It is Halloween night. After work in the kitchen of an industrial laundry mainly staffed by recovering alcoholics and ex-prostitutes, an older unmarried woman named Maria attends a party at the home of a man named Joe. Maria served as his nurse when Joe was a baby. While playing traditional Irish Halloween games, a blindfolded Maria chooses clay rather than water, a ring, or a prayerbook, signifying (at least according to Irish superstition) that she will die soon.
Some critics have interpreted Maria as a symbol of Ireland itself (which would link her, unpredictably, with the pervert from "An Encounter"). Maria is poor and relatively forsaken. She is in thrall to the Roman Catholic Church (setting her alarm an hour earlier than usual so that she can attend All Saints' Day Mass the next morning), and she loses her gift while distracted by a "colonel-looking gentleman" who might represent England.
Maria is ignorant, as well. (Joyce believed that education in Roman Catholic schools had made the Irish ignorant, exacerbating the country's paralysis.) She does not seem to realize the significance of her choice in the Hallow Eve game. Joyce writes that "She felt a soft wet substance with her fingers and was surprised that nobody spoke or took off her bandage," rather than writing something like "She felt a soft wet substance, obviously clay rather than a book, ring, or water, and gasped at the thought of death foretold."
With regard to Joyce's system of color symbolism, the color brown (meaning decay) looms largest in this story. Maria's raincloak is brown, as is the hard hat of the man on the tram. And of course, the story's central image, the clay itself that superstition says may mean death for Maria, is probably brown, or brownish, as well.
Like "A Little Cloud" and "Counterparts," "Clay" employs the limited third-person point-of-view strategy. That is, although Maria does not herself tell the story, the reader is privy to her thoughts and no other characters'. (The story's narrator never tells anything that Maria does not know, as a traditional omniscient narrator almost certainly would.) The technique demands much of a reader (for example, figuring out that the "soft wet substance" Maria touches during the Hallow Eve game is the clay of the title), but the story rewards just this sort of participation. It also rewards repeated readings.
barmbracks cakes, traditionally served in Ireland on Halloween, in which symbolic objects (a ring, for example) have been baked.
Ballsbridge a suburb southeast of Dublin.
the Pillar Nelson's Pillar; a memorial in north-central Dublin to Horatio Viscount Nelson (1758–1805), an English admiral. A comical anecdote told by Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses takes place atop the Pillar.
Whit-Monday the Monday immediately following Whit-Sunday, or Pentecost.
the Dublin By Lamplight laundry a Protestant-run business, the mission of which was to rescue prostitutes and drunken women; Maria merely works there, in the kitchen.
tracts on the walls religious texts posted for the edification of readers.
sure to get the ring likely to come upon the ring baked into the barmbrack, signifying that she will marry within a year.
a mass morning a Holy Day of Obligation, on which all observant Catholics must attend Mass.
has a drop taken has drunk alcohol.
Hallow Eve games referring here to a game in which players are led blindfolded to a table where saucers have been arranged: One holds a prayerbook, one a ring, one some water, and the fourth some clay. If the blindfolded participant chooses the prayerbook, he or she is supposed to join the priesthood or become a nun within the year. If the ring is chosen, marriage is foretold. Water means a long life, while clay means death.
"I Dreamt That I Dwelt" a popular aria from the opera The Bohemian Girl, which is also mentioned in "Eveline." The song subtly connects this story with that one, perhaps implying that Eveline will likely end up like Maria.
her mistake Maria has sung the song's first verse twice in a row.
Balfe Michael William Balfe; composer of The Bohemian Girl.