Clay by Patrick White, 1964

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by Patrick White, 1964

According to its author, Patrick White, the story "Clay" is "very peculiar and surrealist." Written in 1962 and dedicated to Australian comic Barry Humphries (better known as Dame Edna Everidge) and actress Zoe Caldwell, it was included in White's first collection of short stories, published in 1964 as The Burnt Ones.

The general title The Burnt Ones is a literal translation of a Greek term, the oi kaymenoi, used to mean the "poor unfortunates." From The Aunt's Story (1948) onward White often used a fire metaphor to suggest a numinous, transcendental illumination. Clay, the eponymous hero of this short story, is one of White's usual poor unfortunates, or illuminati. Like White, he is a writer and artist. Again like White, he suffers from being different; he is even called a freak by his mother, as White was by his own mother. The word "freak" returns in The Vivisector (1970), White's long novel devoted to describing the life of painter Hurtle Duffield, called "a freak, an artist." The reason for Clay and Hurtle Duffield's sense of exclusion is that as artists they have been "burnt" by a knowledge of inner life (Clay is described as "born with inward-looking eyes"), which pushes them to transmit an artistic vision at the price of pursuing a normal occupation and lifestyle.

In the story White focuses on various time periods in the life of Clay Skerritt. We see the five-year-old boy, the adolescent, and the married man. In a way the short story is a miniature version of The Vivisector, which also begins with the theme of difference. White exposes two ideas at the beginning of the piece: the sense of alienation, exclusion, and loneliness felt by Clay (he has a strange name, he looks different—his hair is too short), as well as the close emotional relationship between Clay and his mother, Mrs. Skerritt. Typical of White's literary representation of the family, the mother is the dominant authoritative figure. White's fathers tend to be sick, absent, or dead. The dead Mr. Skerritt is remembered as a curious mixture of virility ("those thick thighs, rather tight about the serge crutch") and debilitation. Clay remembers the smell of yellow skin and the sick sheets of his cancerous father, a forerunner of another weak, sick, and departed father figure, Alfred Hunter in The Eye of the Storm (1973).

The essential elements of the action are simple: young Clay is beaten up by his peers because he is different; as an adult he has a mundane job at Customs and Excise, he marries a girl called Marj, his mother dies, he begins to write a poem or novel, and he is haunted and pursued by an imaginary feminine figure, Lova. In the final denouement Marj interrupts Clay holding a white shoe, and she screams. The real interest of "Clay" lies behind these events and is not immediately obvious. White's use of surrealism (the profusion of interconnecting images), the ambiguous and deliberately open-ended conclusion, and the often sibylline dialogue force the reader to consider more closely the use of metaphor and the chains of repeated images in order to find meaning.

Two symbolic worlds are operating in "Clay." The most important character other than Clay is Mrs. Skerritt. Marj and Lova are both associated with her by means of the repetition of key images (fretted lace, maidenhair ferns). Marj is a substitute mother figure, and Lova is a phantasmatic revenant of Mrs. Skerritt, a product of Clay's disturbed psyche. Given the predominance of these three maternal figures it is not surprising to see that one of the symbolic worlds operating in "Clay" is that of feminine womblike containers: the house where the Skerritts live, the garden, the bay, the white bridal shoe in the wedding photograph of Clay's parents (which is compared to a great boat). Opposed to this symbolic register is the masculine "world of pointed objects": the heel of the shoe, the barber's clippers, the axe in Clay's writing, the pointed teeth of Lova.

These two symbolic worlds are made to coalesce by means of a series of repeated images, to assume new and different symbolic patterns throughout the story. Recurrent images include feminine hair (fretwork, fretted lace, maidenhair and asparagus ferns, sea-lettuce) connected with feminine, soft, tactile details (satin, breasts, wet mouths, kumquats). Clay is very much attracted by this feminine world of protection and sensual pleasure, which symbolizes the creative sphere of the imagination. This seems to be in conflict with the masculine world, symbolized by threatening pointed objects (scissors and broken bottles, a pointed shoe carried by the boys chasing Clay). Clay has difficulty coping with a highly developed imagination that demands expression (his dreams, fantasy, and inventiveness), whereas mundane existence, his work, and his marriage all try to make him other than what he is.

Clay is gradually possessed by the feminine side of his personality. White's constant use of water imagery in connection with Clay and Lova, the repetition of the color green and the threatening femme fatale quality of Lova, give a mythological dimension to the story. Lova reminds us of one of the lorelei, a water nymph, siren and seductress of men. The seduction scene suggests that finally Clay opts for the world of the imagination and fantasy, even at the price of being different.

—David Coad