Maria is an older unmarried woman who has been given permission by the matron to leave the Dublin by Lamplight laundry after tea time. The laundry, a Protestant organization designed to help those in need, is Maria's home. She is extremely capable, she holds no grudges against Protestants and everyone likes her. Tonight, which is Halloween, she will spend with Joe whom she helped to raise with his brother Alphy and Joe's family. There will be festivities and she plans to bring a special treat for the children: "she wanted to buy something really nice" (82). Before leaving, she sets her alarm clock for six instead of seven in order to get up for mass the following morning.
On her way to Joe's, she reflects on Joe's argument with his brother Alphy and hopes they will make up. She stops at a Henry Street bakery where she buys a very expensive piece of plum cake. On the tram, she is forced to stand until a friendly older man offers her his seat. They strike up a conversation about Halloween. Joe's family greets her with great warmth and then she realizes she has lost the plum cake and that she must have left it on the tram. The loss of the cake almost brings her to tears when she considers the exorbitant cost. Joe sits with her and asks her to take a drink but when she attempts to discuss Alphy, he becomes incensed.
The family begins a popular Irish Halloween game which foretells the future. The subject is blindfolded and asked to pick out something from a variety of objects placed on the table. Maria picks up something wet and slippery, but Mrs. Donnelly says sharply that she should pick something else. She picks a prayer book instead and Mrs. Donnelly predicts that she will enter a convent. After being asked, Maria sings "I Dreamt that I Dwelt in Marble Halls," but mistakenly repeats the first verse twice. "Joe was very much moved" (86).
Once more isolation is exemplified in Maria, the elderly, kind-hearted protagonist in Joyce's tenth Dubliners story. She has never married, nor will ever marry. This is indicated by the ring in the Halloween barmbrack, a cake with raisins and spices in which is placed a fake gold ring. Whoever gets the ring is sure to wed. Everyone insists Maria will this year uncover the ring, but she never does and although she feigns joviality by insisting "she doesn't want any ring or man either," afterwards "her gray-green eyes sparkled with disappointment (81). The song she sings is a dream of living in a palace with servants to serve her for a change and where she would be loved: "I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls/ With vassals and serfs at my side..I had riches too great to count...but I also dreamt which pleased me most that you loved me still the same" (86). So deep is her yearning that she repeats the first stanza.
Maria works hard and is kind to all; as the matron says, "Maria you are a veritable peace-maker" (80). She helps the women attain a better future, setting a good example. She is tolerant of others, even Protestants, attends mass religiously, setting her clock
hours before it is necessary so she will wake up on time, and she loves children, going so far as to bring up two that were not her own. She sacrifices what she can of her hard-earned meager wages on others, paying an exorbitant amount for a piece of plum cake that is, perhaps, stolen, just to bring a smile to others' lips. "Everyone was so fond of Maria," but sadly Maria will soon die. This is foretold in the Halloween party game when Maria chooses the wet and slimy clay in which she will soon be interred. What has she received in turn for her life sacrifice?