Heated debates on characterization always make me think of Joyce, so I just pulled out the story in question and reread it, along with some footnotes. Specifically, it's the short story "Clay", in Dubliners.
We read it in school, and our teacher had us write short essays before actually filling us in on all the politics -- the story is heavily allegorical, and it went past all of us, just due to lack of background knowledge. So the rest of this is about the story taken just as a slice-of-life, rather than a commentary on the future of Ireland in Joyce's time.
My initial reaction to it was that it was sort of sweet, in a melancholy way. I thought Maria, the "old maid" and POV character was a lot like me, only less smart -- she's shy, and enjoys being a peacemaker among quarreling friends, and is generally liked but deeply close with very few. (And, at that age, I had sworn I'd never marry, because I loved my independence too much. That has changed, due to 1) finding there were ways to be part of a couple without losing yourself and 2) being willing to sacrifice more than I thought for love.)
Everyone else in the class thought she was sad, pathetic, and found the story really depressing. And just WTF'ed at me when we passed essays around and discussed them. It felt like a personal attack, because it was my identification with her that made the confusion weird, and then there was the weird backhanded compliment that none of my classmates could see the parallel, as I was just an unpopular geek to them, not a complete loser.