Politics Magazine

Joyce's Dubliners: "Clay" and "A Painful Case"

Posted on the 18 October 2013 by Erictheblue


In "A Little Cloud" and "Counterparts," men find no cheer in marriage.  The next two stories in Dubliners are "Clay" and "A Painful Case."  The main characters in these stories aren't married but the color of their lives is gray, too.

Maria, in "Clay," works at a Protestant home for fallen women.  Her physical description is that of a witch--"a very, very small person indeed but she had a very long nose and a very long chin."  She's prim, like the interior decoration that repels Little Chandler in "A Little Cloud."  The people in these stories by Joyce tend to be small and what some people call "fussy."

In the story, she has the evening off and is traveling to a party at a home where she formerly worked, caring for children who are now grown.  She has some very minor adventures--or misadventures--along the way: maybe it is not too much to regard "Clay" as a very, very small mock odyssey.  What one notices, in the rather drab narration of Maria's preparations and travel, is her heightened response to suggestions of sexuality or matrimony. While dressing, she studies her body in a mirror, and judges it, despite the years, "a nice tidy little body."  She stops along the way to buy cake for the party and blushes when the girl at the counter asks whether it's wedding cake she wants.  Back on the tram with the cake, she makes small talk with a man who has had a few drinks.  Her reaction to this ordinary encounter is such that she forgets the cake on the tram.  At the party, she plays a blindfold game that had earlier been alluded to back at her work: when someone predicted she'd pick the ring, a symbol of marriage, she had laughed nervously and denied she wanted a man.  In the event, she picks a saucer on which some mischievous girls have put something soft and wet--clay, a symbol of mortality.  The girls are scolded and Maria takes another turn.  This time she chooses a prayer book. 

As the story comes to a close, Maria is asked to sing a song, "one of the old songs" called "I Dreamt that I Dwelt."  Blushing, she sings the first verse, in which the speaker celebrates a mutually fulfilling love affair, and, having finished this verse, by mistake sings it again in "a tiny quavering voice."  Her mistake is overlooked by the host, who has had too much to drink, and the story ends.

"A Painful Case" features a man who is single by choice.  He has orderly habits, works in a bank, has liberal political views but dislikes the people whose cause has his intellectual support.  He doesn't like anyone, actually.  He has a brief dalliance with a married woman but breaks it off when it becomes evident that she is emotionally starved and wants from him more than a dalliance.   Her neediness repels him and his life falls back into the same pattern.  After some years pass, he is one evening eating dinner in a restaurant and sees in his newspaper a story headlined "A Painful Case" concerning a woman's suicide.  It's the woman with whom he had had the small affair.  His food congeals as he reads the threadbare account of the "accident" at the train tracks.  His default reaction is to feel disgusted with her again, and confirmed in his decision to leave her.  But as he ponders his thoughts turn and he feels that he is "outcast from life's feast."  That striking phrase recurs in his sad nearly swooning revery, and the reader understands to whom the newspaper headline, and title of this great story, applies.  

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