Grace Paley

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Grace Paley American Literature Analysis

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On the dust jacket of Enormous Changes at the Last Minute appears Paley’s comment that she “writes stories because art is too long and life is too short.” Hers is an unusual accomplishment, for though the short story has earned its position as a respectable genre, few authors have achieved repute without venturing beyond its limits. The acclaimed masters of the short story—James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Honoré de Balzac, and Anton Chekhov—all wrote novels or plays as well. Paley’s reputation is based on three relatively slim collections. Nevertheless, the first, The Little Disturbances of Man, was reissued by a different publisher nine years after its original appearance, a rare event in the history of the short story.

Paley’s early interest in poetry inculcated in her art the values of verbal economy and the layering of meaning; her prose style is highly poetic—compact, full of imagery, and less reasoned than sensed or felt. Some of the pieces in Later the Same Day, such as “Mother,” “This Is a Story About My Friend George, the Toy Inventor,” and “In This Country, but in Another Language, My Aunt Refuses to Marry the Men Everyone Wants Her To,” are so brief that they seem less stories than sketches or impressions.

Even in structuring her longer stories, Paley rarely accepts conventional formulae, choosing instead an often meandering movement with loose shifts in time, tone, or for the point of view. A glimpse into Paley’s technique may be found in “A Conversation with My Father” (1974), where the narrator, a writer, is asked by her father to compose a traditional story but finds it impossible to write that type of “plot, the absolute line between two points. . . . [B]ecause it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or imagined, deserves the open destiny of life.” Such apparent plotlessness demands an equal openness of the reader, for very few standard expectations will be fulfilled. Occasionally she ventures into more fantastic or artificially stylized ground, as in the seemingly absurdist “The Floating Truth” (1959) or the whimsically postured “At That Time: Or, The History of a Joke” (1985).

For the most part, Paley’s stories, like poems, ask to be read aloud. They have a conversational tone, and the often awkward precision of meaning, jarring usages, and odd logic create an immediacy of communication. This very particular language traces back to a polyglot family tradition. Paley’s immigrant parents and relatives spoke Russian, Yiddish, and English, and her own Bronx vernacular was influenced by their very different syntax and rhythms. Certain of her stories, such as “Goodbye and Good Luck” (1959) and “Faith in the Afternoon” (1960), delightfully convey distinct voices from the Jewish American immigrant community.

Though seldom explicitly autobiographical, Paley’s stories contain elements of her personal history. They often focus on Jews, mothers, and activists, and are generally set in New York City. A number of them are connected by common characters, centered around Faith, a wryly self-mocking divorcé, her parents, her friends Ruth and Edie, her sons Richard and Tonto, and her husbands and neighbors. Faith (the name suggests Grace) is generally considered Paley’s fictional alter ego; her presence gives the individual stories personal reverberations and gives the collections overall a sense of unity.

Faith, like Paley, is a single mother concerned equally with the quality of life in Greenwich Village and in the future of the human race. Progressive social and political issues, though never completely eclipsing the portrayal of character and relationship, are important to Paley. Her treatment of women, their problems, their ambitions, and their relations with men has earned her...

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the admiration of feminist readers. Some stories feature immigrants, minorities, and the poor—such as the Puerto Rican family in “In the Garden” (1985) or the black mother in “Lavinia: An Old Story” (1985)—or candidly portray the brutality of city life, as in “Samuel” (1968) and “Little Girl” (1974). In the light of the poverty, violence, and disease that Paley’s characters witness and endure, there is no choice but to have opinions, to voice them shamelessly, and to act upon them with courage.

Paley’s writing, though political, is very rarely didactic, pessimistic, or angry. As a writer, she is attuned to the subtle signals and meanings of human emotion and communication, whatever the situation or backdrop, and this sensitivity provides a foundation of warmth and humor. Her satire, applied to old gossips or overzealous activists, is never malicious, and her overriding concern is ultimately to amuse, to touch, and to remind her reader of the wonderful joy and variety of being alive.

“The Loudest Voice”

First published: 1959 (collected in The Little Disturbances of Man, 1959)

Type of work: Short story

An outspoken and strong-willed little Jewish girl is chosen to narrate her school’s Christmas play.

“The Loudest Voice” is the first-person-voice recollection of Shirley Abramowitz, who remembers her childhood as a place where “every window is a mother’s mouth bidding the street shut up” and where her “voice is the loudest.” Shirley is the daughter of Jewish immigrants, a bright and uninhibited child who talks loudly and incessantly and, like her father, fearlessly speaks her mind.

On a cold November morning, Shirley is summoned by the teacher organizing the school’s Christmas play. Knowing that she has a loud and clear voice, he asks her to be his narrator. The Christmas play, and the involvement in it of Jewish children such as Shirley, occasions debate and commentary throughout the Jewish community, where some embrace assimilation into primarily Christian America, while others firmly safeguard the integrity of ethnic and religious identity. In the Abramowitz home, Shirley’s mother disapproves, but her father counters with the argument, “In Palestine the Arabs would be eating you alive. Europe you had pogroms. Argentina is full of Indians. Here you got Christmas.”

