Writing Essays – New View in Joyce’s Short Story, Clay

James Joyce’s famous short story, “Clay,” was published in 1914 in his collection of short stories titled, Dubliners.

Like literally every other short story ever published, “Clay” makes a strong old view value statement early on and then shows a new view reversal of that old view at the end. Let me demonstrate a three-step method that helps you analyze any short story using those concepts and that will help you get started writing literary essays:

#1- EARLY ON, STRONG STATEMENT: At the beginning of a short story, a strong value statement, an old view, is given by or about the main character, asserting an evaluation or describing some characteristic, goal, or desire.

The very first sentence identifies a goal or desire of the main character:

The matron had given her leave to go out as soon as the women’s tea was over and Maria looked forward to her evening out.

In the description of Maria’s getting ready to go out for the evening, as she’s preparing and serving tea for the women of the Dublin by Lamplight laundry, two strong old view value statements are made about two important characteristics of Maria,

  • Maria, you are a veritable peace-maker!
  • Mamma is mamma but Maria is my proper mother.

Because of the strength of the first old view value statement, we are given expectations of finding out how Maria was a strong-willed, clever, resourceful peace-maker, one who could bring peace to any troubled situation. And we expect from the second one to find out how she was Joe’s proper mother in all the idealistic ways that the phrase suggests.

#2-IN MIDDLE, SUPPORTING/UNDERCUTTING: In the middle of a short story, the old view is supported or undercut with descriptions, conflicts, and resolutions that set up the new view at the end.

DESCRIPTION: Many descriptions occur throughout the story that undercut the old views, so we’ll have to zero in on those with the clearest impact on the old view – new view relationship in the story.

In the beginning of the story, there’s a mixture of short descriptions of Maria’s character, her past, her plan for her trip to Joe’s house that evening, her relationship to Joe and Alphy as their nursing maid and nanny, how Joe and Alphy got Maria her the job at the laundry, Joe and Alphy’s presently strained relationship, the happenings at tea time, and Maria’s thoughts while dressing to get ready for her evening out.

During the tea-time meal, Lizzie Fleming said Maria was sure to get the ring and, though Fleming had said that for so many Hallow Eves, Maria had to laugh and say she didn’t want any ring or man either; and when she laughed her grey-green eyes sparkled with disappointed shyness and the tip of her nose nearly met the tip of her chin.

Since Lizzie had said, Maria was sure to get the ring… for so many Hallow Eves, it is plain that Lizzie had long wanted for Maria to get the ring, get a man, and get married. So did Maria. Though Maria says she didn’t want any ring or man either, her laughing with disappointed shyness says otherwise. She always wanted to be a proper mother, to raise her own family, but she never quite got the chance of getting married, which would have made that possible.

And what’s up with the description of Maria’s laughing and the tip of her nose nearly met the tip of her chin, which occurs again two sentences later, as well as at Joe’s house, when she’s being blindfolded to play another fortunetelling game? It must be important, though it’s not clear how. Maybe it just emphasizes her disappointed shyness about her relationships with men and her feelings about wanting to get married.

Right after Lizzie Fleming’s prediction, Then Ginger Mooney lifted her mug of tea and proposed Maria’s health while all the other women clattered with their mugs on the table, and said she was sorry she hadn’t a sup of porter to drink it in.

This description is important to bear in mind at the end of the story. I’ll bring it up in my discussion about the story’s ending, later.

CONFLICT: In the beginning, it was clear that Maria was always sent for when the women quarreled.

RESOLUTION: Why? Because she talked always soothingly: ‘Yes, my dear,’ and No, my dear.’ It was Maria’s soothing niceness, her way of passive peacemaking, which always resolved conflicts at the Dublin by Lamplight, not any cleverness of persuasion or strength of personality that earned her the status of veritable peace-maker.

CONFLICT: In the middle of the story, when Maria went to a downtown pastry shop on Henry Street, the stylish young lady behind the counter, who was evidently a little annoyed by her, asked her was it wedding-cake she wanted to buy. That made Maria blush and smile at the young lady; but the young lady took it all very seriously.

RESOLUTION: Maria’s solution to the little conflict-she blushed and smiled. Her soothing didn’t really solve the conflict, but it did smooth it over. More passive niceness.

CONFLICT: Near the end of the story, the girls couldn’t find a nutcracker for Maria and Joe got upset about it.

