Maria, a maid at a Protestant charity that houses troubled women, proudly reviews her preparation for Halloween festivities at her workplace. Running through the evening’s schedule, she also looks forward to her celebrations for later in the night with the family of a friend, Joe Donnelly. Maria nursed Joe and his brother, Alphy, when they were young, and both of them helped Maria get her present job. Though Maria was at first uncomfortable with the Protestant association of the charity, she has grown to accept it and is warmly loved by the staff and residents. The time for festivities arrives, and Maria distributes the seasonal spiced bread, called barmbrack, and tea. One of the women raises a toast to Maria.
Afterwards, Maria prepares for her journey to Joe’s home, admiring her appearance in the mirror before leaving her room. On her way to Joe’s, Maria does some shopping. Moving through the crowded streets, she visits two shops to buy cakes for the children and a special plum cake for Joe and his wife. She boards a crowded tram and sits next to a “colonel-looking gentleman” who kindly makes room for her. They chat casually during the ride, and at Maria’s stop they cordially say goodbye to each other.
At Joe’s home, the Donnellys happily greet Maria. She distributes the sweets to the children, but when she goes to present to plum cake to Joe and his wife, she cannot find the package. Maria desperately looks everywhere, with no success. The Donnellys suggest that she probably left it on the tram, which makes Maria think about the man, and she scolds herself for getting distracted by his presence and for ruining her own surprise gift. Joe consoles Maria by telling her stories about his office and offering nuts and wine.
The conversation turns to the past, and Maria tries to say good things about Alphy. The brothers have had a falling out, though Joe has named his eldest son after Alphy. Joe grows defensive, and his wife attempts to divert the matter by starting a round of traditional Halloween games. Two girls from the house next door help the children to arrange a table of saucers filled with different objects and lead a blindfolded Maria over to them. Maria touches the saucer with a mound of wet clay on it, which in games of this sort represents early death. Joe’s wife reproves the visiting girls, as though clay should not be an option given its bad omen. Maria reaches again and touches a prayer book, forecasting a pious life in a convent.
The festivities continue happily until Joe asks Maria to sing for the family. With Mrs. Donnelly at the piano, Maria timidly sings “I Dreamt that I Dwelt,” a popular opera aria written by an Irish nineteenth-century composer. Maria sings the first stanza twice, but no one points out her mistake. Joe is visibly moved to tears and, to cover up his reaction, asks his wife where the corkscrew is.
Unlike the female protagonists in earlier stories, Maria does not confront decisions and situations with large consequences, but rather those whose consequences seem small or even nonexistent. Nothing much seems to happen in this story, and its inaction stands out even more since it follows the violent “Counterparts” in the collection. Maria illustrates the quiet life of a single maid, whose spotless reputation as “a veritable peace-maker” attests to her placid lifestyle. The excitement with which the Donnelly family greets her shows that outside of work she is equally loved. Maria is a small, gentle woman whose continuous laughter brings the tip of her nose to touch her chin—as though she loses herself in her joy. However, the events in “Clay,” though quiet, are far from innocuous. Even Maria, with her serene life, harbors unhappiness and frustration, and instead of being exempt from the tedium of routine, she is in fact entrenched in it.
Maria has such little conflict and so few varied experiences that the smallest details of daily living have become the focus of her energies, and these details deaden her life. For Maria, everything demands organization and precision. She fastidiously supervises the distribution of food portions at the charity, she prides herself on her neat and tidy body, and she repeatedly divides up the minutes she will schedule for traveling and shopping for the evening at Joe’s. Maria intends for her attention to minute details to create order and clarity in her life, but such rigidity actually encourages frustration and emotional reactions that are out of proportion to the situation at hand. When she realizes that she has misplaced the plum cake, she is so furious with herself and her carelessness that she almost cries. Unlike Eveline, who feels numb to the loss of her lover and a potential new life, Maria feels acute emotions over events that are far more trivial. “Clay” demonstrates that Maria’s responses are just as restraining as Eveline’s. Maria most likely focuses intently on life’s small details in order to avoid greater pains. Joe exhibits the same behavior: He covers up his mysterious, tearful reaction to Maria’s song by asking his wife to show him where an ordinary household item is. Preoccupation with such trivial matters helps to repress the more difficult aspects of life. The reader never knows what moves Joe, nor what Maria might feel on deeper levels.
The title “Clay” draws attention to Maria’s fateful selection of clay in the Halloween game and applies that symbolism of early death to the story as a whole. Rather than implying a literal death, the clay casts Maria’s uneventful, detail-oriented life as a metaphorical early death. Clay also suggests the state of Maria and her life up to that moment. Like the paralytic Father Flynn from “The Sisters,” Maria hovers in a state between living and dying where engagement with her surroundings cannot move beyond a superficial, material level. Like Farrington in “Counterparts,” she fails to recognize the tedious routine of her days, as her repetition of the song suggests. Maria does not actively shape her experience in significant ways, but instead she allows it to shape her. The image of her face collapsing into itself in laughter implies that Maria in her blind happiness is moldable and soft, like clay. Maria chooses the prayer book after the clay, which suggests she might find escape in the cloistered life of a convent. Whether Maria escapes or not, some part of her will die. She will lose her vibrancy to the dullness of routine, or she will lose the life she knows for one that is unfamiliar.