Reading "Clay" Ironically
Although irony is no stranger to the common man in contemporary times, it is a subject of great controversy and interest in literary circles. There has been much academic discussion about this tricky trope and there will probably never be consensus in the understanding of irony amongst those who study it. Nevertheless, it is still rewarding to try to gain some fundamental understanding of this way of "saying one thing and meaning another" (Hutcheon, 37) because those who succeed in unravelling this intriguing process receive a sense of "special 'intellectual' satisfaction felt from dealing with ambiguity and paradox, contradiction and incongruity" (42).
However, this is not necessarily always the case as irony can be rather perplexing at times. Although there may be signs and signals and evidence that it exists in a text, the reader may find it difficult to pinpoint the nature and functioning of the irony (Montgomery et. al. 167). A case in point would be James Joyce's short narrative "Clay".
The story's simplicity of language belies a very complicated narrative structure whose workings are almost inscrutable. Especially where irony is concerned, it is a challenging task to determine how irony functions, how it is manifested in the text and whether it is even present in the first place. Nevertheless, there are several textual elements which are sympathetic to the claim that "Clay" can be read ironically.
According to Montgomery et al., "structural irony involves a collection of incorrect beliefs which are held by--and define--a fictional character" (164). This character is necessarily ignorant that his/her beliefs have been falsely placed, while the audience and by inference, the author, is aware of the truth and hence can judge the character's beliefs to be incorrect. These are two important conditions for structural irony to be present. "Irony is thus built into the structure of the narrative by being built into the character" (164). The character in point here is Maria, the female protagonist and central character of the narrative. Maria appears to falsely believe in certain perceptions which are expressed by the narrator as her own. However, the reader is not allowed to accept them unquestioningly as the various mechanisms of irony pepper the text with elements which make a straight reading of it uncomfortable.
The first of these elements is the presence of contradiction, which for "Clay" exists between the description of the scene and the commentary made. This can be clearly seen during Maria's visit to the Donnellys. There appears to be a sort of tension between the events which transpired that night and Maria's commentaries in reaction to them. Take for example the agitated state which Joe got worked up into when Maria tried to play peacemaker between him and his brother Alphy. The reader is made aware of the extent of Joe's agitation by the indirection quotation: "But Joe cried that God...