Shirley herself is proud of her voice and eager to perform; during the month of rehearsals her excitement focuses her usually dispersed energies, and she becomes the director’s efficient and trusted assistant. The day of the play arrives; Shirley narrates sensitively and admirably, giving an objective and amusing account of her classmates’ earnest presentation. The story concludes later that night as the Abramowitzes and a neighbor discuss the day’s events in their characteristically opinionated fashion, and Shirley, lying in bed, silently says her prayers and then loudly yells to quiet her parents’ arguments.

In “The Loudest Voice,” Paley creates a delightful and very immediate protagonist. Shirley’s personality is defined by her comments—her perception of the loneliness of unpopular people, her innocent fusion of the Christmas play with the very Jewish world in which it is performed, and the overheard conversations and repartee that have remained in her memory. The story’s title signals an affirmation of personal freedom, for Shirley, who is constantly being silenced in her day-to-day life, proudly believes that a voice worthy of the Christmas play must also have the power to make both its opinions and prayers heard. The story contrasts loud voices with the silence of death, memory, and contemplation, and implicit in Shirley’s pride is Paley’s own valuation of the freedom of self-expression.

As she tells her story, Shirley makes a few simple comments that establish the distance of passed time, the death of her parents, and the warmth with which she views the past. The incident of the Christmas play, though simple and basically undramatic, is like a prism reflecting many facets of her childhood and the life of that remembered community. Her father’s assertion, “What belongs to history, belongs to all men,” informs Shirley’s own generous feeling toward the municipal Christmas tree which, like the Jews, “was a stranger in Egypt,” and defines her open attitude toward life. Through many such touches, Paley portrays with empathetic lightness the ghetto mentality as it makes the transition to acceptance and comfort, and, in a larger view, distills centuries of Jewish exile and accommodation into the experience of a single child.

“An Interest in Life”

First published: 1959 (collected in The Little Disturbances of Man, 1959)

Type of work: Short story

A young woman, deserted by her husband to raise four children alone, learns to find happiness in her simple life.

“An Interest in Life” holds nothing of the bizarre or extraordinary: It is a story about an ordinary woman named Virginia, her ordinary children, and the ordinary problems she faces making ends meet and finding happiness and love in an imperfect world.

The story begins as Virginia’s husband deserts her, ostensibly to join the Army, after giving her a broom and dustpan for Christmas. The gift is not a kind one; the relations between Virginia and her husband have been bitter and sarcastic. Once he departs, Virginia begins adjusting to the life of a single twenty-six-year-old woman raising four young children—dealing not only with social service agencies, schools, and bills, but also with loneliness, anger, and the lingering mystery of where her husband went and whether he will ever return.

Into Virginia’s misery and bitterness comes John Raftery, the married son of her widowed neighbor, as if, it seems, to “rescue” her. John offers her his devotion and comfort, but Virginia is hesitant to accept it fully. Still, he comes to see her faithfully every Thursday night, and his openheartedness and lightness of spirit bring life into her home, effecting subtle changes in the children’s and Virginia’s outlooks. In the comfort of John’s undemanding affection, she recalls the wildness of her passion for her husband and their tumultuous marriage, poisoned by his arrogance and cruelty, culminating in the broom and the desertion.

Then one Thursday, suddenly, without explanation, John stops coming. After two weeks’ absence, Virginia abandons hope of his return. Dejected, she decides to go on a television game show called “Strike it Rich” and makes the requisite list of personal troubles. “The list when complete could have brought tears to the eye of God if He had a minute.” It somehow cheers her up, however, and she realizes that all a person really needs “is an interest in life, good, bad, or peculiar.”

Once she realizes this, the doorbell rings. It is John, returning to say goodbye forever, but Virginia’s list and John’s mocking response to her troubles—“They’d laugh you out of the studio. Those people really suffer”—impels her to act on another decision, and she finally accepts John as her lover. They settle into a steady situation that brings Virginia happiness and emotional stability and in which she still sometimes imagines, at the story’s end, her husband’s late-night return and a rediscovery of their lost passion.

“An Interest in Life” is told in the first-person voice, so Paley brings the reader into Virginia’s mind and perceptions. A sharp and economical use of language potently portrays the character’s emotional life, as when she remembers a domestic climate where “[f]ire may break out from a nasty remark” or says that after her husband’s desertion “sadness was stretched world wide across my face.” The story’s recurring images are of burning, shriveling, consumption, and deterioration. These images express the volatility of Virginia’s marriage as well as her own protective, even paranoid, attitude toward other people and new experiences.

