Enormous Changes at the Last Minute Analysis

Grace Paley

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, which contains seventeen stories that originally appeared in The Atlantic, Esquire, and other magazines, is the second of Grace Paley’s highly regarded collections of stories. The Little Disturbances of Man, with eleven stories, appeared in 1959, and her third collection, Later the Same Day, containing seventeen stories, appeared in 1985. It is not a large corpus, and it has not generated extensive formal commentary and criticism. Yet it is a body of work loved and respected by many readers, especially women, who hear in Paley a familiar and long-silent voice, and other writers, who know that she is a consummate master of her craft who constantly experiments with the basic nature of narrative structure.

A number of stories in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute are so short that they seem carefully crafted situations symbolic of the circumstances of women. “Wants,” a three-page piece in which a woman meets her former husband at the library when she returns books she has had checked out for eight years, effectively expresses a woman’s basic desire to be the kind of person who returns books in two weeks, stays married to the same person forever, and addresses the Board of Estimate on the troubles of urban centers. In “Living,” a woman calls a friend to tell her she is dying. Yet the friend, a character named Faith who plays a role in a number of Paley stories, says that she is dying too, for her menstrual bleeding will not stop; the story is a poignant but restrained...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

A central question often raised about Paley’s stories is whether they support the feminist premise that women’s language and modes of storytelling are radically different from those of men. The two issues often raised are whether the stories of women are likely to be less linear and more open-ended than those of men, which seem more goal-oriented, and whether the stories of women focus more on collaboration and community than those of men, who are more likely to be highly egotistic and self-centered. Although these questions are often debated and remain unresolved in feminist criticism, it seems quite clear that Paley is very much focused on the community of women who must talk with one another and 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.”

Moreover, Paley is convinced that women banding together and talking to one another, especially mothers, constitute a powerful political force for social change. When women have children, they become involved in community affairs, Paley says, because their concern is protection of the children. Indeed, in many Paley stories the community of mothers on the playground constitutes a central source of social consciousness.

Yet for all this concern with community and social responsibility, Paley’s stories are far from solemn feminist tracts. 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 women as passive partners in sexuality, and at the same time they reject the image of men as the answer to all women’s needs. As Mrs. Luddy says to Faith in “The Long-Distance Runner,” men thought that they were bringing women a rare gift, but it was only sex, “which is common like bread, though essential.” As Faith and Mrs. Luddy talk, the reader begins to realize that it is this very talk that Paley tries to capture and commemorate, for it is the sharing of stories among women that creates collaboration, community, and freedom.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Aarons, Victoria. “Talking Lives: Storytelling and Renewal in Grace Paley’s Short Fiction.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 9 (Spring, 1990): 20-35. Argues that Paley empowers her characters through their propensity for telling stories. By telling their stories, her characters try to gain some control over their lives and reconstruct their experience.

Baba, Minako. “Faith Darwin as Writer-Heroine: A Study of Grace Paley’s Short Stories.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 7 (Spring, 1988): 40-54. Charts the development of Faith Darwin, a central figure in Paley’s first three collections of stories. In Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Baba focuses on “Faith in the Afternoon,” in which the character pities herself as an abandoned wife, “Faith in a Tree,” in which she considers the life of a writer and decides to focus on social issues, and “The Long-Distance Runner,” in which she develops a relationship with an African American matriarch.

Criswell, Jeanne Salladé. “Cynthia Ozick and Grace Paley: Diverse Visions in Jewish and Women’s Literature.” In Since Flannery O’Connor: Essays on the Contemporary American Short Story, edited by Loren Logsdon and Charles W. Mayer. Macomb: Western Illinois University Press, 1987. Criswell acknowledges the shared Jewish and feminist background of...

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