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Stupidity Tries: Objects, Things, and James Joyce’s “Clay”
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She felt a soft wet substance with her fingers and was surprised that no one spoke or took off her bandage.

James Joyce, “Clay”1

James Joyce’s “Clay” presents Dubliners’ most memorable instance of a potentially revelatory moment mediated through a character’s tactile encounter with an object. In this case, a natural object is the focus: what we assume is the title’s otherwise unnamed lump of clay, which Maria does not seem to identify to herself as she touches it. Her blindfolded encounter with the saucer containing clay provokes an awkward pause in the Hallow’s Eve game; according to the rules, her unintentional selection foretells her death in a year’s time. Critical speculation persists regarding whether these are, in fact, the perceived rules of the game, stemming from the larger question of whether Maria touches actual clay, or some other malleable, organic substance of similar consistency.2 And yet, even given the suspicious nature of the object Maria touches, whatever is here shown forth as revelatory derives from the reader’s perception of a discrepancy between Maria’s failed comprehension of what she touches or its significance to the game, and the simultaneous, knowing recognition of the onlookers.

Moreover, inclusion in the game activates this substance’s temporary status as an object. Only by scooping up a sample, bringing it indoors, and positioning it on a saucer near the water and other more palpably discrete, man-made objects can the misbehaving next-door girl cause this substance to briefly abandon its situation as matter undifferentiated from its source. With incorporation into the game, the “soft wet substance” assumes the discrete, temporary borders of an object at once itself, and a representation of its source. Douglas Mao’s study Solid Objects: Modernism and the Test of Production (1998) emphasizes, at the outset, modernist literature’s “extraordinarily generative fascination with the object understood neither as commodity (Goods) nor as symbol (Gods), but as object,” and specifically, “not-self, as not-subject, as most helpless and will-less of entities, but also as fragment of Being, as solidity, as otherness in its most resilient opacity.”3 His account provides a useful frame for this moment from “Clay.” Whatever Maria touches is neither a commodity in any recognizable sense nor a symbol—in her mind. It is, instead, the onlookers at the party who grant the object symbolic import, unintentionally anticipating years of subsequent Joyce criticism that will similarly attribute symbolic import to this object, and to virtually any potentially meaningful-looking depicted detail in this story.4 In attaching symbolic significance, the game’s onlookers recognize the tacit joke of the clay’s intimate affinity with Maria’s older, soon-to-be-dust body—a defining aspect, in their eyes, of her selfhood. Yet Maria does not perceive the clay as intimately related to her in any way; her lack of comprehension reinforces its status as “not-self” and “not-subject,” for her. I want to propose that what Maria touches retains its resilient opacity as an object precisely because she is too stupid to figure out what it is, or how it fits into the rules of this game.

By “stupid,” I am not indicating a lack of intelligence. I refer to the briefly stupefied effect that touching this object produces in Maria, partly brought on by the situation of having one of her faculties momentarily deadened. Yet even if Maria could somehow see what she touches, the story poses the problem of whether she possesses prior knowledge of the rules—or, whether there are even agreed-upon rules for this Hallow’s Eve game. When touching something that isn’t obviously water, a ring, or a prayer book, someone who knows the rules would discern by elimination what she’s touched, even while blindfolded; a not-stupefied person would also presumably recognize the introduction of a foreign item—and would react, in either case. Maria reflects both a state of brief stupefaction and a related, defining aspect of stupidity: the narration indicates her lack of feeling one way or the other, about what she has touched. Her surprise is directed toward the absence of an anticipated...

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