A Conversation with My Father Analysis

Grace Paley

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“A Conversation with My Father” is related in the first person by the daughter. By briefly describing her father’s past life, present situation, and a few of his actions, and most importantly by recording what he says to her, she builds up a good sense of his character. As is usual in first-person narratives, the narrator’s own character and ultimate opinions are more difficult to discern. Unlike many first-person narrators, this one is never confessional. Aspects of her style help reveal her: She tells her story efficiently and economically; she enjoys telling stories and is good at weaving facts from real life together with details of her own invention; her words are incisive, as when she describes her father’s mind as flooded with “brainy light.” Many readers will find her story full of a grim but effervescent humor.

The work’s most obvious device is the story-within-a-story. In this case, there are two versions (and written versions at that) of the same general story, and both contrast markedly with the main story. This device enables Paley to illustrate the differences between the endings of her own stories and the types of endings that her father prefers. It also presents a contrast in styles. The stories-within-stories have a strange tone: a factual, abrupt, and plodding style tells of absurd happenings. By contrast, the main story at all times reveals the serious intelligence and emotional depth of characters whose lives are not at all silly.

Paley constructs her story artfully. At first one meets a demanding but understandable old man who says that he likes “simple” stories and a daughter who seems to toy with him by writing precisely the kind of story that he hates. Only gradually does one understand that what really matters to the old man is not merely a kind of plot, but an attitude toward the tragic nature of life. Even though the daughter will not back down in their intellectual tug-of-war, her playfulness is gradually shown to mask her real love and admiration for her father and her understanding of his situation. By the end of the story, the reader senses that, although her kind of story (that is, this story itself) allows no neat resolution, its open-ended future may include her understanding of what her father has tried to tell her.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Political Upheaval Leads to Generation Gap
The early 1970s followed a time of great social upheaval in the United States. In the...

(The entire section is 352 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

There are two stories contained within "A Conversation with My Father." One story is about a visit between a middle-aged woman and her sick,...

(The entire section is 519 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1970s: The Equal Rights Amendment, a proposal to change the constitution to guarantee women's rights, particularly equal pay for equal...

(The entire section is 331 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

The narrator's attitudes and the events in her story-within-a-story reflect the mood of the early 1970s in the United States, particularly...

(The entire section is 153 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute is a 1983 film based on the short story collection in which "A Conversation with My Father"...

(The entire section is 70 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

The themes of "A Conversation with My Father" also figure in the other pieces of short fiction in the collection in which the story was first...

(The entire section is 129 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Isaacs, Neil. Grace Paley A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne, 1990.

Kamel, Rose."To Aggravate the...

(The entire section is 161 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Cevoli, Cathy. “These Four Women Could Save Your Life.” Mademoiselle 89 (January, 1983): 104-107.

DeKoven, Marianne. “Mrs. Hegel-Shtein’s Tears.” Partisan Review 48, no. 2 (1981): 217-223.

Gelfant, Blanche H. “Grace Paley: Fragments for a Portrait in Collage.” New England Review 3, no. 2 (Winter, 1980): 276-293.

Harrington, Stephanie. “The Passionate Rebels.” Vogue 153 (May, 1969): 151.

Iannone, Carol. “A Dissent on Grace Paley.” Commentary 80 (August, 1985): 54-58.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. “Grace Paley: The Sociology of Metafiction.” In Literary Subversions. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.

McMurran, Kristin. “Even Admiring Peers Worry That Grace Paley Writes Too Little and Protests Too Much.” People 11 (February 26, 1979): 22-23.

Paley, Grace. “The Seneca Stories: Tales from the Women’s Peace Encampment.” Ms. 12 (December, 1983): 54-58.

Park, Clara Claiborne. “Faith, Grace, and Love.” The Hudson Review 38, no. 3 (Autumn, 1985): 481-488.

Scheifer, Ronald. “Grace Paley: Chaste Compactness.” In Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, edited by Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheik. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985.

Smith, Wendy. “Grace Paley.” Publishers Weekly 227 (April 5, 1985): 71-72.

Sorkin, Adam J. “Grace Paley.” In Twentieth-Century American-Jewish Writers, edited by Daniel Walden. Vol. 28 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984.

Sorkin, Adam J. “What Are We, Animals? Grace Paley’s World of Talk and Laughter.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 2 (1982): 144-154.