Maria is a humble woman leading a life tinged with longing. She recognizes and values her independence, yet at the same time moves in a tide of inevitability towards the place molded out for her within the relatively staunch social caste system of Dublin. The substance of her individuality is put in jeopardy by is plasticity to external forces; she is a woman made of clay. It seems her calling within society is that of a nun, however it is evident that still flickering insider her is the dream to escape this imposed destiny, to live a life like the one depicted in the song she sings, I Dreamt that I Dwelt.
The fundamental conflict between Maria’s individuality and the pigeon holing forces of society is the underlying tension of the story. Joyce makes us feel that her chances are slim in standing against the currents leading her towards life in a convent. However, Maria’s destiny is far from written, both literally and metaphorically, and so we are left with the esperance, however small, that she may break of the manacles of her born position and dare to lead a truly independent life. Maria is all things of a woman predestined to enter a convent.
Even her name, meaning Mary, points to this ecclesiastical inertia. Early in the story it is Joe who says of her, “Mamma is mama but Maria is my proper mother. ” (Joyce, 96) Joyce knows in writing this the probability that all our minds will immediately spring to the a likely connection: that of the Mother Mary. Adding to this composite portraiture are Maria’s tendencies of phrase, “Yes, my dear and No, my dear” (Joyce, 95) which, in our minds, easily adapt to the cliches of the convent Yes, my child and No, my child.
Further, Maria is regarded as a “veritable peace-maker” (Joyce, 95) among those who know her, “always (the one) sent for when the women quarrelled over their tubs and always succeed(ing) in making peace. ” (Joyce, 95) At this point even the reader is convinced of Maria’s inexorable destiny. If by the addition of the preceding characteristics we are made to feel Maria’s predestination of ordination, we are made to feel the same by a similar process of charactoristical subtraction.
Throughout the story Maria is depicted as a woman who somewhat hesitantly embraces the sort of asexuality required of a nun, hence a sort of subtraction of her sexuality. Physically, we see this very clearly: Maria’s body is over and again drawn as something insubstantial, almost non-existent. The details that “Maria was a very, very small person. ” (Joyce, 95), had a “minute” (Joyce, 97) and “diminutive body” (Joyce, 97) all take away from her any kind of corporal sexuality or physical desirability.
The evidence of Maria’s tendency to assume a certain asexuality mounts as we turn to the psychological. In the first of two different instances where Maria’s destiny is invoked by the traditional Halloween gaming, we are confronted with this: “Lizzie Fleming said Maria was sure to get the ring and, though Fleming had said that for so many Hallow Eves, Maria had to laugh and say she didn’t want any ring or man either; and when she laughed her grey-green eyes sparkled with disappointed shyness and the tip of her nose nearly met her chin.
In her display of “disappointed shyness” we can sense that somewhere behind Maria’s social facade are the remnants of a libido, however at this point they are only remnants. The interaction Maria has with the “colonel-looking gentleman” (Joyce, 98) on the bus en-route to the Halloween gathering is later recollected by her as a rather confusing experience. Worthy of note is the fact that it is the gentleman who ends up taking the blame for the lost plumcake.
Symbolically, Maria sees that her selfless act is only impeded by the ejaculation of a male figure. Near the ending, Maria omits the second verse of I Dreamt that I Dwelt wherein there is expressed a deep longing for male attention and companionship. As a nun, God would be Maria’s suitor, not some knight like the one alluded to in the unsung verse. And so it seems that any sexual desire Maria might once have harbored has now been thoroughly suppressed. Encompassing the facet of her sexuality, Maria’s individuality as a whole is likewise suppressed.
In the instance referred to above where Lizzie Fleming says Maria is sure to get the ring, we see Maria holding back her regret for the fact that the future doesn’t seem to hold a romance for her. Instead of putting forth her real desires and fears, she opts live into the neutral role of the peace-maker, conforming to the image she sees of herself in the mirror other’s eyes. When Joe asks her to have a drink with him, though she doesn’t feel comfortable obliging, she nonetheless feels sufficiently compelled to act in a way pleasing to those around her, disregarding her personal preferences by way of appealing to others.
A similar instance occurs later in the evening where she pressured into singing against her instincts not to. The scene where Mrs Donnelly and the neighbor girls orchestrate the Halloween fortune-telling game is probably the most symbolic instance of the Maria’s sense that her destiny is out of her hands. Here, Maria literally chooses her fate blindfolded. However, even this small guiding hand in where she is headed is eventually denied her. The original fate she chooses, one that is “soft and wet” (Joyce, 101), mysterious and interesting, is wrong according to Mrs Donnelly.
It is instead replaced with the unmistakable implications that the prayer-book denotes. Maria’s destiny has been decided for her, and, true to her humble and selfless heart, she tells them that they are all very good to her. The relationship the reader has with the life of the story is similar to the relationship Maria has with her own life. Joyce’s decision to leave out any present-time dialogue and to relate any speech back to the reader only through the mouth of the narrator suggests the certain distancing there is here between Maria and her encompassing reality.
It is as though she is living in a bubble, and to assert herself would be to break this bubble and face the terrifying possibilities an unbuffered world might hold. Joyce is able to make Maria’s individual personality and perspective come about through a brand of narration that assumes the character’s specific attention to detail. These details serve the story in creating the distinct sense that this is indeed a certain reality, wherein actions, decisions, and reactions have individuated and particular ways of manifesting themselves.
Indeed, Maria herself is made vivid by details. Simply in mentioning it, Joyce makes us know that she is a woman who notices the “streets shining with rain,” (Joyce, 97) and appreciates the familiarity and security of “her old brown raincloak. ” (Joyce, 97) We are moved, because of selfless and humble nature of Maria, to wish for her the life she sings of in I Dreamt that I Dwelt. We fear however, that the likelihood of her ever leading a life so full of freedoms is made slim by her tragic inability to assert herself.
Joyce forces the attentive reader to consider her place in society, and to examine how the balance plays out between the inner forces of self and the outer forces of society. In the end, after Maria has omitted the second verse of her song, the narrator tells us that “no one tried to show her her mistake. ” We are left to wonder if this instance is to be understood as representative of what the future holds for her. Will Maria ever be shown her mistake? Will she come upon it herself in a moment of introspection? Joyce is only mute to these queries, leaving us gently where he picked each of us up, to our own imaginations.