THE LIVING-DEAD WORLD IN JOYCE’S CLAY AND
MANSFIELD’S LIFE OF MA PARKER
Patricia Maria dos Santos Santana
James Joyce and Katherine Mansfield have something in common in their personal lives: both authors left their homelands to try to find their fates abroad. Joyce left Dublin when he was still very young. However, his love for Ireland did not allow him to write a single word about any other place; instead, every Joyce’s work is related to his own country. Clay is a tale from the book Dubliners which is, as the title itself suggests, about Dublin and its people, revealing the social, artistic, religious and politics lives of Ireland. Mansfield also had such nostalgic feeling in relation to her homeland and also desired to write about it, as she herself once confessed: “I want to write recollections of my own country. Yes, I want to write about my own country till I exhaust my store” (GORDON; 1954:11). Through her tales, the reader may perceive Mansfield’s descriptions of New Zealand, her homeland, its places and stories as well as Joyce does to describe Dublin.Mansfield’s stories are based on her own experiences of life; they are a little bit personal. There is something existential on these stories, much more related to the insignificance of everyday life and never involving great themes. Her stories are linked to New Zealand, but not in a political way as Joyce writes. New Zealand is a source of inspiration as J. Middleton Murry describes:
She had suffered in New Zealand, unconsciously and silently as a little child, consciously and resentfully as an adolescent girl. For many years her resentment against New Zealand became as it were the symbol of her resentment against life itself. (MURRY; 1959:81)
And further, the scholar concludes: “If ever there were a writer whose life and work were one and inseparable, it was she” (id. ibid: 91). Therefore, New Zealand may be the responsible for the way she writes her short stories and for the way she positions her characters in relation to life. Life of Ma Parker is a tale from the book The Garden Party, one of the most expressive books in her career.
Maria and Ma Parker are the two protagonists of each story. Both women are elderly, poor and belong to the working class. Although they have a good nature, their poor condition brings them to an unreal grade of conformity. Actually, only Ma Parker is able to recognize the frustration life can offer when there is nothing else to wait from life itself. Maria, however, is completely unaware of the meaningless life she has lived. Maria has a high level of self-esteem, she likes herself and she likes to get well dressed too, considering the example taken from the short story:
Then she took off her working skirt and her house-boots and laid her best skirt out on the bed and her tiny dress-boots beside the foot of the bed. She changed her blouse too and, as she stood before, she thought of how she used to dress for mass on Sunday morning when she was a young girl; and she looked with quaint affection at the diminutive body which she had so often adorned. In spite of its years she found it a nice tidy little body. (JOYCE; 1975: 72)
According to this quotation, Maria looks happy and satisfied with herself, with her body, and her ordinary life. She remembers her childhood and it seems that almost nothing changed in her routine, that is, she did not get married, she did not have children… The Sunday mass is the only occasion in which she has the opportunity to get well dressed. And despite this insignificant life she is not only happy, but she also has a positive attitude in relation to her life and to the way she lives: “She arranged in her mind all she was going to do and she thought how much better it was to be independent and to have your own money in your pocket.” (JOYCE; ibid: 73)
Maria uses the word independent to mean that she is alone; she does not have any family (except for Joe and Alphy that are considered her sons). She is the only responsible for her own life. She is independent because she only depends on herself. As it was already mentioned, Maria belongs to the working class, she is a servant in a laundry; therefore, it is not difficult to suppose that her money is little and in spite of that she is happy and optimistic.
Clay’s protagonist is described by Joyce with a paradoxical idea, because despite Maria’s ugly appearance that looks like a witch’s with “very long nose and very long chin”, she is a peace-maker, exactly like the matron once told her: “ – Maria, you are a veritable peace-maker” (JOYCE; ibid:71). And this woman is also able to see the good side of every single person or situation, for example: “She used to have such a bad opinion of Protestants but now she thought they were very nice people, a little quiet and serious, but still very nice people to live with.” (JOYCE; ibid: 72)
According to this quotation, some scholars compare Maria to the Virgin Mary herself, having no pride and ready to make peace, with pure heart to change her opinion about someone or things she once disliked. Actually, Maria is a naïve person and she is not conscious of the terrible life she lives. It’s a sort of alienation. This characteristic of alienation is intentional to make the reader understand that Maria also represents Dublin itself and its condition as a Great Britain’s colony.
