"Clay": A Microcosm for Ireland
James Joyce's "Clay" is a remarkable explication of Irish folklore and the societal issues that plague turn-of-the-century Dublin. Following Maria on the night of Halloween, the story combines imagery and symbolism throughout. In S. A. Cowan's article "Celtic Folklore in 'Clay': Maria and the Irish Washerwoman," the central character is portrayed not as witch, as many critics have assumed, but rather a combination of three Celtic spirits: the banshee, the bean-nighe, and the glaistig (214). Though Cowan agrees with critics that Maria possesses witch-like qualities, he asserts that the main character in "Clay" more closely resembles these three spirits. Cowan points out that Maria is a "'very, very small person indeed' that 'wears tiny dress boots'" and that Joyce's description of her mirrors the Scottish definition of a banshee as "'having the appearance of a small child'; at others as 'a small or very little woman...'" (214). Cowan cites that Irish tradition regards the bean-nighe as a "washerwoman...Her appearance is regarded as a warning of death..." and that this comparison to Maria in "Clay" is...
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