A Conversation with My Father Summary
by Grace Paley

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A Conversation with My Father Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

One evening, the narrator’s eighty-six-year-old father lies in bed in his New York home. Unable to walk, he suffers from a heart condition after having lived a rich life as a doctor and an artist. He appears near death, for he has pills at hand and breathes oxygen from a bedside tank. He has not lost his intelligence, interest in art, or concern for his daughter, however. In what might be the speech of one knowing that he is near death, he confronts his daughter about the kind of short stories that she writes. He wishes that she would write “simple” stories like the old masters of the form: the Frenchman Guy de Maupassant and the Russian Anton Chekhov. He reminds her that she once wrote stories like that.

Although the narrator does not remember writing any such stories, she wants to please her father, so she quickly writes a very short story about what has been happening to a woman and her son who are their real neighbors. Her story is odd but simple, perhaps the sort that her father will like:

A mother and her son live happily in the city. After the son becomes a drug addict, the mother becomes an addict in order to maintain their closeness. The son then gives up drugs, becomes disgusted with his mother, and goes away, leaving her alone and without hope.

The narrator’s father does not like the story, finding it too spare. Classic short story writers, he maintains, would humanize the story with descriptions. After the daughter obligingly adds perfunctory details about such things as hairstyles, the father is still not satisfied because his daughter does not take her characters seriously.

When their conversation turns to how the daughter writes her own stories, they discuss what happens when she stumbles on a good character—one to be taken seriously. It takes time to devise an appropriate ending to such a story, but the father asks her to take the time. After an interval, the daughter writes a much longer version of her story. It is now full of evocative detail and bizarre complications, but its action remains essentially the same. The most important change concerns the son, who now edits a periodical that advocates drug use.

Even this version does not satisfy the writer’s father, though he seems to approve of its definite and tragic ending. The daughter protests, however, that her ending is not so final as her father assumes, explaining that after the story ends, the mother goes on to have a satisfying career helping others. Again the father objects, arguing that such a hopeful ending is bad art because it evades life’s ultimate tragedy—death. The conversation ends when the father asks his daughter when she will face such facts.


(Short Stories for Students)

"A Conversation with My Father" recounts a discussion between the narrator and her bedridden father, who is eighty-six years old and dying. He asks his daughter to write a "simple story," the kind that Maupassant or Chekhov wrote, "Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next." The daughter says yes because she wants to make him happy. She does not like stories that follow a plot line from start to finish because they remove all hope—there is no room for something...

(The entire section is 864 words.)