Sunday, May 11, 2008

A very silly woman

Something I read today made me remember a story by James Joyce I had read many years ago. What I actually remembered was the character of Maria, in the story "Clay" , a rather pathetic and unpleasant-looking woman.

"And Maria laughed again till the tip of her nose nearly met the tip of her chin and till her minute body nearly shook itself asunder because she knew that Mooney meant well though, of course, she had the notions of a common woman. "

The irony is, of course, that it was Mooney who knew and understood better Maria's pitiable life and mean understanding, her ignorant and unaware self.

As we will witness in a moment when Maria takes the bus to go to a party:

She thought she would have to stand in the Drumcondra tram because none of the young men seemed to notice her but an elderly gentleman made room for her. He was a stout gentleman and he wore a brown hard hat; he had a square red face and a greyish moustache. Maria thought he was a colonel-looking gentleman and she reflected how much more polite he was than the young men who simply stared straight before them. The gentleman began to chat with her about Hallow Eve and the rainy weather. He supposed the bag was full of good things for the little ones and said it was only right that the youngsters should enjoy themselves while they were young. Maria agreed with him and favoured him with demure nods and hems. He was very nice with her, and when she was getting out at the Canal Bridge she thanked him and bowed, and he bowed to her and raised his hat and smiled agreeably, and while she was going up along the terrace, bending her tiny head under the rain, she thought how easy it was to know a gentleman even when he has a drop taken.

Maria is all a-flutter with this attention. Someone actually noticed her. He was paying her the same kind of attention that Mooney had. But Maria, as is the wont of those who suffer from inferiority complex, had secretly looked down her nose at Mooney's kindness. But this gentleman's kindly attention was something else, it was a sign of his superior breeding... She is so distracted by the unusual experience of actually being noticed that she forgets her cake on the bus. Only later does she realize her folly:

Then she asked all the children had any of them eaten it -- by mistake, of course -- but the children all said no and looked as if they did not like to eat cakes if they were to be accused of stealing. Everybody had a solution for the mystery and Mrs. Donnelly said it was plain that Maria had left it behind her in the tram. Maria, remembering how confused the gentleman with the greyish moustache had made her, coloured with shame and vexation and disappointment. At the thought of the failure of her little surprise and of the two and fourpence she had thrown away for nothing she nearly cried outright.

Of course the reader is aware of all these characters strokes with which the author draws the story's heroine. And we respond with a mixture of rueful pity and shame that we should feel so uncharitable towards a person who is quite harmless and so deserving of our sympathy.


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