as follows : “… I am writing a series of epicleti – ten – for a paper. I have written one. I call the series Dubliners to betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a city.” Letter to Constantine Curran, August 1904 (253).

16 Etymology links “demure” to “mature” : Demure : [Origin : 1350-1400 ; ME dem(e)ur(e) wellmannered, grave < AF demuré, ptp. of demurer to demur ; perh. influenced by OF mur, mëur grave, mature (< L matūrus)]. Dictionary. com accessed on Nov. 22, 2008. For a similar analysis of “la demeurée” in “Eveline”, see Claudine Raynaud, “Dead Ends of Desire in Dublinersin Claudine Raynaud (ed.), GRAAT 23, Dubliners : Lectures Critiques/Critical Approaches, Tours, PUFR, 2000, 75-89.

17 The American Halloween ritual of tricks or treats is a much later cultural phenomenon than the games Joyce describes. However, I wish to retain the opposition between “giving treats” and “tricking” since it highlights the ambivalence at the core of the gift.

18 See Serge André, Que veut une femme ? Paris, Seuil, 1995.

19 See Leonard : “Indeed, ‘Clay’ asks the question ‘What does a woman want ?’ and offers two possible answers. The preferred response, from a patriarchal and phallic point of view, is that she wants a man (to get married). The more disturbing answer which continues to insist in the text […] is : ‘Nothing, she simply wants (as does everyone).’For a masculine subject, she is a symbol of the (fictional) unity of masculinity” (202).

20 See chapter one of Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément, The Newly Born Woman, Betsy Wing trans., Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1986, 3-6.

21 Garry Leonard speaks of Maria as a “symptom” of the text. The character exhibits symptoms and the text is worked through by these convulsions, silences, lapses that it does not dramatize but reproduces in its make-up.

22 In her introduction to her translation of Lacan’s seminars, Rose explains that “the woman is implicated, of necessity, in phallic sexuality, but at the same time it is ‘elsewhere that she upholds the question of her own jouissance’ (‘The Phallic Phase and the Subjective Import of the Castration Complex,’ 121), that is, the question of her status as desiring subject. Lacan designates that jouissance supplementary so as to avoid any notion of complement, of woman as a complement to man’s phallic nature (which is precisely the fantasy).” (Rose, 51)

23 This has been pointed out by critics, see Carle Bonafous-Murat, James Joyce, Dubliners : Logique de l’impossible, Paris, Ellipses, 1999, 45-47. There is another mention of “of course” in the text : “Then she asked all the children had any of them eaten it – by mistake, of course –” (103).

24 As I am writing this essay, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has had to face men during her campaign brandishing a billboard : « Iron my shirt ! »

25 The clay of the title can also find itself in opposition to the marble of the halls if one recalls Job 4 :19 : “How much less [in] them that dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation [is] in the dust, [which] are crushed before the moth ?” (italics mine).

26 The second verse reads : “I dreamt that suitors besought my hand,/That knights upon bended knee,/And with vows no maiden heart could withstand,/That they pledged their faith to me./I dreamt that one of this noble host/ Came forth my hand to claim ;/Yet I also dreamt, which charmed me most,/That you lov’d me still the same.”

27 Lacan defined the symptom as blocked speech wanting to be heard.

28 Suzette A. Henke, James Joyce and the Politics of Desire, London and New York, Routledge, 1990, states : “She leaves her cake behind (perhaps as an unconscious offering to the ‘gentleman’),” 34.

29 Maria leaves the cake behind whereas she is carefully planning her journey and moves the hand of the clock forward by an hour to get up early to go to morning mass.

30 There are other “beginnings” in the text : “… she began to pull the big bell” ; “the women began to come in by twos and threes” (100-101) ; “the gentleman began to chat with her” (103). This insistence on the beginnings of the action injects into the text the notion of things being held back, retained.

31 In “Clay (1),” James Joyce Quarterly 27 (Winter 1990), Cóilín Owens states : “We may grant that the clay can be considered to symbolize Maria’s sharing with us a common substance, or alternately, to represent her malleability, for although the immediate folkloric context presages no more than an imminent, physical death Joyce allows us to take it also as a symbol of her spiritual barrenness : she is one of Dublin’s living dead” (344), quoted in Norris, note 2, 220.

32 Some autobiographical elements also seem to concur with that interpretation. According to Bob Williams, “Joe and Alphy are based on William and John Murray. […] Costello says of the original Maria that she was Maria O’Donohoe. She was the older unmarried sister of Margaret Christina, the older of John Murray’s […] second wife. The father of these two women was William O’Donohoe, hotel owner and suicide like Virag Bloom in Ulysses. Maria died in 1899 of an inoperable tumor. In the autumn prior to her death in December she had been a guest at a Halloween party given by the young John Murray’s. The Joyces may also have been present. The premonition of death assumes a different resonance in view of these facts”. Dubliners by James Joyce., accessed 18/10/2007.

33 On female narcissism, see my article on Issy in Finnegans Wake, “Woman, The Letter Writer ; Man, The Writing Master”, James Joyce Quarterly 23, # 3 (Spring 1986), 299-324.

34 On women and creativity, see Susan Gubar, “’The Blank Page’and the Issue of Female Creativity” in Critical Inquiry VIII, 2 (Winter 1981) 243-63.

35 See Norris, 137-138, for another reading of Maria’s differences.

36 The Snow White motif that pervades the text finds another point of anchorage in the wording “eating by mistake” as the tale’s Wicked Witch fools the virgin maid into eating the poisoned apple. Eve also ate the apple from the tree of knowledge. Leonard mentions the Gingerbread House as another fairy tale motif woven into the text.

© Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2008

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