As we attempt to unfold the meaning of James Joyce’s use of paralysis in his classic tale, Clay, one thing stands out. In most other published fiction, Joyce shows a preference to focus on the voice of the male character. Clay, however, is an exception. Here, his central character—the protagonist—is a female. Yet, just because the focus of most of his fiction is set aside for the male sex, does that mean he hopes to glorify this sex? Hardly. We must look into just how Joyce perceived the male character versus the female character in his stories.
From one front, we can say that, by-and-large, because his protagonists were male, there was some gender stereotyping going on in the mind of our author. We must, however, look deeply into his use of paralysis as a central theme. This paralysis is not exactly a place people prefer to be. However, many of us can relate to suffering, pain, and loss. These are some of the reasons Joyce’s story Clay is profoundly telling. Another interesting point to consider is this: Was Joyce using men in the starring role as an opportunity to place them on an award-winning podium?
Or, was this an opportunity to bash the male gender? So just what was his biased reasoning behind rarely using female protagonists? Did he stereotype the female persona? Were his stories a form of gender racism? In answering this, it is clear that the main character suffered, to varying degrees of emotional, physical, and social discomfort. These characters—male or female—were not something a reader would aspire to. So, just because the role of the female protagonist was rare in a James Joyce story, there is not sound evidence that he preferred the male gender over the female gender.
It could be argued, for instance, that his focus on the troubled male was his way of bashing this sex. Surely glory was not an overtone in Clay or many of his other published works of art. So we go to the next question: Did Joyce treat women differently than his male roles? Some can argue that his paralysis-based stories were a chance for Joyce to belittle the female character. In Clay, Maria, our protagonist was viewed as almost distasteful to look at. However, Maria didn’t see it this way. At the very least, we can say that gender role stereotyping was prevalent.
In looking at the female voice, we can see that he did place women in the mother/lover/wife role. In the male role position, we see that the character, Joe, is in a much freer position that Maria. Albeit Joe did have a disease of his own: alcoholism. But, Joe was also typecast in the head-of-household role, and the one who others reported to—even though he had a drinking problem. Yet, Maria was the protagonist, so the lead character is, obviously, going to be the sufferer anyway. What’s more important to remember is the fact that James Joyce placed all his characters in debilitating situations.
So, sexism doesn’t seem a likely analysis behind the author’s reasoning for creating such one-sided male character-based stories. If someone is looking for a hero or role model, regardless of sex, they will not find it in Clay, or any of his short fiction paralysis-based stories. Joyce had deep reasoning behind staging the story of a maid and how she relates, reacts, and is portrayed by a family who she’s worked with for many years. Paralysis, once again, was Joyce’s underlying motive that created such magic on the page.
Upon an initial read of this short classic, there appears to be very little action in the story, with the main thrust coming from emotion and thoughts surrounding Maria—our seemingly wafer-thin female who is loved and respected by those in her life, at least according to Maria. All the characters in the story, in fact, appear to lack any depth. The spiritual epiphany seems to be missing as well. Maria, as transparent as she first appeared, is shown to reveal herself as a charismatic person who has a gift for touching others. Joyce, once again, did this with clever wit.
The author loved to move the reader along at a smooth, almost velvety pace. Then, almost out of thin air, he’d add tiny, silent bombs of description that spoke volumes about a character’s past. Maria, for example, is referred to as... a very, very small person indeed but she had a very long nose and a very long chin. She talked a little through her nose, always soothingly… Joyce, here, uses description of Maria’s facial features to tell so much more about her than the dimensions of her nose and chin. We are given a taste of her past: a soft spoken, generous woman who radiated joy in others by her willingness to aid her fellows in need.
This radiating joy, however, is something that only Maria perceives. This dysfunctional means of viewing herself as lovely doesn’t become fully apparent until we are through with the story; for Joyce takes this entire process of painting Maria’s emotional state with slow, yet deliberate, remarks. Many times its the way he casts a scene and how the minor characters act or ignore Maria that truly adds color to his theme of paralysis. According to Maria, people saw beyond her less than charismatic nose and chin, seeing her shimmering inner beauty shine forth.