RESOLUTION: Maria nicely said she didn’t like nuts and they weren’t to bother about her. Again, passive soothing, not solving.

CONFLICT: When Joe and his wife tried to push beer and wine on her, Maria tried to refuse.

RESOLUTION: … but Joe insisted. So Maria let him have his way.

Once again, Maria solved a conflict by being nice and passively giving in to others, just smoothing things over.

CONFLICT: Maria thought she would put in a good word for Alphy. But Joe cried that God might strike him stone dead if ever he spoke a word to his brother again.

RESOLUTION: Instead of being a proper mother and a peace-maker with her ‘children,’ Joe and Alphy, Maria said she was sorry she had mentioned the matter. As she noted earlier in thinking about the Joe-Alphy conflict, but such was life, and Maria certainly was too passive and not peace-maker enough to resolve the situation.

#3-AT END, A NEW VIEW REVERSAL. At the end of a short story, a new view reverse of the old view is usually revealed.

When Maria gets to Joe’s, there’s another Irish fortune-telling game (called Puicíní: “poocheeny”). In the game, a blindfolded person is seated in front of a table on which several saucers are placed. The saucers are shuffled, and the blindfolded, seated person then chooses one by touch. The contents of the chosen saucer supposedly foretell the person’s life during the following year: water meant travel, a prayer book meant the priesthood or a nunnery, and a ring meant marriage.

In being blindfolded to play this game, Maria laughed and laughed again till the tip of her nose nearly met the tip of her chin-more evidence of the disappointed shyness we saw earlier. At first, her hand touched a soft wet substance with her fingers… Somebody said something about the garden… Mrs. Donnelly said… that was no play… Maria understood that it was wrong that time and so she had to do it over again: and this time she got the prayer-book.

As just one happening of the evening, just a game, the incident seems innocent enough. But what is soft and wet and comes from the garden? Clay, which is the title of the story. And clay is soft and passive and moldable by whatever pressures it. Doesn’t that describe Maria?

Where’s the strong veritable peace-maker or the proper mother who molds others, who directs and guides and blesses her children through thick and thin? This incident is a strong undercutting of those old views and reminds us of her indecision in buying cakes downtown and chatting with the stout gentleman on the tram, where all she could do was favor him with demure nods and hems.

And she gets the prayerbook in the game, not the ring. That’s appropriate for Maria because, as Joyce shows us time and again, she truly can’t handle much of anything else.

The strongest suggestion of Maria never getting a man and never, therefore, having the chance to be a proper mother, is when she sings a song at Joe’s request at the very end. The song brings to mind Maria’s life compared to the life of the woman whose words she is singing. The song was, “I Dreamed that I Dwelt,” and two lines in the song remind us of the women at tea time: And of all who assembled within those walls, That I was the hope and the pride.

You’ll recall that at tea time Ginger Mooney lifted her mug of tea and proposed Maria’s health while all the other women clattered with their mugs on the table.

That kind of clattering with their mugs on the table is probably also very like how those in the song would express That I was the hope and the pride, when they assembled within those walls. Where else would they assemble to express such hope and pride except in a banquet hall? Feasts and banquets would be the natural setting, and the rich feasters would, no doubt, toast the rich woman Of a high ancestral name with clattering and banging their mugs on the table, just as the poor, unwed mothers of the laundry did at tea time for their nice, poor friend, Maria.

The song was about a woman with riches and a high ancestral name. And the woman in the song felt That you loved me still the same, referring to some rich man, no doubt. Of course, that was the exact opposite or reverse of practically penniless Maria, who, blushing very much as she began singing, was very much aware that she was very poor, worked in a laundry for unwed mothers, and couldn’t even handle a common conversation with a common man on a tram without losing her wits and her plum cake.

At the story’s end, Joyce suggests once again that Maria is, in fact, the new view reverse of a strong-willed peace-maker with persuasive powers for solving conflicts, which the women of the laundry believed she was. As to being my proper mother, Maria’s letting Joe manipulate her so many times-past and present-actually show that she had not even been a strong substitute mother, let alone a “proper mother.”

The fact is, Maria’s entire character-as developed more fully in the middle and end of the story-is the new view reverse of the two strong character descriptions given at the beginning. Maria is actually as weak and passive and moldable and non-propagating (not giving of life, as a proper mother would be) as the title of the story suggests: She was lifeless, passive, moldable clay. Perfect fit.

