Faith in a Tree Summary
by Grace Paley

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Faith in a Tree Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“Faith in a Tree,” as the title suggests, is about a woman named Faith, the protagonist of many a Paley story, sitting in a tree. It is a Saturday afternoon, and Faith has brought her two young sons, Richard and Tonto, to their New York neighborhood park to play and pass the time, among other parents and children and passersby doing the same.

Unlike those around her, however, Faith feels subtly trapped in her life as a single mother; she senses an unidentifiable longing, both carnal and intellectual, to make a more meaningful connection with the world. Bored with the mundane pretensions of the park’s social scene, she withdraws, retreats into herself, and climbs into a sycamore to establish the distance and detachment she needs. From her post, she muses flippantly on the scene below her and its position in the universe—“What a place in democratic time!”

She answers the queries of casual acquaintances passionately, but her cryptic answers are enigmatic and senseless; she describes and lampoons the other mothers, such as the self-righteous Mrs. Junius Finn, who “always is more in charge of word meanings than I am” and “is especially in charge of Good and Bad.” She responds to the various stimuli of passersby, such as a pair of men listening to Bach on a transistor radio; she alternately ignores and wrangles with her clever and disapproving older son, Richard; she jumps down from the tree for some competitive flirtation with a likable and considerate man named Phillip Mazzano. She later considers climbing back up for oxygen when another woman seems to be prevailing in the contest for his attention. These and other comments and encounters are reported through Faith’s ironic and imaginative eyes.

After flowing timelessly and haphazardly in a manner thus reflective of Faith’s inner diffuseness, the story ends with a twist reminiscent of an O. Henry tale—and not at all typical of Paley’s style. A group of parents and children approach, wielding signs and clanging pots in protest against the American use of napalm in Vietnam, and they are dispersed by a local conservative-minded policeman. In the aftermath of the incident, Richard chastises Faith and her friends for their failure to confront the policeman and impulsively emblazons the protesters’ message—“WOULD YOU BURN A CHILD? and under it, a little taller, the red reply, WHEN NECESSARY”—across the sidewalk. The apathy and restraint of the afternoon combine with the sudden excitement of the protesters’ expulsion and Richard’s spontaneous anger to affect Faith’s view of her life dramatically, and, in the story’s final paragraph, she traces to that specific moment her subsequent changes in appearance, employment, social life, communication, and awareness of and involvement in the world.

The impact of “Faith in a Tree” derives from the care and leisure with which Paley establishes Faith’s sense of detachment. This is accomplished not only through the imagery—for example, comparing the other mothers to naval vessels—and acutely facetious tone but also through Faith’s attitude toward the reader, for she acknowledges the subjective posture she has taken to the world around her and on two occasions even includes footnotes that acknowledge the physical manifestation of her storytelling—the page—and refer beyond the internal context of the story to the reader’s world as well.

The detachment, mentally and stylistically, is thus complete; it is its completeness which lulls the reader into an equal complacency, only to disrupt it again with Faith’s sudden emergence from spiritual withdrawal into an active participation in the world. Paley is rarely didactic, but in “Faith in a Tree” her purpose is not only to entertain but also to motivate. Just as Faith is somehow tricked by circumstance into a meaningful new awareness and acceptance of responsibility, so is the reader (by implication) left, seemingly alone at the conclusion, to...

(The entire section is 1,343 words.)