Ma Parker is a strong woman who has suffered throughout her meaningless life. According to Gordon, Ma Parker is “a woman on her own in an unfriendly world” (GORDON; 1954:14). She is, like Maria, a woman who has a good nature; however, her level of consciousness is much better than Maria’s. Ma Parker realises the sorrows of her life and tries to find a place to cry. That would be the very first time she was going to cry once she believed she only would be a strong woman if she had never cried. The Life of Ma Parker’s protagonist cannot stand all the pain she is feeling. As she cries, she leaves all her strength behind. It represents the moment she realises she must permit the overflow of her feelings otherwise she would explode with them. And the death of Ma Parker’s grandson is the culminating point of her life’s sorrow. It is the climax of her emotions. Through the boy’s death, Ma Parker understands that life means frustration and that life has not been easy for a woman who could not expect anything good from it, mainly when it took away the only and probably the last source of happiness of her lifetime. Since Ma Parker became a grandma, it is easy to suppose that she believes it is the end of her existence and there is nothing else to wait for.
While Ma Parker becomes a questioning and desperate woman along the tale for facing the frustrations life had in store for her, Maria, instead, keeps more unaware than ever. Maria does not realize how hard and meaningless her life is. When Maria sings “I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls / With vassals and serfs at my side (…)” (JOYCE; 1975:75), this represents a sad irony because her life is completely different from the song she sings. The song is like an escape from the reality, is the only way she has to be and to have whatever she dreams of. However, her dreams will never come true. But poor Maria is so naïve that she is unable to understand the paradox she created when she exposed her dreams. Because of that, Joe is the one who perceives the sad irony in Maria’s words.
Mansfield’s lyrical use of language makes the reader believe she is more a poet than a writer. For that reason some critics as Gordon and Berkman believe that her language should be considered much more a diction than a language. Mansfield’s descriptions are connected to senses. She is a Realistic writer, but related to Impressionism. Katherine Mansfield is direct, her way of writing is not vague, naïve or nebulous. Whenever she writes she knows very well the effect she longs to transmit to the reader. On the other hand, James Joyce does not transmit a complete picture of things. Although he is a Realistic writer, he is a Naturalistic one influenced by Henrik Ibsen and Flaubert. Joyce and Mansfield, as good Realistic writers, give impressions of life as sensorial impressions, for instances, the use of colours, visual descriptions, behaviours and senses. Berkman affirms:“Miss Mansfield may have been familiar with Dubliners after its belated publication in 1914 though she has left no recorded reference to the book” (BERKMAN; 1951: 159). It seems that Joyce may have influenced Mansfield during the time she wrote The Garden Party.
The sensation the reader has at the end of the two stories is a very pessimistic one. Maria and Ma Parker are women who passed through moments that reveal the insignificance of their lives. But as it was mentioned before, only Ma Parker realises all the frustration transmitted. The two characters may be considered as living-dead persons. They never had good things from life and now it is too late to wait for something glorious to happen. Their lives mean death, not only for being in the end, but also for being sad and meaningless lives. Now it is useless to keep any hope for the future. Neither Maria nor Ma Parker have conquered everything they have expected from life.