Based on our discussion, here are some sample thesis statements to give you a few ideas for writing a strong essay on Joyce’s short story, “Clay:”

  • Joyce’s story “Clay” shows us the theme that, ‘Anyone who gives up too many personal choices to others can become sterile, unproductive, and incapable of controlling their own lives.’
  • Joyce shows with Maria in his story “Clay” that society may think we are one way, when we are, ironically, exactly the opposite.
  • James Joyce’s “Clay” provides ample evidence in little conflicts throughout the story that Maria lacks the strength others think she has as a peace-maker and a proper mother, especially at the end.
  • The short story “Clay,” by James Joyce, uses imagery in descriptions at the beginning, middle, and end to hint of Maria’s true character of weak, moldable clay, not strength.
  • “Clay” by James Joyce uses symbolism in the story’s title, in the holiday games, and in the song at the end to show that Maria is weak, not strong, and that she’s not what she’s labeled as being by her friends.

Writing the Short Story: How to Write a Gripping Ending to a Story

“Have you thought of an ending?”

“Yes, several, and all are dark and unpleasant.”

“Oh, that won’t do! Books ought to have good endings. How would this do: and they all settled down and lived together happily ever after?”

“It will do well, if it ever came to that.”

“Ah! And where will they live? That’s what I often wonder.”

J. R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring.

When it comes to creative writing, it is the ending of a story that is one of the most difficult parts of the writing process for me. When the final line has been written, or typed, and there is nothing else for the characters to do, and victory has been won and the antagonist vanquished – I shed a tear. You may think me to be melodramatic, but I have just finished my first novel. And I feel a sense of satisfaction tinged with sadness.

But all stories have to end sometimes, don’t they? So when it comes to your literary masterpiece, the question needs to be asked “Have you thought of an ending?” (Tolkien).

Like the beginning of a story, there are many ways to end a piece of fiction. You can choose to end your story with a satisfying conclusion – with all the loose ends neatly tied up. Most of us enjoy this type of ending. The neat and tidy ending is so popular because, unlike real life, a story can provide us with a guaranteed resolution of conflict. We can have our desired happy ending and everyone lives ‘happily every after’.

But for those of us who choose to defy traditional storytelling techniques, there is the option of a ‘surprise ending’ or a ‘open ending’. By daring to be different we can ultimately leave the reader desiring more. So let us go a step further and explore the different ways that you can craft your ending so as to stamp an indelible impression on your reader’s mind. Here are five ways to write a gripping ending to a story.

The circular ending.

This type of ending is when the story concludes with a mirror image of the beginning. It is a circular journey where the characters return to the same scene at the beginning of the story, but they have learned some valuable lessons. They may look or still be dressed the same but they have been transformed on the inside.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis is one of the best examples I can think of. Although the children do not enter Narnia in the first paragraph, but in first couple of pages, the ending mirrors this section of the story. As in the beginning, the children tumble out of the wardrobe and are met again by the sound of the footsteps of Mrs Macready and her guests in the hallway.

The surprise ending.

Kate Chopin’s ‘The Story of an Hour’ is a great example of a surprise ending. In the beginning, Mrs Mallard is notified that her husband has died in a tragic train accident. The majority of the narrative focuses on Mrs Mallard’s conflicting emotions over her husband’s sudden demise, and reveals some interesting revelations about his abusive nature.

As her ‘streams of consciousness’ show her dramatic shift from the grief-stricken widow to a woman who has discovered the guilty pleasure of an overwhelming revelation that she is now free from her husband’s suffocating control, there is a clever twist at the end. Brently Mallard was well and truly alive, and seeing him at the bottom of the stairs, not only fatally shocks his wife, but it shocked me as well. This kind of ending is not everyone’s ideal ending, but Chopin’s ironic and tragic twist contributed to the overall tragic mood of the story.

The ‘open’ ending.

Daphne Du Maurier’s novel The House on the Strand is one of the best examples of an ‘open’ ending I have ever read. Although I am a fan of defying traditional narrative expectations, I initially was quite disappointed by her choice of ending. I really wanted to know what happened to the main character, Dick Young, who had become addicted to a drug that enabled him to travel back in time to the fourteenth-century in Kilmarch, Cornwall.

