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First a commercial laundry where the protagonist, the elderly Maria works as a maid in the kitchen. Then the scene shifts to her journey and finally to the house of Joe Donnelly whom she has nursed along with his brother during their childhood.
LIST OF CHARACTERS
An elderly woman who has nursed other people’s children all her life only to be pushed into more drudgery when she is no more needed.
Maria’s charge, now grown up. His sense of duty to her is limited to giving her cheap gifts and occasional invitations to his home.
Having no emotional attachment to Maria, she is aloof and politely patronizing.
The protagonist is Maria-an elderly woman, who has suppressed her own desires life-long. She survives by looking only on the bright side of everyone around her.
While not a typical antagonist, Joe Donnelly represents an uncaring, society, which uses a person’s resources and discards her when she is old.
While playing the Hallow’s Eve game, Maria blindfolded, happens to select the dish of clay, signifying "death." This, coupled with her forgetting one verse of a song, dealing with love, disturb Joe, making him aware of her emotional starvation.
Joe is deeply shaken and tearful, and guilty but whether he acts on this guilt is left ambiguous.
Joyce creates in this story a mood of ironic tenderness. He is gentle towards Maria, through whose eyes we see her hopeful world. Yet he makes us read between the lines to the hurt and loneliness beneath her apparent cheerfulness.
This is the story of Maria -"a very very small person indeed but she had a very long nose and a very long chin. She talked a little through her nose, always soothingly: "Yes, my dear", and "No, my dear." She was always sent for when the women quarreled over their tubs and always succeeded in making peace. Maria is an elderly woman who has been a nursemaid in a family with two sons, Joe and Alphy. She has lived with them until the grown up Joe and Alphy quarreled bitterly and began living separately. After that, they had got her a job at the "Dublin by Lamplight" laundry, where she has remained ever since. Maria thinks affectionately of the many times, since then, that Joe had asked her to live with his family-but "she had become accustomed to the life of the laundry." She feels her neat work, her docile nature, and cheerful readiness to obey has made her indispensable at the laundry. She basks in the praise of the laundry-workers and the matron, and takes pride in keeping the kitchen spick and span and scrubbing the copper boilers till "you could see yourself" in them.
It is Hallow Eve, and Maria has been invited to spend the evening at Joe’s home. She briskly serves the laundry women their tea, and distributes the food carefully among them. They tease her, saying she is sure to find the ring, signifying marriage in the ritual of Hallow Eve. Maria laughs saying "she didn’t want any ring or man either, and when she laughed her grey- green eyes sparkled with disappointed shyness." As soon as the women have finished, Maria hurriedly lays out her clothes for mass next morning and leaves for her visit to Joe. She buys a dozen-penny cakes to take with her, and thinks what else she can take-"something really nice." Finally she wanders through two more cake-shops and buys a section of plum cake, lingering over her choice to the sales-girls annoyance. In the tram all the young men ignore her, and she has to stand until a talkative old man moves up and invites her to sit. He chats all the way and Maria "thought how easy it was to know a gentleman ever when he has a drop taken."
She is welcomed at Joe’s house and enjoys handing over the penny cakes to the children. But when she searches for the plum cake to give to their parents, she can’t find it. This ruins Maria’s mood, and she is filled with vexation and shame "at the thought of the failure of her little surprise." Thinking of the money wasted, she is almost in tears! Joe consoles her and chats at length about his doings at his office, which leaves Maria quite confused. The children then play games supervised by two grown up girls from next door. Maria refuses offers of nuts and wine and has to be persuaded by Joe to accept them. Later she and Joe sit and talk and she tries to persuade him to make up his quarrel with Archie, but with no success.
They play Hallow Eve games, along with the children. One of them has a person blind-folded and led up to a table with saucers containing water, clay, a ring, a prayer-book and other items, all symbolizing what they’ll get the following year. There is much laughter and teasing when one girl picks the ring. Finally Maria has to play. She hesitantly picks, a saucer, which hold clay-signifying death. Joe’s wife is angry with the girls for including it. Maria senses that it is something unpleasant and moves on to pick a prayer book to everyone’s relief. Joe’s wife, called only Mrs. Donnelly, teases her with joining a convent before the end of the year. Joe’s kinder than usual, and devotes his time to Maria, pressing another glass of wine on her and insisting that she sing. Maria obligingly sings "I dreamt that I dwelt" but forgets the second verse which talks of love and suitors. No one reminds her of her error, and Joe "was very much moved." He talks nostalgically of the past, and his eyes fill with tears, so much so that he can’t find what he was looking for and has to be helped by his wife.