Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“An Interest in Life” is the central story in Paley’s collection The Little Disturbances of Man: Stories of Men and Women in Love (1959). As the title suggests, this story demonstrates one of Paley’s favorite themes, the way in which a good sense of humor and a healthy appetite for life can reduce apparent tragedies to minor disturbances. Virginia seems a survivor, whose intelligence, honesty, and street smarts mark her kinship with the picaresque heroes of J. D. Salinger and Saul Bellow. There is, however, a darker side to Paley’s work—a grim picture of urban poverty, of men who are irresponsible and of women who find them irresistible, of a culture and an economy in which the poor are lulled into dreams of sudden riches rather than encouraged to find realistic ways to better their plight.

Early in the story, Virginia’s self-awareness wins the reader’s admiration: “I don’t have to thank anything but my own foolishness for four children when I’m twenty-six years old, deserted, and poverty-struck. . . . A man can’t help it, but I could have behaved better,” she tells herself. However, at the end of the story, she envisions herself making the same mistake once again. This conclusion seems quite intentional on Paley’s part, a warning to the reader not to romanticize the lusty life of the poor, to see Virginia for what she really is: a survivor, yes, but not a heroine.