It was her actions and unconditional devotion that created her beautiful persona. However, Joyce goes on to use a narrator who works more like a thief. This thief of a narrator tells the tale in a voice that leads the reader off-course so he can hide the wealth of the true theme and moral. For, beyond Maria’s long nose, the narrator goes on to describe Maria as a petite, small-boned and attractive woman. Joyce does this as our Maria—a woman who is valued as reliable, caring, and wise—gains pleasure by marveling over herself in the mirror.
Joyce is so subtle that it doesn’t hit the reader until he or she is two or three sentence beyond the scene where Maria gets pleasure out of looking at the soft, gentle slopes of her frame. But only Maria sees herself as lovely. The story opens with positive embellishments by her tea-party friends. They say she is likable and hard-working, a woman with a knack for “keeping-house. ” In effect, this is the minor characters way of patronizing Maria for her inefficiencies and trappings as a maid. Joe, a man she worked for, adds that she holds the standing of a “proper mother” whom he has formed a deep bond with.
Joyce wrote, Mamma is mamma but Maria is my proper mother Joyce, of course, twists things up nicely by adding the fact that Joe has a drinking problem. So, how reliable is he? Yet, even with his joy for booze, Joyce ties it all together with such clarity that the reader is willing to excuse Joe’s drinking problem and accept him as a reliable source when he relates to how Maria has affected him. In comparison to other short stories by James Joyce, this is a rare example of a protagonist suffering from that subliminal paralysis who is actually liked by the other characters.
Take Dubliners, for example. In Dubliners, the protagonist is viewed as shallow and lacking integrity. Maria, in contrast, receives preferential treatment by how the other characters voice their opinion of her. True they like her, but they also feel sorry for Maria. This is very empowering yet, at the same time, places the reader on a cliff of wonder. How can this woman who is viewed so highly be suffering from a life-long paralysis? Something is amiss. But what? This is what makes Joyce such a master at toying with paralysis.
A more introspective look at Maria reveals the warped perception she sees in herself. How can a woman look at her own long beak of a nose with bulging chin and consider it glamorous? When she laughed, wrote Joyce, her grey-green eyes sparkled with disappointed shyness and the tip of her nose nearly met the tip of her chin. Although the narrative voice is not Maria, per se, we can see that she fancies her own image, as referenced earlier. Maria screens out the fact that it would be a stretch to say that someone was beautiful if the tip of her nose nearly kissed her pointy chin when she laughed.
Joyce mentioned that people ignore her in the pastry shop. Plus, when she is on the crowded tram, no one—initially—considers moving over to make a seat for her. Chivalry, back in the morning of the twentieth century, was much more prevalent than it is today. So why would almost every man on the tram offer her no consideration? Furthermore, there is a man who recognizes her and he offers his seat. But he’s a drunk. Even the drunk had stealthy motives: The drunk stole her cake while on the tram, at least this is what could be inferred from the text.
So, with careful examination, it becomes very clear that sweet little Maria, is not the person she feels she is. While on the tram, Joyce hit readers with the following description that parallels her life of solitude. She will always be more than one step shy of fitting into the mold of the American middle class. In the following statement, Maria is placed in yet another metaphor where she is going in the wrong direction in her life. Joyce wrote, The tram was full and she had to sit on the little stool at the end of the car, facing all the people, with her toes barely touching the floor.
The paralysis becomes more apparent when we analyze Maria’s life as a single woman. She will never marry and is cemented—trapped—into working as a maid for the rest of her life. Joe’s family, somewhat secretly, mock Maria for living the life of a maid…. never to be someone’s maiden. In fact, the initial take is that the family truly loves her. As the family gathers, Joe attempts to show some tact by bringing up the notion of everyone should take a drink, just to loosen up. Joe, of course, wants more port, to feed his alcoholic vice. Yet, at the same time he infers that Maria, too, should take a drink.
That way she can forget about her sorrowful life. Joe even insists that Maria take a drink. Maria, still blinded by her own faults, refuses the drink. As the story closes, Maria sings a few stanzas of a poem that speak of the fact that she will never live the wealthy life. This singing even brings tears to Joe’s eyes. The reader, once again, is left to wonder this: Is Joe sinking into the depression of alcohol? Or is he feeling sorry for Maria? That is left to the readers’ imagination. One thing is certain, though: Maria will never overcome the paralysis that stymies her.