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Joyce is trying essentially to convey the picture of a life of trivial joys and disappointments. The character of Maria is, in a sense, the traditional one of the stock "old maid" but with a difference. Joyce observes her daily routine-the pride she takes in her menial chores and the praise they earn for her with a certain ironic tenderness. In all the teasing by her work mates, and by Joe’s family while there is a patronizing touch, there is also affection. Yet it is mainly from the inside of Maria’s head that we see her activities and Joyce gives us the feeling of an oppressive "optimism." One critic has called it "Maria’s elaborately edited precariously self protecting view of the world." Thus, in the tram she ignores the rudeness of the other men and comments favorably on the polite elderly gentleman. She talks of Joe’s wife being "ever so nice with her", yet throughout she is referred to as Mrs. Donnelly, while Joe remain "Joe." The loss of the plum cake disturbs her assumed contentment, and she is almost in tears. Yet there is no epiphany for Maria. Only the Hallow Eve game, with her stumbling first on the clay, then the prayer book, creates an awareness in Joe with regards her situation. It is an epiphany for him, reinforced when she misses out the stanza dealing with love from the song. He realizes the lack of love and comfort in her life, and her nearness to death, and is moved to tears, perhaps of guilt.
The story is also a reflection of the condescension of others towards a person like Maria, as she has no home, husband or children, or status of her own. Whether it is the jolly workers, whom she considers "common" or Joe’s wife who is patronizingly kind or Joe himself, they all trivialize her standing, and only her assumed dignity keeps her going.
Joyce’s brother has pointed out that Maria represents the "female celibate" as Duffy does the male celibate in these stories. However unlike Duffy who determinedly maintains his celibacy even in the face of temptations. Maria’s may be forced on her by pressure of social conditions.
From the very start Joyce introduces Maria as a "very very small person indeed," suggested underdevelopment and a shrunken appearance. Throughout, her physical appearance is shown to reflect her total condition, which is one of deprivation- with reference to love, status of mental development, money and companionship. Maria has been cast out of the home where it was said of her "mamma is mamma but Maria is my proper mother." She has to eke out her life in hard labor at the laundry, with no other prospect than being cast out again when she’s too old to work. Thus, she’s yet another victim in Joyce’s eyes of the callousness of Dubliners. Her only option for survival is to constantly focus on the "positive" aspects of her life and people around her and censor in her own mind the unpleasant aspect. Thus, a rare visit to Joe’s house is not a grudging token, but a rare treat. Her blanking out of negative thoughts does not allow for an epiphany, which is only possible for Joe.
Joe appears throughout the story, as seen by Maria. The reader has to visualize him between the lines. The boy who has been lovingly raised by Maria, "his proper mother", and who "can’t" provide for her in old age and gets her a job in the laundry. He has affection for her and feelings of guilt as well. Finally only with his new awareness of Maria’s bleak life is he moved to tears. But Joyce leaves it ambiguous as to whether Joe will act on this awareness or not.
PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS
The story begins with a description of the kitchen, at the laundry, which reflects all that Maria is and does. Then Joyce moves on to a description of how she is so popular and treated so well at the laundry. Given her lowly position, it is understood that this is her selective presentation of her life.
Then the trip to the city, fraught with small dangers and small excitements is presented. Finally, the long awaited party, highlight of her existence. Here we read between the lines, seeing Joe’s wife’s patronizing kindness, Joe’s thoughtless affection and the children’s disinterest. Until finally, the song and the game are a revelation to Joe, who is overcome with guilt and pain at her condition.
A long anticipated outing, to the house of her grown up charge, by Maria reveals her compulsion to take pride in morsels of praise and affection doled out to her by the people around her.
SYMBOLISM / MOTIFS / IMAGERY / SYMBOLS
The opening description of the laundry kitchen as "spick and span: the cook said you could see yourself in the big copper boilers", itself reflects Maria’s personality and life’s work. The slices of "barmbrack" cut so precisely that nobody would fight over unequal shares are her handwork. Later, we find her counting out the shillings, calculating the expenses of her trip to Joe’s. Still later, when the cake is lost-she rues the loss of the hard-earned two shillings and four pence-thus measuring out her life in shillings. Another telling image is the one of the song she sings at Joe’s-"I dreamt that dwelt in marble halls." Here Maria leaves out or forgets the second stanza dealing with love and suitors, revealing the absence of anything like it in her life of drudgery. Finally, the clay of the title is the clay in the game, which she happens to touch, standing for death. In Maria’s case, Joe realizes the lack of emotional satisfaction, of companionship and love, in her life. This is equivalent to emotional death.