The first thing one notices about the short stories of Grace Paley is the voice that narrates them. It seems unmistakably the voice of a woman talking to other women. Paley once said in an interview that it was “the dark lives of women” that made her begin to write in the first place, adding that at the time she thought no one would be interested, “but I had to illuminate it anyway.” In a preface written especially for The Collected Stories, she says that in 1954 or 1955, when she first felt the storyteller’s need, she was not sure that she could write the important serious material that men were writing. Consequently, she says she had no choice but to write about what had been handed to her: “everyday life, kitchen life, children life.”
Usually, the women in Paley’s stories are unwed, widowed, or divorced; although they often have lovers and children, they are not defined either by marriage or by the desire for marriage. This focus on the female without men has resulted, say some critics, in stories that are feminist in point of view, language, and theme. In her new preface, Paley says that she agrees, at least to the extent that every woman writing during the decades of the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s had to “swim in the feminist wave.” Paley’s stories are often unified by her focus on the voices of women engaged in conversation, gossip, jokes, intimacies, and above all storytelling. It is the power of this talk and storytelling, Paley insists, that bonds women together into a unified, collaborative force to make their voices heard. In an interview, Paley once said, “Our voices are, if not getting a lot louder, getting so numerous. We’re talking to each other more and more.” Paley believes that women, especially mothers, banding together and talking to one another constitute a powerful political force for social change. When one has children, one gets involved in community affairs, Paley says, for one becomes concerned for protection of the children. Indeed, in many Paley stories the community of mothers on the playground constitutes a central source of social consciousness.
Although Paley’s stories show a concern for community and social responsibility, they are far from solemn social tracts or feminist polemics. Instead, they are characterized by an earthy awareness of urban folk culture combined with an often bawdy sense of humor. The women in Paley’s stories rebel against the traditional role of woman as passive partner in sexual encounters, and at the same time they reject the egoistic image of men as the answer to all women’s needs. As Mrs. Luddy tells the character Faith Darwin in the story “The Long-Distance Runner,” men thought that they were bringing women a “rare gift,” but it was just sex, “which is common like bread, though essential.” As Faith and Mrs. Luddy talk, like many other women in Paley’s stories, one begins to realize that such collaborative talk among women fosters community and freedom.
Faith Darwin, Paley’s alter ego, was first introduced in a pair of early stories in The Little Disturbances of Man: Stories of Men and Women in Love (1959) categorized as “two short sad stories from a long and happy life.” The first one, entitled “The Used-Boy Raisers,” begins with the typical Paley ironic voice—“There were two husbands disappointed by eggs”—and then continues with Faith’s voice characterizing her husband and former husband, who are dissatisfied with the way she has fixed their eggs, as “Pallid” and “Livid” as they quarrel about the future of the Jewish race. At this point in Faith’s life, she rarely expresses her opinion on any serious matter and says that she considers it her destiny to be, “until [my] expiration date, laughingly the servant of man.” As the two husbands go off to face the “grand affairs of the day ahead of them,” however, Faith’s voice has managed to gently ridicule the pretensions of these “clean and neat, rather attractive, shiny men in their thirties.”
In many ways, the various situations of Faith Darwin reflect the central thematic concerns of Paley’s fiction. As Faith moves from egoistic self-pity to a broader identification and sympathy with women in general and women as an oppressed group in particular, she embodies Paley’s own growing conviction that fiction can serve a powerful purpose in affirming community, hope, and love. Faith reappears in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974) in the story “Faith in the Afternoon,” where, recently abandoned by her husband, she visits her parents in a retirement home. Although she is very much aware of her family history, she holds herself aloof from family in this story, rejecting union and connection. Another story, “Faith in a Tree,” finds Faith still holding herself aloof, this time symbolically sitting on the limb of a sycamore tree above an urban playground. By the end of the story, however, she is brought out of her lofty perch by her eight-year-old son’s sympathetic identification with the purposes of a peaceful antiwar march and decides to change her distanced perspective to one of social...
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