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The Woman Who Did: Maria’s Maternal Misdirection in “Clay”

From: Joyce Studies Annual
pp. 129-150

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Establishing a [Catholic Magdalene] asylum on the condition that the inmates should be confined in it for life, or else leave it destitute and unprovided for . . . peoples Protestant asylums with Catholic unfortunates, because those hold out hopes of future character and situations.

—The Mercy Sisters’ Guide for the Religious (1866)

James Joyce left Ireland in October 1904 with Nora Barnacle, the woman with whom he would live and have children but not legally marry until nearly thirty years later. Those who knew Joyce best—including, perhaps, even Joyce himself—could only consider this dramatic rejection of church-regulated sexual norms as a gesture that was made at Barnacle’s expense. In Edwardian Dublin, as Joyce makes clear in the casual exchanges of Corley and Lenehan in “Two Gallants” and among Mulligan and his cronies at the Forty Foot in Ulysses, only cads openly engaged in extramarital sex with otherwise respectable young women.1 Joyce himself made few if any attempts to depict explicitly a male character engaging honorably in extramarital sex with a virgin. In any case, it is unsurprising that what would have been understood in Joyce’s time as a highly public ruination of Barnacle earned him the criticism even of his own free-thinking intellectual friends. Just before Joyce left Ireland with Barnacle, for instance, Francis Sheehy Skeffington, ardent feminist and surely the most radical thinker of Joyce’s acquaintance, wrote to him: “You have my best wishes for your welfare and for that of your companion, which is probably much more doubtful than your own” (LI: 179).

Because of the abundance of such judgments—imposed by a dominant cultural script that dictated that any man openly engaging in extramarital sex with an otherwise marriageable woman was callously ruining her—Joyce was keenly aware of the particular dangers faced by women who flouted Ireland’s strict rules of sexual conduct. Some indications of Joyce’s interest in sexually dissenting women are the inclusion in his Triestene library of the Victorian “problem novel” The Woman Who Did, a title he cited and played on in Ulysses, and the inclusion in his work of references to Helen of Troy, Devorgilla, Penelope Rich, and Katharine (Kitty) O’Shea, women who not only lived extramaritally with but, in the latter cases, openly raised children sired by men of their own choosing.2

Joyce repeatedly explores the ethical double bind in which he and Barnacle were entrapped by Irish Catholicism’s restrictive sexual norms, conformity to which demanded that he become the Church’s dupe (sacrificing his values to protect Barnacle through marriage) and flouting of which demanded that Barnacle be designated as his dupe, (sacrificing her respectability to preserve his dissenting ethics). Certainly, his thematic preoccupation in Dubliners (and later in Ulysses) with the economic and social constraints on Irish women’s sexual and reproductive choices is imbued, like so many of his preoccupations, with intense personal significance. In a letter to his brother Stanislaus in December of 1904, Joyce made explicit his commitment to holding the line against the Church while shielding his partner and children to the best of his ability, writing “Nora has conceived, I think . . . My child, if I have one, will of course not be baptized but will be registered in my name” (SL 48). Along with the usual anxieties endured by new mothers, Barnacle—as both she and Joyce realized—faced a future made especially uncertain owing to the lack of legal protections and social recognition conferred by marriage. In the early days of Barnacle’s first pregnancy, when Joyce surely had such concerns on his mind, he also sent Stanislaus the fourth in his Dubliners series of short stories—“Hallow Eve,” later to be re-titled “Clay.”

Since the stories in Dubliners are so interwoven with recurrent themes and references, it is useful to open our examination of “Clay” by taking a brief look at the stories that surround it. Of particular interest is how Dubliners’s three early stories featuring female protagonists (of which “Clay” is the third) form a triptych of contemporary women’s marital destinies. “Eveline” shows a failed marriage opportunity (or a successful escape), and “The Boarding House” revolves around...

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