Grace Paley

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What does the speaker of the poem "Family" by Grace Paley imply about being American?

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Grace Paley's narrator communicates the idea that being American offers so many opportunities that it can be overwhelming. This is conveyed in the line in which the speaker says she "was nearly buried with opportunity." Opportunity is a positive concept, and one that has long made the United States an appealing destination to immigrants, but it is linked to a more negative concept that this level of opportunity can threaten to bury—implicitly kill—a person.

In this poem, being American also means being threatened with pressures to achieve based on personal characteristics. For example, her father is defined not by his job or his position in a community hierarchy, but by his personal attributes:

brilliant embarrassed funny handsome

Most of these are positive, with the exception of "embarrassed." All of them create pressures. If one is brilliant, funny, and handsome in the land of opportunity, one is expected to achieve great things. If one is embarrassed, one is under pressure to improve and shed that negative characteristic. The mother and the aunt are similarly given three positive and one negative personal characteristic, placing them under similar pressure. The grandmother, however, of an earlier generation, is defined by her "other life" and "dead children," implying that those who were born or came here very young have the highest expectations places upon them.

To be American is to be overwhelmed with opportunities and under pressure to achieve.

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The narrator of "Family" by Grace Paley uses several adjectives to describe various family members, and says some of the adjectives stuck to her, while others, "finding me American and smooth slipped away."

This final line suggests that Americans are 'smooth,' and that adjectives, or ideas about people, can 'slip' off them. This seems to mean that Americans are not able to see past the obvious; don't look deeper into an idea.

If you look at the form of the poem, you will notice that in each of the first four lines, there is a space separating the first adjective from the other three adjectives. The same space occurs between "some of them stuck to me" and "others finding me American and smooth slipped away." This seems to indicate that the first adjective in each list was the one that stuck, and the following three slipped away. Thus, the narrator saw her father as "brilliant" but was not aware that he was also "embarrassed funny handsome." Perhaps this indicates that Americans do not allow themselves to get 'too close' to others.

In the second stanza, the narrator also refers to the adjectives as "opportunity." This seems to indicate that the narrator feels that if Americans would get to know each other better, opportunities would open. Opportunities for what? Perhaps to know oneself? To experience love? To share one's life?

Ultimately, "Family" by Grace Paley implies that Americans are cold, hard individuals who don't let anyone into their hearts, not even family members, and lose opportunities because of it.

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