Rather than be honest with her children, she feels the need to keep the truth from them and responds to their queries with evasive proverbs. In fact, she is generally critical of them, sardonic about her neighbors, and pessimistic about the system and her survival within it. Only when John enters her life does she begin to open up to the possibilities of change in herself and others and to accept life without suspicion or fear. The progress of the story is a movement toward a more positive perception of life.

Characteristically, Paley employs comedy to achieve a balance in what would otherwise be a rather depressing tale. Virginia’s bitterness does not nullify the comic elements in the portraits she creates of her children or Mrs. Raftery; the devices of the gift broom and the television game show, full as they are with the power of “sweeping clean” and “Striking it Rich,” infuse the critical moments of Virginia’s life with a clumsy domesticity. In the ordinary world, Paley seems to be saying, there is little that is truly profound or timeless, yet there is always the potential for happiness, for meaning, and for love.

“Faith in a Tree”

First published: 1974 (collected in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, 1974)

Type of work: Short story

During an afternoon in the park, a woman’s detachment and cynicism are converted into a commitment to action.

“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 ponder the nature of complacency and determination and the small ways in which an individual may be driven to action.

“Zagrowsky Tells”

First published: 1985 (as “Telling”; collected in Later the Same Day, 1985)

Type of work: Short story

In an encounter with a former customer and antagonist, an old Jewish man recounts the ordeals that forced him to confront his racism.

In “Zagrowsky Tells,” Paley’s recurring character Faith appears again but in a secondary and not necessarily flattering role. The focus is on Zagrowsky, a retired Jewish pharmacist, as he sits in the park with his grandson, a black child named Emanuel.

Faith, a former customer whom Zagrowsky has not seen in years, approaches him and asks him about the boy. He begins to explain how he has come to have a black grandson, and as they reminisce about their shared past in the community he confronts her for having led a protest against him for supposedly racist practices. He denies having been racist, but Faith insists that he subtly mistreated his black customers. Faith then presses him to talk about Emanuel, and he tells the story: His daughter Cissy became mentally unbalanced, suffering attacks and even protesting his racism herself; she was committed to an institution north of the city where she became pregnant by a black gardener. Now she lives at home, still nervous and dependent, and Zagrowsky and his wife raise her son, Emanuel.

Having heard his story, Faith begins to offer advice about providing for the child’s racial identity, but Zagrowsky interrupts and angrily sends her off. Now confused and frustrated, he vents his anger on another stranger, an innocent man who approaches him to praise and ask about Emanuel. Faith quickly returns with a group of her friends and saves Zagrowsky from the bothersome stranger, then they warmly say goodbye, leaving Zagrowsky alone with Emanuel and uncertain as to what exactly has transpired.

“Zagrowsky Tells” really concerns two separate stories told by Zagrowsky. One is the story of his and Emanuel’s history, a sad tale in which much of the pain and the meaning is left between the lines. Zagrowsky is a proud and bitter man who must work hard to face the difficult truths of his life: his bigotry, his failures as a father and husband, his inability to trust or communicate with others. Thus, his story is easiest told when he relies on facts.

The other story, however, is the story he tells the reader. This account, given in the immediate first-person present, weaves together the external reality of the encounters in the park with the internal monologue of Zagrowsky’s mind. As he talks to Faith and looks after Emanuel, he is constantly digressing—observing, judging, evaluating, speculating, anticipating, imagining, and above all, remembering—and it is through his observations, thoughts, and memories that a true view of his life and his personality emerges. Paley thus portrays from within the fears, anxieties, and longing of a confused and repressed old man upon whom life has played an ironic joke.

As in so many of her stories, Paley’s prevalent attitude toward her subject is one of generosity. The case against Zagrowsky is not a clear one, for his bigotry is subtle and not malicious; he elicits empathy, comparing the histories of the black and Jewish peoples, communicating his desire to act fairly and honestly, and acknowledging, in spite of the accumulated years of guilt and shame, the incontrovertibility of the past and the life-affirming value of expressing oneself. “Tell!” he says, “That opens up the congestion a little—the lungs are for breathing, not secrets.”

The ultimate redemption, however, as well as the story’s emotional power, lies not in a reasoned defense of past bigotry but in the compassionate reality of Zagrowsky’s present situation, as intimated throughout the story. Given Cissy’s illness and Mrs. Zagrowsky’s limitations, Zagrowsky has willingly become Emanuel’s primary parent, teacher, and friend. The two are constant companions, and the old man’s devotion to the boy is absolute. Thus, during the course of the story the reader develops compassion—the same compassion that in the end motivates Faith to protect Zagrowsky—by recognizing the miraculous transformation that has been achieved in the heart of a bitter old man by the presence of an innocent little black boy.

