Middle of Nowhere Productions

Middle of Nowhere Productions

Joyce. Dubliners. Clay

Clay. p.95.

 

Characters

The main character is Maria, a tiny, ugly spinster who works in one of the prison-laundries operated by Protestants, but without being one of the actual inmates.

A first set of characters is composed of the people at the laundry: the matron,

the cook and the dummy, and the women, two of whom are named (Ginger Mooney and Lizzie Fleming.)

The second set of characters is composed of Joe Donnelly’s household; Joe is one of the two brothers that Maria used to nurse:  Joe’s wife and children (number unknown) and two girls who live next door and have been invited for Hallow Eve.

One single character, then, the elderly stout gentleman on the tram.

An important absent character, last: Joe’s brother Alphy, mentioned in the story, but not to be mentioned in Joe’s presence…

 

Shall we also consider the various cakes as characters in their own right?

 

Setting

The setting is not very important, apart from the fact that the laundry is situated in a Protestant area and Joe’s house in a very Catholic one. Once again, Joyce is very precise about the route followed by the main character, giving details about which trams she takes and how long the trip is.

 

Time

An important moment, since it coalesces a prominent Catholic celebration, Hallow Eve (which everybody knows as Hallowe’en,) and an ancient pagan Celtic feast, Samhain, also dedicated to the dead. The etymology of Hallow Eve is here important, since it means all hallow even, or all saints equal, both “official,” canonized ones, and uncanonized ones. Fundamentally, and that is the reason why Catholics honour their dead on that occasion, that is the day when all the dead are considered as potential saints. Eve can also be understood in a paradoxical way, since Maria is the proper mother of two brothers whose conflicting relationship evoke Abel and Cain.

 

Narration

As it is the case for most of the stories in Dubliners, Joyce brilliantly shifts from the omniscient narrator’s point of view to that of the main character. Yet, in any case, most of the narration is an internal focalization on Maria. It can be felt very precisely when Maria is blindfolded (p.101: ) At that moment, the reader’s only information is what Maria can feel and hear.

 

Development

The story is obviously founded on Maria’s misery and loneliness, emphasized by Joyce’s insistence on her apparent mirth and happiness. Maria is unmarried, getting old, diminutive and ugly (the tip of her nose nearly met the tip of her chin.) Joyce’s ironical cruelty in describing her can be seen as early as page 95: Maria was a very, very small person indeed, but she had a very long nose and a very long chin, as if the length of those two appendages could compensate for the almost-inexistence of her body, a body that she nevertheless considers as a nice tidy little body (97.) One is then tempted to read a nice tidy little nobody.

Although she works as a plain scullery maid in what most Irish people considered as the worst possible environment (laundry women were regarded as the worst sinners,) Maria is always presented as glad, or happy, or laughing, except on one occasion, that will be developed further. Furthermore, she likes everybody and everything, including herself and the Protestants (96), and is liked by everybody. Well, almost everybody, since young men (p.98) and the stylish young lady behind the counter (98) apparently do not seem to appreciate her very much.

Another important point in the story is the amount of things unsaid. The reader does know that there has been a big problem between Joe and his brother Alphy, but the problem remains a mystery. The reader knows that Maria must have worked as a mother’s helper and taken care of both Joe and Alphy, but nothing precise is said about it, and nothing either about the reason why there was a break-up at home (96.)

The most important thing unsaid yet, or merely evoked, is Maria’s relationship to men. The first clue is her name, of course; being a virgin, she must be a Mary. The second is her specific status at the laundry: whereas all the other women are either unmarried mothers, or suspected to be temptresses, she is free to go out, which means she is different inasmuch as she never had any relationship with the other sex. Third, she is a mamma (96,) and a  proper mother without having ever borne a child. Fourth, although she often had wanted to go and live with Joe and his wife, she would have felt herself in the way (though Joe’s wife was ever so nice with her.) When Lizzie Fleming (97) says that Maria was sure to get the ring, she buckles and answers she does not want any ring or man either.

The only man in fact who pays some attention to her is the elderly gentleman on the tram, to such a point that she thinks how easy it was to know a gentleman even when he has a drop taken (99.) One could wonder at the implications of the verb know in such a case, especially the biblical ones, and especially since the only difference between him and the young men who simply stared at their shoes (98) is that he pays attention to her. At the end of the story, when she sings I Dreamt that I Dwelt, she repeats the first stanza as if to insist on her non-existent love life, and the result of her singing, once put aside Joe’s emotional response to the melody, is the disappearance of the corkscrew, with all the possible symbolic implications of the instrument, boiling down on Maria’s unscrewable virginity.

 

The cake, now – or cakes since they are numerous.-

The first cakes of the story are the barmbracks that the laundry women are about to eat. Since most of them are unmarried women, and have little hope of ever finding husbands because of their life-long custody at the laundry, those cakes are highly parodic. Maria herself performs a ritual of castration by cutting the barmbracks into long thick even slices before offering them to those who have sinned, but will sin no more. Lizzie’s joke about Maria’s getting the ring is in such a situation extremely symbolic, since Maria should be the only woman present who is likely to get married. The second meaningful cake is the one Maria buys for Joe and his wife, first because it is reserved to a couple, and second because of the lady behind the counter’s question: asked her was it a wedding cake she wanted to buy. Maria’s blushing at the question is of course a parody of her absence of desire and sexual accomplishment. No wonder then that the intrusion of the elderly gentleman causes her to forget everything about the cake and leave it on the tram, because the tram is the only place in the story when Maria is considered as a woman, and likely to be bowed and smiled at in a courteous manner. That explains the violence of her reaction when she realises she has forgotten about the cake: coloured with shame and vexation and disappointment (99.) Note also the symbolic value of the cake in the familiar expression denoting pregnancy: having a bun in the oven.

 

Irishness

All is contained in the laundry first, because it is a place created by Protestants to alleviate the pains of the women that the Irish society rejects and would readily put into prison. Paradoxically here, but even more powerfully, the oppressors are more lenient than the oppressed, a way for Joyce to criticise the weight of religion once more. For the Irish reader, most of those laundries were run by Catholic nuns whose cruelty was in perfect adequation to their frustrations. Showing the Protestants as more civilised than the Catholics is a good way for Joyce to put the blame on his fellow-citizens. More, the only person who treats Maria as a woman, however drunk he may be, is a colonel-looking gentleman (98;) that detail shows that he must be, if not British, an Anglo-Irish Protestant. Once again in the story, the oppressors are more human than the oppressed.

 

Conclusion

A fine piece of writing, especially because of the presence of symbolism as the only tell-tale element. Irishness is criticised not through its defects (alcoholism appears only once,) but through the qualities of the Protestants. Maria’s age, virginity and sexual paralysis are never openly mentioned, and this mainstream of the story appears only through various suggestive brushstrokes. Last, but not least, Joyce once again stands out as a virtuoso in narration, following the main character nimbly through her occupations, with an unequalled mix of tenderness, humour and direst cruelty.

 

 



20/11/2009
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