What is the conflict in Grace Paley's short story "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute?"

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Grace Paley's collection of short stories, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, most of the character are female and middle-aged.

...identity is a personal and a social issue in the struggle for a peaceful world.

It seems that this is the case, also, in the short story with the book's title, "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute." The main character is Alexandra, also middle-aged. While the women in the collection have a variety of circumstances to confront, Alexandra is a social worker—her job is to help others face difficult situations. Unexpectedly, she also finds herself in a challenging spot. Unmarried, she sleeps with cabdriver and poet, Dennis—who lives in a commune. When Alexandra finds that she is pregnant, it would seem natural that she would enter the commune herself, finding a society of people who might support her in her unconventional "state."

However, Alexandra does not join the commune: she creates an unconventional—progressive—way to address this challenging position. Among her "clients," there are other women who are pregnant, and Alexandra opens the way for them all to live together, creating a very different society by which she can find support and provide help and encouragement to others like herself. It is not an environment of cold isolation that society may offer, and it is not the commune with its own rules and expectations. She forges ahead into new territory, setting a...

...precedent in social work which would not be followed or even mentioned in state journals for about five years.

In this collection, "Paley's women" are...

...unwed, widowed, or divorced...they are not defined by either marriage or the desire for marriage.

This in itself causes a conflict—in a woman's refusal to adhere to social norms. It is a conflict between self and what society expects of the individual. Alexandra's story addresses, specifically, the choices that confront her in facing her pregnancy as a single-woman. Ironically, she uses what she knows (social work) to help others as well as herself. In this story runs the common theme throughout the collection's main characters of identity—finding oneself. It would appear that Alexandra's conflicts are interwoven—in recognizing her own individuality in face of the expectations of those around her and society in general.

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