A Conversation with My Father Style and Technique

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.