Thus, frustration is a common characteristic of Mansfield and Joyce. However, the techniques used to catch the reader are different ones. Frustration to Mansfield is always related to the discovery of something unpleasant, disgusting, involving the existential side of the human being. Ma Parker’s life has many frustrations until the culminating one that is the loss of her grandson. She was poor and had to leave her hometown at the age of sixteen and started suffering along her life. She watched the death of her husband, of seven children and a grandson. Besides, she had to bring up six children by herself. The cry she never allowed herself now is about to explode inside her soul, but Ma Parker still cannot cry for not finding an appropriated place to do it. It seems her life is so insignificant that she does not deserve to cry, as if she does not fit in the world. It is worthy to mention that when she was looking for a place to cry, it starts raining and she probably had to return home. It was as if even nature does not want to help this hard luck woman. From the world there is nothing else to wait for than real death, because Ma Parker is already dead during her lifetime, her dreams are already dead and she no longer has any hope inside her. Besides, it can be observed that death is always present in Ma Parker’s life (husband, children and grandson) and these dead people are so alive in her memories that they seem to be more alive than she herself, once her life story is based on the people she has lost. According to Ma Parker’s individual experience of life, Mansfield is able to show readers the frustration of this tale: Death is the only certainty of life, especially of a sad and hopeless life. This pessimistic point of view in relation to the world can be explained according to Katherine Mansfield’s own words: “I adore Life, but my experience of the world is that it’s pretty terrible”(BERKMAN; 1951:196). Sylvia Berkman wrote in her critical studies about Mansfield that the dualism “Life versus World” never was resolved with harmony along her books and Life of Ma Parker is an excellent example of this: life is not like what we want it to be – life is a sad surprise.
Joyce’s techniques to reach frustration need two important characteristics of his writings: the Paralysis and the Epiphany. Paralysis is incapacity of acting. Actually, it represents the frustration moments themselves. Most of the times, Joyce’s Paralysis will be related to Dublin, to its problems and to its people. In Joyce’s opinion,Dublin is the centre of political Paralysis since it was Great Britain’s colony and this way, people have no future and nothing can be remedied. Finally, according to Hodgart (1978:46) “Paralysis does affect most of the character: they are unable to move out of their social milieu or to take any decisive action to improve their lot”. In Clay, the Paralysis, i.e., frustration, is present when the protagonist loses the plum cake she had bought, after a careful choice; it is also present in the fact that Alphy and Joe are not speaking, despite the love they feel for each other (Joe’s son has the same name of his brother: Alphy). There is an enormous paradox at this point because although Maria is considered a peacemaker, she is unable to bring peace to the persons she loves. Another example of Paralysis can be noticed at the moment Maria has a chat with the man in the tram and finds him a gentleman; however, the man was drunk. One of Irish people’s characteristics is to drink a lot.
Yet, due to these situations of Paralysis, the moment of Epiphany occurs. For Joyce, the Epiphany is a moment of revelation of something in its essence, and it may be related to a happy or a sad situation. The term Epiphany was inspired in the Christian Celebration. It can happen to the main character, to the reader or to somebody else in the story. In Clay Joe is the one who has the Epiphany, a sad one. Maria herself does not have the Epiphany although she is the main character. Some readers may have it or not, depending on the reader’s sensibility. Joe reaches the Epiphany when he hears Maria singing the song that reflects the opposite side of her real life as it is: a song about love, richness, power and happiness. Maybe when Joe understands Maria’s meaningless life, he also understands the emptiness of his own life. His Epiphany is completely related to the use of symbols. The moment Maria plays the Hallow Eve game and she chooses the clay which means `Death` is another significant episode of Epiphany in the story: Joe realises Maria is near real death, although she is already a living dead woman.
Bearing in mind that the lower classes of any century in every country have always lived such a hard life and that we live in a chauvinistic world where women have tried to conquer their place but it is still quite difficult, it is easy to understand the meaningless life that both protagonists have lived in Joyce’s Clay and Mansfield’s Life of Ma Parker. In Brazil, for instance, there are lots of living dead people that belong to the lower classes. They generally live very far from work, and so they have to leave home very early, returning home very late. They have no choice but taking crowded buses. Besides, they earn very low salaries that do not allow them to spend with entertainment and pleasure. These people live such an insignificant life with no joy, that the only certainty they have from this life is death.
Maria and Ma Parker are poor lonely women with no hope. Maria is unaware and unable to understand her terrible life, and her conformity may represent the situation of Ireland versus England, that is, the situation of the colony versus coloniser. Ma Parker, however, reflects the author’s duality between Life versus World, emphasizingMansfield’s idea that to live is frustrating. Thus, both protagonists can be considered living-dead persons, not only because they did not have brilliant and glamorous lives, but also because they did not conquer their places in the world. They did not keep anything alive within their hearts, and nobody can live without hope or without expecting that their dreams might come true one day.
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