A New Hope: ‘A Handful of Clay’

Henry Van Dyke’s short story urges us to keep despair at bay with hope and perseverance.
A New Hope: ‘A Handful of Clay’
Will a piece of clay become a beautiful vessel? Cropped image of “Etruscan Vase Painters,” 1871, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. (Public Domain)
11/8/2023
Updated:
2/19/2024
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As you sit down in the evening, you feel exhausted and discouraged. Life’s pains have pushed and pulled you so much that you feel pressed into a life of despair. Yet despite every hardship, you maintain hope and perseverance. These qualities will not only carry you through tribulations and dark nights but also crown you with glory.

In his short story “A Handful of Clay,” Henry Van Dyke emphasizes the importance of patience, hope, and perseverance, especially in the most difficult of times. Through a handful of clay, Van Dyke shows that these virtues can help us look past hardships to see life’s beauty.

Unremarkable

It is springtime and a swelling river flows with vigor, given new life and renewed strength from the melted snow. The trees on the bank take in the new season’s light. With beautiful foliage beginning to adorn their branches, the trees look quite glorious. Flowers, too, wonder at their own beauty. They bow to each other, acknowledging each other’s glow.

Lying also along this beautiful riverbank is a handful of “common clay, coarse and heavy.” Unlike the trees, flowers, and river, this clay does not bask in its unique beauty and glory, but remains unremarkable.

Yet despite this seemingly valueless situation, the clay does not despair. It dreams of its future, when the world will recognize its beautiful qualities. The clay dreams of future glories, consoling itself: “I was not made to be hidden forever. Glory and beauty and honour are coming to me in due season.”

Tribulations

One day, the clay’s dreams begin to come true. A shovel lifts it from the bank and throws it into a cart. And even during an extremely rough ride, it reassures itself that pain precedes glory.

Little does the clay know that its journey will become far more difficult. After the cart ride, the clay is dumped into a trough to be mixed and trampled. But the clay perseveres in its hope of obtaining greatness.

The clay is then pulled out of the trough and placed on a flat, circular wheel, where it is molded into shape. The wheel spins so fast that the clay feels as if it will fling into pieces, but it holds on.

There is no relief for the clay as it is thrust into a fiery oven. A scorching heat surrounds it, and the clay questions its very survival. Nevertheless, it comforts itself with the thought that it will be a kingly vase or a beautiful ornament.

A New Hope

Finally, does joy come at the end of all the tribulations? Do such trials bring glory? What disappointment the clay feels when it discovers that it is only a common flowerpot—all this pain for seemingly nothing. The clay feels renewed failure as it is filled with dirt and something else.

And that something rises within the clay. Though the clay cannot explain it, it feels renewed as the something grows.

Through the story of this handful of clay, Van Dyke encourages us to propagate hope, even in the darkest times. He encourages us.  As Anne Frank says in “The Diary of a Young Girl”: “I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.”

As tribulations surround you, you are asked not to give in and be shaped by misery. Look past the misery to the beauty of a new day. As hope and perseverance take root in your heart, feel the glory and beauty with which they reward you. See the world and all its beautiful wonders in a new way.

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Kate Vidimos is a 2020 graduate from the liberal arts college at the University of Dallas, where she received her bachelor’s degree in English. She plans on pursuing all forms of storytelling (specifically film) and is currently working on finishing and illustrating a children’s book.