At the end of novel, Young is back in the safety of his home and under the expert care of the resident doctor. But whilst on the phone to his wife, he suddenly looses consciousness, and this is where the novel concludes. Du Maurier had left me high and dry and I was devastated. I wanted to know what happened to Dick, did he die? Did he return to the past? So many questions and absolutely no answers.

But in hindsight, Du Maurier’s ‘open’ ending was another example of clever writing. She had provided me with an opportunity to dream up my own ending. As the passive reader, she was giving me some narrative power and inviting me to write my own conclusion and to be the ultimate decider of Dick Young’s fate.

The trick ending.

‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ by Ambrose Bierce is a good example of a trick ending. At the beginning of the story a man is being hanged. Bierce then proceeds to provide quite a densely packed narrative about the man’s supposed dramatic escape. But it is not until the man reaches his home and family that we are told that, “Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge”.

In writing this story, Bierce had drawn upon the idea that moments before death a person can be subject to hallucinations, and he uses this to trick us into believing that Peyton had cleverly escaped his death sentence. With his trick ending, Bierce reveals that Peyton had only imagined that he had successfully cheated death!

The summary ending.

This technique is used a lot in filmmaking. At the end of film, the audience is shown a written summary about the final outcomes for each of the characters – they get married, they succeed in business, etc. As in films, this choice of ending for a work of fiction provides a feel-good ending for the reader. The hero or heroine are victorious, the villains are punished and justice is served.

I have provided you with just a few choices for the ending of your story. But whichever one you decide to choose, your purpose must always be to leave a lingering impression or a dynamic image in the reader’s mind. As writers we have the power to entertain and inspire the reader, but to also challenge their literary expectations.

Happy writing!

Short Story Writing – Ten Beginnings to Avoid

In the same way that editors don’t want to see an ending they’ve seen before, equally, there are some story beginnings that have been done to death. Here are ten you shouldn’t use.

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

The “weather report” gambit. Not only is it a lazy way to start a story, but this one was voted “Worst story opening of all time.”

“I hadn’t seen her in the bar before. She was pale, but interesting.”

The “Vampire pick-up gambit” Or maybe they’re a werewolf, or alien, or serial killer. Or maybe the narrator isn’t what he or she seems. Either way, the story turns out the same, and the editor will have given up long before he got to the end.

“The man with the piercing eyes and pointed beard asked ‘What you would give to have your heart’s desire?”

The old “Pact with the Devil” gambit. Only try this if you really have sold your soul for fame and fortune – all other permutations have been played out years ago.

“I thought he was supposed to be in Vegas, so I was surprised to see ………”

Almost as old as pact with the Devil stories is the “I talked to a ghost” gambit. Cavemen probably told this story to each other around their campfires. And you think an editor hasn’t heard it?

“I woke up in the dark, and all I could feel above me was velvet, and beneath that, wood.”

The “buried alive” gambit. Those cavemen probably knew this one as well. A variation is the “Sixth Sense” gambit where the narrator is already dead. Do you think the editor didn’t see the film?

“They gave me a really good going over, and I vowed there and then to have my revenge.”

The “Clint Eastwood” gambit. Generally a sign that you’re going to be explicitly violent. Even if the editor wants that kind of stuff, they’ll want a better plot than this.

“I’ve always felt strange around the time of the full moon.”

The “werewolf” gambit. Even Michael Jackson knows about the effects of the moon on certain people, and you know how cut off he is from reality?

“I got a strange feeling when I saw the sarcophagus arrive in the storeroom.”

The “mummy” gambit. Even more old-hat since the recent blockbuster movies. Shambling piles of bandages just don’t hack it in the 21st Century.

“The red-haired FBI agent turned to her partner and said….”

Editors watch television too you know. The only place to send these, and those concerning teenage vampire slayers, is to fan-fiction web sites. Even there you have to have an original plotline. Rehashes of episodes just won’t make it.

“What would you do if I gave you three wishes?”

The “Leprechaun” gambit. And guess what – the protagonist gets screwed on the third wish. The editor will be asleep before you get to wish number two.

There’s only so many good ideas floating around. Remember, if you’ve seen something like it before, then the editor will have too. Try to make sure your idea is an original one.That way you might get an editor to read past page one.

Then you’ve only got the middle and the ending to worry about, but that’s two completely different articles.