In Grace Paley’s “Distance,” the reader finds an unusual first person narrator and protagonist in the character of Dolly Rafferty. Early in Dolly’s life, she was a wild girl. Now, Dolly’s story involves her parenting of her son John and her relationship with her husband Jack. Dolly thinks that she has the inside track on almost everything particularly John’s girlfriends when they become potential wives.
The story’s humorous tone is displayed in the various anecdotes that the bitter Dolly shares about the apartment building and the women who live in it. In addition, the story has a melancholy mood interspersed through the affairs outside of marriage that every man seems to have. There are also some religious overtones in the character of John. To show her love for her son and to get him to leave the girl downstairs alone, Dolly stabs herself just a little to get her son’s attention.
Living downstairs, Ginny struggled to survive with her children. Her husband ran away with another woman. Several of the women in the apartment complex sent for child welfare although they were not interested since the children were not abused.
Dolly’s son John becomes interested in Ginny. Describing her son as religious and impressionable, John decides that he wants to marry Ginny. Telling his mother that he wants to marry “Virginia,” Dolly describes her son as a nice good boy, who is loyal to his friends. Dolly tries to discourage John by telling him that she has seen her making out with her other men and by stabbing herself slightly in the chest.
“…listen to me Johnny Rafferty, you’re somebody’s jackass, I'll tell you, you look out that front window and I bet you if you got yourself your dad’s spyglass you would see some track of your little lady. I think there are evenings she don’t get out of the back of that trailer truck parked over there and it’s no trouble for Pete…to get his way of her.
Dolly asks her husband to become involved with John’s problem. She and Jack have a loveless marriage. Jack tells her that she is too pushy and walks out on her. He has done it before and Dolly is not worried. Later, Dolly sees Jack walking in the street with another woman.
Eventually, John marries Margaret who is a bit slow, and again Dolly does not particularly like her either. John and Margaret settle down together and have two girls. John still slips off and sees Ginny on the side. Dolly’s husband comes home as well. Dolly describes what killed her husband:
Jack didn’t deal with me at all, and he broke his many years’ after-supper habits and took long walks. That’s what killed him, I think, for he was a habitual person.
After her husband dies, Dolly sits on the porch waiting to see John when he makes his twice a week visit to Ginny. He is in a hurry and Dolly has given over to the fact that she just needs to see her son.
The story is unusual because it life according to Dolly’s rules. She looks back at her family with acrimony. Most of the people in the story do not meet the high standards established by Dolly.
When her husband is gone, Dolly enjoys having the run of the house and the television all to herself. Yet, when her husband dies, Dolly does feel a sadness because she would have loved to tell Jack that she was right about Ginny.