Clay is our main man here, our narrator and guide through the frightening world of Hannah Baker's last hours. Much of the action in this story takes place in Clay's head, which means we have some pretty good insight into his character.
Hannah's words show Clay the dark underbelly of his town and of the other people on the list. Clay has grown up around all of the people she talks about, but only now does he realize that he doesn't truly know them.
The tapes have a lot of different effects on Clay, but this reality check might just be the most life-changing. Everything that has happened to him now takes on new meaning as he considers a world of complications he never dreamed of.
Is this fair? Clay isn't one of the bad guys, but now he has the weight of their actions on his shoulders. Sure, he will now be more sensitive to the world around him, but will his life be as bright, as happy as it could have been otherwise? We can't say, but it's important to realize that this reality check is not all good news for Clay.
His Opinion Counts
Clay is the only person on Hannah's list who we hear from directly. We do call him an unreliable narrator in the "Narrative Technique" section, but we definitely think he's at least more objective than Hannah. Of course he's emotionally involved in the story, but he's also emotionally stable, and that's important. He is able to consider the story from a grounded – though uneasy – point of view.
Why does this matter? Well, Clay helps us – the readers – make sense of sense of Hannah's words. He knew her and we didn't, so he can give us a deeper understanding of what she was going through.
Clay's voice also serves another important role in the book. He tells us that it's okay to doubt some of the things Hannah says. It's even okay to be mad at her. He honors her and respects her last wishes, but he doesn't go easy on her. Sometimes as readers, we might feel bad having negative feelings toward a young girl who took her own life, but Clay reminds us that no one is perfect.
Reputation is Everything
Unlike Hannah, Clay has a spotless reputation. Hannah is attracted to him because he really does seem as good as the things people say about him.
One way Clay keeps his reputation clean is by playing it safe and keeping things drama-free. He's certainly not a risk-taker. He prioritizes schoolwork over parties, and he doesn't get publically involved with girls with bad reputations – like Hannah Baker.
Just Plain Good… Right?
It turns out Clay's reputation is pretty accurate. First, a couple of small things: he always calls his mom to let her know where he is and he doesn't throw rocks at another kid's window. Those aren't necessarily indications of some greater good in his heart, but they definitely give us the idea that he's a stand-up guy.
The more meaningful goodness in Clay comes out in his interactions with Hannah. He's always super nice to her, chatting with her when he can and giving her space when she needs it. Starting the night of the party, he seems even more prepared to stand by Hannah despite the rumors – if only she will let him. But she decides to shut him out, and he can't find a way to pry open the door. It hurts to think about all the opportunities he had before Hannah closed that door for good.
So wait. He's nice and all for regretting his actions, but that doesn't change the fact that he didn't step up when he had the chance. Could he have done more? Actually, did his reserved, good-guy attitude prevent him from helping Hannah? If he'd been more aggressive, might things have ended differently?
Whether or not you think Clay was at fault for Hannah's suicide, he certainly learns his lesson. At the end of the novel, we see Clay risk his reputation by striking up a new relationship with Skye Miller, his middle school crush and a possible suicide risk.
It's hard for Clay to go against the grain and take this plunge, but he is clearly trying to use Hannah's tragic experience to help make the lives of other people better. Because we don't get to see much of Clay after he's done listening to these tapes, it's nice to see him reach out to Skye and start living life a little differently than before.