Paley’s stories may remind the reader of someone familiar. As A. S. Byatt, who has written introductions to Paley’s stories, puts it, “She reminds me . . . of my mother at her best, who told terrible stories deadpan, ironing out the awful and the banal into one string of story.” The cherished author, then, delivers her pieces from the vox populi, from the voice of mother, father, grandpa, grandma, and the next-door neighbor. The stories are told with a candor that strips all pretense—even when the speaker is pretending or posturing. The stories intrigue, even when they are important only to the common denominator of one—the speaker.

As with most of Paley’s stories, “Zagrowsky Tells” engenders immediate intimacy between speaker (narrator) and listener (or reader), even if the speaker is socially challenged, bigoted, and egocentric to a fault. Izzy Zagrowsky is all of these to a certain degree, and yet the reader must rely on him for the story. It is the tale of his mentally and emotionally challenged daughter, who gives birth to a child out of wedlock and out of their “color” range. The child, he tells readers, is an intermediate color.

The story (within the story) begins in mid-conversation, but rather than alienate the reader by withholding information, Paley’s narrator points out “that tree” and a group of women, as if speaking to a reader who is standing in that park with him—as is Faith, in close enough proximity to see whatever Zagrowsky points out. The intimacy is not lost on the reader, for Paley includes that natural beat of asides, the timbre and tenor shifts appropriate to the range of emotions that Zagrowsky expresses, and also incorporates an objective detailing of third-party accounting. These remarks, combined with the weighty narcissism and personal epiphanies displayed by the xenophobic teller, make the story work on multiple levels.

“The Expensive Moment”

First published: 1985 (collected in Later the Same Day, 1985)

Type of work: Short story

An activist, in her later years, meditates on the choices she has made and on the political legacy left by her generation.

“The Expensive Moment” is a complex and textured fabric of moments, observations, encounters, emotions, and ideas in a particular period of Faith’s life. Presumably the same character of Paley’s other stories, she here inhabits a world of overtly political discussions and deeper, mellower wisdom.

The people in Faith’s life are all vigorously engaged in political and emotional pursuits. Her sons are grown: Tonto is in love, and Richard is an active member of the League for Revolutionary Youth. Faith is in a solid but stale marriage to a furniture store salesman named Jack and is having an intellectually and sexually stimulating affair with an attractive, mercurial China scholar named Nick. Her best friend, Ruth, meets her for lunch at the Art Foods Deli and laments the absence and uncertain future of her daughter Rachel, an errant political revolutionary. Faith reminisces about her own activist past and debates trade and political theory with her son Richard. Along with Ruth and Nick, she attends meetings and dinners where she meets exiled Chinese artists and writers.

At such a meeting, Faith meets Xie Fing, a Chinese poet, “a woman from half the world away who’d lived a life beyond foreignness and had experienced extreme history.” The two women become acquainted, and Xie Fing invites herself to see Faith’s home, a request that delights and flatters Faith. They spend the next day drinking tea in Faith’s kitchen, touring the house and the neighborhood, discussing themselves, their children, their political activities, and the future. The story ends simply on a shared note of wistful regret, both women acknowledging in retrospect how little they knew about preparing their children for the real world.

Throughout the story are a variety of interrelated themes: the disparity between the depth of the individual’s concern and his or her limited power to affect the world, the passage of time and the wisdom that comes with it, the burdensome responsibility of raising children and then the painful necessity of letting them go, the contrast between the social and political ideals of the mind and the emotional and physical needs of the body.

These themes come together at various moments; one of the most potent is when Faith thinks back on her anti-draft activities in the 1960’s and contemplates the sacrifices that young people sometimes must make for their country or their ideals. Thinking about such sacrifices in the context of Rachel’s revolutionary activities, and about the possibility that Richard, too, could someday disappear and never be heard from again, Faith recognizes that there sometimes comes “a moment in history, the expensive moment when everyone his age is called but just a few are chosen by conscience or passion. . . . Then you think sadly, I could have worked harder at raising that child, the one that was once mine.”

“The Expensive Moment” is a very thoughtful story that, in examining the difficult choices that history forces an individual to make, by extension examines the cost of all choices. The tone, though relentlessly questioning and sometimes regretful, is never maudlin or angry—those do not seem to be colors on Paley’s emotional palette. Rather, she gently mocks political convictions—mentioning the “L.R.Y.’s regular beep-the-horn-if-you-support-Mao meeting” and envisioning John Keats writing verses in a rice paddy in provincial China—even as she portrays a world in which ideas have weight and magnetism. In such a world, convictions—or, for that matter, a healthy and reasoned cynicism—are dramatic and sensual. They establish the connections between people and help Faith and those around her to make sense of their complex lives and find things to value as they travel across the ugly map of contemporary political reality. Such a world is not to be dismissed and avoided; rather, like Faith and Xie Fing, one can only earnestly strive to do one’s best and forgive, though never forget, the past.


Grace Paley Short Fiction Analysis