The Day Stalin Died Themes

Themes and Meanings (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The narrator is an author, a writer of short stories, who cannot work on the day that Stalin dies because of constant interruptions by members of her family and by her associates in the Communist Party. Such impositions on her time are apparently commonplace and are a constant source of tension and depression. The narrator finds it impossible to say no.

However, the frustration goes deeper. The narrator finds it difficult to reconcile her involvement with the communist movement and various other left-wing activities with the independence of judgment and spirit necessary to practice her craft. A party hack, such as Jean, has a special commitment to trivializing the author’s talent, reducing it to the level of the class struggle. With obvious delight, she says condescendingly that intellectuals such as the narrator are under “greater pressure from the forces of capitalist corruption than any other type of party cadre.” Clearly, no middle ground can exist between orthodox communism and a free spirit. There is no possibility of compromise. Jean is in effect saying that one cannot have it both ways, although the narrator apparently believes that it is possible.

On this conflict between independence of mind and the quest for political-social identity is built a pedestrian story. The motives that prompted the narrator to join the Communist Party are not stated directly, but it seems certain that these motives, ostensibly idealistic, have something to do with a strong impulse to belong and to serve: those traditionally feminine characteristics that condition her to respond to any request, no matter how trivial. It becomes clear, for example, that her presence at the photography studio is completely unnecessary.

The death of Stalin is symbolic. It dramatizes an important change in the author’s life, a change that has been a long time in coming. The news of the communist leader’s death is disturbing at first because he is so closely linked to the past from which the narrator has derived stability and identity. She is annoyed when the reactions of other people are so superficial and trivial. By the end of her wasted day, however, it is clear that the defection from Stalinism and the adjustment to a new relationship with people has been well established.